Jack Wuest Credit: Photo by Joe Gallo

Alternative education in Chicago is set to undergo a sea change, and one issue is certain to become paramount: Money.

The number of alternative schools could balloon under the state’s new charter law, which set aside five of the city’s 45 new charters for schools to recover dropouts. Each charter will be allowed six campuses, paving the way for enrollment to increase from about 4,500 currently to upwards of 14,000. At current per-pupil funding, spending would rise from $27 million to more than $111 million—a substantial sum, given the district’s perennial budget shortfalls.

The new charters will also open the door to a fresh crop of operators. Most of the two dozen existing alternative schools are operated by Youth Connections Charter.

Jack Wuest, the executive director of the Alternative Schools Network and a tireless advocate for bringing dropouts back into the fold, pushed the new dropout recovery charters during negotiations over charter school expansion.

But for these schools to be effective, it is imperative that they get more money, Wuest adds. CPS now provides about $7,900 per student. But former dropouts need much more support, Wuest says. He notes the evidence: the federally funded Quantum Opportunities Program, run in a number of urban districts in the 1990s. Wuest’s group ran the program in Chicago.

That program provided case management, mentoring, computer-assisted instruction, work experience and financial incentives for students to reach academic goals.

The intensive approach apparently worked. Many studies of Quantum Opportunities Programs across the country show that the number of high school graduates increased, and more graduates were likely to go to college. Researchers at Brandeis University found that although the program cost $10,600 per student, the cost-to-benefit ratio was $3.04 for every dollar spent when students earned a college degree.

This spring, Wuest and other advocates convinced Illinois lawmakers to pass the IHope bill, charging the Illinois State Board of Education with developing a comprehensive system for dropouts and providing about $3,000 to $6,000 more per student.

But no funding was attached to the bill. Wuest is now on a mission to get money for IHOPE included in Illinois’ application for federal Race to the Top funds. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is doling out $4.3 billion in competitive grants under this program.

Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connections Charter Schools, says she would be happy to see more seats created, but warns that new schools are destined to confront the same tough challenges existing schools face. For these schools to be effective, she and other experts say, they must stay small. To that end, the new charters will be allowed no more than 160 seats, though each separate charter can have several locations.

But, as Venson points out, the smaller the school, the more expensive it is to run. “The economy of scale doesn’t work,” she says.

What is really needed, she adds, is for the district to come up with a coordinated strategy for preventing dropouts and bringing back those teens who do leave school. Former CEO Arne Duncan initiated programs, but, Venson says, his administration had no overall strategy.

At a speech to business and civic leaders in September, new CEO Ron Huberman said a revamp of alternative education is in the works, sparked by internal research that found almost 30 percent of the students who are most at-risk of being involved in violence are enrolled in alternative schools. Huberman has yet to talk specifics, however.

Separately, CPS’ Department of Graduation Pathways, which has focused on dropout prevention, is now shifting its attention to dropout recovery. Alternative schools will be center to that push.

Meanwhile, Wuest’s dream is for high schools to improve so that fewer students leave sans a diploma, and that enough spots open up in alternative schools to serve students who fall through the cracks and drop out.

“We could be approaching a middle ground of zero,” he says

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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