Shuttered schools may be turned into housing for teachers. Ward Elementary was part of the 2013 closings. Credit: Photo by Lucio Villa

Last school year drew to a somber close as thousands of children said goodbye to familiar teachers and schools and looked toward a fall in an unfamiliar place.

Now, many of these students are facing uncertainty once again as their new schools grapple with steep budget cuts. Along with schools designated to take in students from closed schools—so-called “welcoming schools”–neighborhood high schools are also facing cuts, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of the district’s just-released budget for 2014-2015.

Here are the major points:

  • Once again, neighborhood high schools saw the biggest losses, driven by enrollment decline. On average, these schools experienced a 10 percent decrease in their budgets. A third lost more than $1 million. Though the cuts hit neighborhood high schools all over the city, nearly every such school on the South Side and Far South Side took a substantial hit.
  • Designated welcoming schools experienced an average 5 percent decrease in their budgets. And 80 percent of these schools lost more than $70,000—the average salary for one teacher. Only 20 percent of other neighborhood elementary schools did.
  • The district is expecting 3,400 more students in charter schools and to spend about $42 million more on charter schools next year. Nine new charter schools are expected to open in the fall and one is going to close.


Overall, school budgets last year were cut by about $100 million, generating a wave of complaints from parents and school leaders. This year, there was an increase of about $140 million, bringing funding to about the same level as the previous year, 2012-2013. But there’s a caveat: The increase might not feel like much to schools, which have to pay teachers a 2 percent raise this year.

Welcoming schools making adjustments

De Diego Elementary and other schools that took in children displaced by closings got an abundance of money and resources, like iPads, as the district sought to make good on its promise that children would be sent to better schools than the ones that shut down. Early on, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made it clear that receiving schools would no longer receive the money that was given to them for extra staff and social-emotional programs. Welcoming schools were given between $80,000 and $326,000, depending on the size of the school. Now these welcoming schools will have to make adjustments, endangering any efforts to make academic gains.

De Diego Local School Council member Alyx Pattison said the extra money last year was critical for the school to have small class sizes that allowed teachers to pay more attention to students who might be struggling with the transition. Now, with a $1.2 million budget cut, the school will have to do with six fewer teachers. Of all the welcoming schools, De Diego lost the most money.

Pattison says she understands that the school budget had to be brought back down to a more normal level, but thinks the cuts should have been done gradually, not all at once.

“A school’s culture is a fragile thing, especially a school in a neighborhood where there are gang lines,” she says. Also, on Tuesday, CPS officials removed De Diego’s principal and assistant principal without explanation.

Mollison Principal Kim Henderson says her school’s budget is down by $248,000 from last year, forcing the layoffs of some supplemental teachers.  “I think our budget now is more realistic,” she says.

Another welcoming school principal says that he will have to reconfigure his staff and lay off a security guard to deal with his losses. “I think that it will destabilize the school,” says the principal, who did not want to be identified because CPS communications didn’t give him permission to speak.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of class size data shows that welcoming schools had an average of 23.5 students in each class, compared to 26.5 in other elementary schools. And while principals from welcoming schools say they will still try to keep their class sizes small, it will be more of a challenge as extra money dries up.

Welcoming school enrollment projections way off

Stripping the extra resources from welcoming schools goes against one of the recommendations of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which said in a report that welcoming schools should get extra support for a longer period.  “CPS should be required to provide 5 years of sustained, intensive academic and financial supports to current (and any future) non-Charter Designated Welcoming Schools and non-designated welcoming schools to benefit all impacted students,” according to the report.

Though welcoming schools were expected to get significant influxes of students, most received fewer students than expected and were in danger of losing money under the district’s new per-pupil budgeting strategy. Overall, projections were way off, with only 52 percent of students, or about 5,800 of 11,000 displaced students, went to their welcoming school, according to enrollment figures.

But last year, Byrd-Bennett held all schools harmless, allowing welcoming schools and neighborhood high schools to keep money even if fewer students showed up.

One example is De Diego, which got $392,000 in extra funds and was projected to get 1,120 students. Instead, just 934 showed up. This year, the school is projected to only get 856.

In some cases, students already in the welcoming school didn’t stay, especially those instances in which the district closed the building of the welcoming school and moved the students and staff into a closing school’s building that was renamed.

Take Stockton and Courtenay. According to the district, nearly 90 percent of Stockton students enrolled in the new Courtenay. However, on the 20th day, which is the day CPS audits enrollment, about 100 fewer students were in the school.

Katie Reed, whose children attended Courtenay last year, says that she and other parents pulled their children because they thought combining the two schools would deplete what made Courtenay special. Courtenay was a small, high-achieving, open enrollment school, while Stockton was a low-performing neighborhood school in Uptown.

While she says she and other parents found other good options for their children, the combining of Courtenay with Stockton has left them bitter.

Juggling extra resources

On top of the extra pot of cash, welcoming schools were renovated with new labs and libraries. They were also given iPads and computers for each student from third through eighth grade.

Wells Prep Principal Jeffrey White says he demanded that CPS give the school everything that was promised. When school opened, it was still missing four security cameras. But he e-mailed the chief and “raised hell” and those cameras showed up.

Overall, Wells’ budget is down by $368,000. White insists he will be able to make cuts that don’t impact the classroom and won’t make class sizes go up. He did not explain how, but the Wells budget shows the school will spend less money on support services and virtually nothing on community services, including parental involvement and after- school programs.

White says the school has more than enough computers and a media specialist. The school also has Promethean boards, which are interactive white boards, in every classroom.

But a report from the Chicago Teachers Union took CPS to task for not providing adequate training on the technology. Also, it said many of the schools did not have librarians or media specialists that would make the technology more useful.

Some principals say that even without staffing these positions, they have been able to make use of these spaces. Teachers bring multiple classes into libraries so they can co-teach and have students work on projects and check out books.

It remains to be seen what will happen with these spaces as time goes on and staff shrinks even more.

Further, budget cuts could threaten the specialty programs in receiving schools. Seventeen of the receiving schools were given money to launch STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or International Baccalaureate programs. They will continue to get two positions to support these programs.

Originally, district officials wanted these schools to bring in new, already-trained teachers to get the specialty programs off the ground. But now principals are being told to keep their existing teachers in place and to have them participate in training programs over the summer.

To Henderson, that is a good decision because she doesn’t think her school needs any more upheaval. “After such a year of change what the staff needs now is consistency.”  In the meantime, Henderson says the school has focused on being an international school. The school’s Spanish teacher often uses the library, which does not have a librarian.

Staff and budget won’t be the only factors that will test the impact of school closings. The schools have spent the year trying to meld children and families.

Wells Prep took in students from Mayo, which was literally 50 yards away. White says his staff did a great job of putting aside difference and getting the students to not bicker or fight with each other. The fact that the schools were in such close proximity meant that the students knew each other. “They live next door to one another,” he says.

But Angelique Harris, a Local School Council member at Wells, says at the beginning, it was tough and tense. “After the first week everything calmed down,” she says.

Still, Harris says getting parents from Mayo to come to meetings is hard. “Parents were invested in Mayo,” she says. “They have had a hands-off approach with Wells. We need to work on getting their trust back. We need to make sure they feel welcome.”

Henderson has also had trouble getting parents of Overton students to adjust to the new reality.  She says that anything bad that has happened in the school year was attributed to the fact that the school is a receiving school.

She says she’s glad the first year is over. She is ready for Mollison to become “just a regular school” rather than a “welcoming school.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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