Amid protests over slashed school budgets, CPS announced plans on Wednesday to open new schools for current and potential dropouts.

Jennifer Vidis, the district’s Chief of Alternative Schools, says there are about 60,000 students in Chicago who aren’t in school, or who are so far behind that they have little chance at graduating from a traditional high school.

The alternative schools, rebranded as “options schools” by a district seeking to erase the stigma, will be targeted at specific groups of students: some for younger high school students who are behind on credits; some for older students who are far behind on credits; and some for older students who have left school but are only a few credits away from a diploma.

CPS will also target students who are currently enrolled in schools but are so far behind they have little chance at graduating. “Student transfer specialists” will help principals place these students in the accelerated schools, Vidis said.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett explained the importance of the schools by saying that “many of our principals did not, or don’t, have alternatives or options for young people when they find they’re off track. When principals don’t have these options, children disappear.”

Board member Mahalia Hines said educating charter school principals about these options will be key. “I saw as many children who came from the charter community” who were not in school as from regular schools, Hines said.

New schools announced

Typically, CPS alternative schools have been run by nonprofit groups and community organizations, but the new batch shows a shift toward outside for-profit groups like Camelot as well as Banner, Ombudsman and Edison, approved in January.

Board members voted Wednesday to give Camelot, which runs Excel Academy, a contract for a second school that will serve 375 older students who are far behind on credits. It will open this fall in the building of Guggenheim Elementary, in Englewood. Guggenheim was closed last June.

Later on, CPS will seek approval for two more Camelot contract schools as well a multi-campus charter school to be run by Pathways in Education (which will serve students who are closer to being able to graduate.) When they open, the district will have nearly 9,500 spots in alternative programs.

Over the next 5 years, Vidis said, the number of seats in alternative schools could increase to as many as 20,000.

To fill those seats, CPS opened three “re-engagement centers” to serve as points of entry for students seeking to re-enroll. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel first announced the centers in Oct. 2012.) The district’s strategy around dropouts was first thought out years ago by consultants from the Parthenon Group.

Students themselves will also be sought out by CPS, Vidis said.

“We currently have outreach workers across the city, looking for lost children, children who have disappeared from our rolls,” Vidis said. Developing community ties will be key in the district’s outreach effort, she explained: “I f we don’t have the right phone number, someone in that community knows who that child is – or knows a family with a child who’s not in school.”

She noted the cost to the district is steep: 15 percent of high school dropouts are in jail or prison; among African-American men, that number is 30 percent.

Vidis said there are nearly 19,000 young high school-age students who are very far off track from earning a high school diploma. There are about 10,000 students who are older and just a few credits behind.  

But the biggest group of students faces the largest obstacles: nearly 27,400 students are old, some of them over 18, but have just a few high school credits.

In the long run, Vids said, CPS needed to take a look at other policies that may be contributing to the dropout problem – among them, inflexible rules on the seat time required for courses, graduation requirements, and a lack of supportive services.

School closings, budgets take center stage

As the board voted to double the size of the district’s Safe Passage program, which hires community members to oversee students’ routes to school, Byrd-Bennett also outlined the steps being taken to promote “cultural integration” between students at closing schools and receiving schools.

Principals have organized horseback riding, laser tag, picnics, and ice cream social events to draw students and families in, she said.  

Also at the meeting, school budgets drew fiery protests from parents, teachers and local school council members, who charged that CPS should have saved enough money from school closings to avoid the cuts. At one point, different audience members took turns shouting about the cuts until each was escorted out by security; then, another one would start.

Mather High School English teacher Gabriella Fonzetti said that the school’s budget this year is $1 million less than last year.

The school already cut its reading program, support staff and security this year. Next year it will lose 9 staff positions including “things like a clerk in our attendance office to call students and call home.”

Board President David Vitale said that “we will look into those accusations and the facts behind them.”

But he added: “There is no budget that has been approved.” The school budgets, he said, are just “proposals.”

“Nobody that I know has said that cuts to meet our budget responsibility wouldn’t impact the classroom,” he continued. “What we have said is that we will try to minimize the impact.”

Also, board members criticized protesters who are asking CPS to renegotiate interest rates on its “swap” credit deals and return tax-increment financing district dollars to the schools.

Board member Henry Bienen said that he had heard “a lot of things that are just nonsense and rantings.”

Said board member Andrea Zopp: “It is wishful thinking when people think there’s a pile of money at Bank of America and in a TIF file that’s going to fix this problem,” she said. “…The idea that this board would walk away from some pile of magical money and give it to the mysterious rich and wealthy, is magical thinking.”

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