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Special Report • Part 2 of 5

Back in February, our very own Nicole Kreizel, dove into the current state of operations at Chicago Public Schools. CPS has a long history of budget shortfalls and school closings, and the back and forth between Springfield and Chicago has been contentious. The latest sparring between Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner has caused the public schools’ situation heading into 2017 to become a flashpoint in the state’s agenda.

Politicians, along with teachers, parents, students and nonprofits, have all shaped, and are continuing to contribute to, Chicago’s educational landscape. Over the course of the next five days, we will delve into the key decisions and issues within this realm.

As 2017 eases in, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faces a budget shortfall of several million dollars that threatens both the welfare of the institutions the system is set up to protect and the futures of the students within the system. While we often hear or see headlines describing budget cuts to CPS, the specifics often get lost in the conversations.

Declines in enrollment have harsh repercussions, as CPS funds schools based on the number of students enrolled. First, CPS projects student enrollment, and in July, principals receive preliminary budgets based on these projected student enrollment numbers. Then, the board reallocates budgets based on how many students are enrolled in each school on the 10th day of class, and these changes must be carried out by the 20th day of class, according to the district. If CPS over-projects enrollment for a school, the school can kiss part of its budget good-bye.According to CPS officials, in 2015, 262 schools with lower enrollment numbers than those projected lost about $36 million in funding, while 240 schools that had higher enrollment numbers than expected gained about $23 million in funding. To break this down further—26 schools lost at least $300,000 and only eight schools received that amount or more (Chicago Tribune).

Moving onto the following year, drops in enrollment were much steeper than district officials said they expected. According to CPS, about 300 public schools in Chicago lost about $45 million in funding due to under-enrollment falling below 2016 projections.

The district has put Title I and Title II grant funds toward schools with high populations of low-income students. For example, when there were midyear cuts in 2016, about $41 million of these funds were redirected to schools, instead of being directed by the Central Office for programmatic funding or held in reserve, according to CPS. However, the struggling schools need more than this in order to survive the waging political battle.

Budget Cuts Effect On School Programs

Oftentimes, extracurricular programs and outside-the-classroom support are the first to perish when budgets are sliced, and this happens more frequently at schools with higher populations of black and Hispanic, mostly low-income, students.

Stephen F. Gale Elementary Community Academy in Rogers Park, where 97 percent of the students are low income, lost almost all of its extracurricular activities last year and the year before. This consisted of all sports and arts programs, and most reading and math programs, said Shanelle Jackson, who has children in Gale. The only remaining programs were reading programs that teachers volunteered their time for. The school was hit especially hard last year, when Gale, which has a 60-percent black student body and 27-percent Hispanic student body, lost over $300,000.

Brief Timeline:

February 2016: CPS reduced about $120 million from annual school budgets, leading to $85 million in cuts during the fiscal year.

Key takeaway: CPS was forced to slash the amount of money spent per student by about 5 percent.

August 2016: CPS laid off about 1,000 employees, including approximately 500 teachers, due to cuts in the 2015-16 school year.

October 2016: CPS let go of 250 more teachers and staff members, due to steep declines in enrollment.

Key takeaway: From 2015-16, CPS student enrollment fell by 3.5 percent (about 14,000 students). Over the last 10 years, CPS enrollment has decreased by 6.8 percent. This shows that about half of the drop occurred from September 2015 to September 2016.

“We have two libraries, one in each building, but we have no librarian. We have a computer lab but we don’t have a tech teacher. We have these rooms that are just sitting. We can’t utilize them because we don’t have enough money in our budget to hire these teachers; they were fired,” said Jackson, who is also the Chair of Gale’s Parent Advisory Committee and a parent member of Gale’s Local School Council (LSC).

Gale has a new principal who is contacting outside organizations to get back certain programs amidst the budget cuts. Concerning the $215 million veto, Jackson said, “That will put us in hot water. We are already an underprivileged school, like what more can you take away from us? We have nothing, we’re working on volunteers.”

Jackson and fellow LSC members are putting in their best efforts, pushing for programs like “Books before Breakfast.” This program is designed to help parents who must drop their kids off at school before school opens because of jobs or other commitments.  Students then usually have to wait outside, unattended, and sometimes in the cold, until school opens. “Books before Breakfast” will allow children to come into school early and play education games and have snacks, with teacher supervision.

This program is also meant to boost the student enrollment rate. Sometimes when parents are not able to drop their kids off at school at the appropriate time, students end up staying home or wandering off. The LSC has succeeded in getting a “walking school bus,” or a program that allows for designated points where kids can meet volunteers who sign them off as being at that point and then walk them safely to school.

Jackson added that reaching out to schools in the surrounding areas, like DePaul University and Northwestern University, has also been part of the LSC’s agenda. These university student volunteers help out in different ways according to their majors—some tutor students in reading and writing, while others might assist with special education students.

There are many consequences of cuts, however, that cannot be solved by these measures—no shocker there. The school’s social worker, who conducted one-on-ones with students and was “really, really good with kids,” was fired due to budget cuts, Jackson said. Now, she continued, there is going to be a regional social worker who comes in for one and a half days during the week, but “kids need these services every day.” While the school’s social worker is not present on the other days of the week, the children’s issues still are.

The concept of these constant budget cuts is hard for many families with students in the CPS system to grapple with. “These are the kids that are going to be in charge of our future,” said Jackson. “Why not invest in them so that they can get the proper tools and education they need so that they can lead? To take away these aspects of their education is not only setting them up for failure, but setting us up for failure.”

Gale is just one school out of hundreds of schools that has faced, and is still confronting, budget cuts that lead to the eradication of countless programs. Corliss High School in Pullman, on the South Side, had a budget reduction of about $300,000 this fiscal year due to last February’s per-pupil spending cuts. This “limits the number of extracurricular activities a school might be able to offer students,” said the school’s principal, Leonard Harris, according to a Chicago Tribune article. Even with CPS providing about $8 million in “program support funds” to help underutilized schools, budgetary constraints still cause schools, like Corliss, to make extreme cuts.

CPS officials’ announcement last week that they are freezing half of schools’ discretionary funds has only made the situation worse. This money is used to buy textbooks and technology, and to fund after-school programs, field trips and hourly staff, according to DNAinfo.

Pilsen schools are being hit especially hard by this $46 million cut across CPS, as schools in Pilsen’s 25th Ward have lost more than $7 million just this year, according to parents and education advocates. One parent, who has a daughter with special needs, said her child only has a special education teacher twice a week because the school cannot afford a full-time special education teacher, and the student’s grades have dropped from As to Fs as a result of this, she said, according to ABC7.

Drive up north to Logan Square, and there are schools suffering from $1 million emergency mid-year budget cuts (DNAinfo). Reminder: Chase, populated by mostly low-income Hispanic students, has already lost its art and music teacher and all after-school programs. Darwin Elementary School, with an 86-percent Hispanic student body and 81-percent poor student body, must let go of its reading and math extra-help aides (Chicago Sun-Times).

To harp on the connection between socioeconomic status, school programs and budget cuts once more (for now): Ivan Rice noticed all of these factors come into play during his time at CPS. Despite becoming more “clever” when applying for grants, the three schools he worked at on the South Side “all had a sort of lack of extracurriculars; there was a very small arts program, if anything, and their athletic facilities, to the extent that they had them, were not up-to-date…they just didn’t have as many programs offered, not as many physical resources, I don’t know that any of those schools had a dedicated computer lab,” he said. “The economic struggles of the [schools’] surrounding community were apparent.”

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