MITCHELL: School funding reform is great, motivation is even better

SHARE MITCHELL: School funding reform is great, motivation is even better

Candace Walker. | Provided photo

Now that Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed an education funding bill that gives the poorest school districts in Illinois more money, it’s tempting to think our education problems are solved.

After all, life will be a little easier for teachers working in the state’s most needy districts.

More money will pay for updated books.

More money will give students access to the latest technology.

And more money will ensure that more teachers can work in their areas of expertise.

But one thing that funding can’t do is make up for a lack of motivation.

Motivation is what pushes students over the finish line even when they come from the poorest school districts.


The same is true for adult learners.

Take Candace Walker. The 26-year-old single mom was stuck in a low-wage job in Little Rock, Arkansas, when she applied for the construction-carpentry program at Kennedy-King’s Dawson Technical Institute.

“I wanted to learn how to build a house,” Walker says. “The way things were going for me —working a minimum-wage job and not being able to save any money — I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to buy a house.

“The most I’ve ever made in my life was about $12 an hour, working in a Verizon Wireless call center.”

An inspirational message in church got her to pack up her 5- and 7-year-old children and move to Chicago.

“The pastor was preaching that we always say what we want to do and what would be better for us,” Walker says. “I decided to take a chance on life.”

The construction-carpentry program ran 16 weeks. A company contracted to rehab public housing properties in Chicago hired her three days after she finished the course.

A year ago, Walker didn’t know how to use a tape measure. Now, she’s making $41.63 an hour.

“I was the only girl in the class, but everything went really well,” she says. “It was an amazing experience.”

Dawson Technical Institute has offered jobs training since 1968. In the past, it prepared students for careers in the culinary arts and health care. Today, its focus is construction technology careers.

“Our students come from all walks of life and from different places,” says interim dean Lucretzia Jamison. “Our students come highly motivated because they are ready to work and to make money.”

The program also covers welding, plumbing, concrete masonry, bricklaying and overhead lineman work. A gas utility workers’ program is offered in a partnership with People’s Gas.

“We have a pre-apprentice type setup that helps our students to connect with apprenticeships,” Jamison says.

An apprenticeship provides on-the-job training. And apprentices are paid while they train to be journeymen. That normally takes a three- to five-year commitment.

“What Dawson does is prepare our students to get in the door faster,” Jamison says.

The construction-carpentry program changed Walker’s life.

“I can’t explain the amount of joy that I have in my heart,” she says. “I know a trade. I know how to build. I know how to repair and remodel. They taught us how to read blueprints. And you can pretty much build anything if you can read a blueprint.”

Her excitement is likely to be a positive influence on her children.

More than ever, CPS students need to bring the joy of learning into the classroom because they will start school under a microscope.

The bickering over education funding might be over, but people will have their eyes on every dime CPS spends.

Expectations are high.

Still, think CPS’ newly acquired funding guarantees better things for public school students.

The bulk of that burden is still on parents’ shoulders.

Unfortunately, many parents living in the poorest school districts can’t motivate anyone because they are downtrodden. We expect them to volunteer, coach and be cheerleaders when they can barely get out of bed in the morning.

Walker’s story offers some hope.

“I had doubts about myself,” she says. But the program “let me know women can do pretty much anything.”

Her achievement shows whether they “do” or they “don’t,” it’s on us to push our children and ourselves when it comes to education.

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