Three years ago, the School Reform Board hastily launched an alternative schools program to remove disruptive students from regular schools. Rocky at the outset, the program, now called “safe schools,” has yet to settle down.

“Basically, we started it up overnight,” acknowledges Sue Gamm, the board’s chief specialized services officer. “We knew we were going to tighten up the Uniform Discipline Code, and we didn’t want kids expelled to the street.”

Changes have come in school operators, program requirements, the kinds of students served and, this year, the number of seats available.

With student expulsions soaring, the number of students referred to safe schools has grown markedly. But budget cuts this year reduced the number of seats by a third—to 375, slightly more than half the total number of students expelled last school year.

School officials minimize the shortfall, saying that many students who are referred don’t show up or are chronic truants. However, at press time, the board was poised to amend its zero tolerance policy again to cut down on expulsions themselves. The proposed revision would provide an expulsion alternative to still more non-violent offenders.

The Safe Schools Program also has been a revolving door for school operators. Only three of the original 12 providers remain in the program. Ten have come and gone, and a handful have been added, bringing the current total to seven. The board declined to renew some contracts because the organizations had financial problems; it dropped others because their programs were deemed substandard. At least one agency withdrew from the program because it considered the funding inadequate for the job required.

The job is to educate and improve the behavior of students who have been expelled or who are so disruptive that their principals want them out.

A union priority

An alternative schools program had long been advocated by the Chicago Teachers Union. With money to spare and a get-tough agenda, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school leadership team delivered.

In October 1995, the board issued a request for proposals (RFP) to organizations that had worked at least two years with troubled youth. Announcing the winners in December, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said, “Our goal is to remove violent students from the school system. These children impede the learning process of our student population.”

In February 1996, CPS’s safe schools opened with room for 558 students. The contracts paid $4,500 to $5,500 per student for the semester, depending on the services provided. In all, CPS budgeted about $3 million from its general operating funds.

Initially, the board restricted admission to students who had committed the most serious Uniform Discipline Code violations, including possession of a firearm, arson, aggravated assault and robbery. Responding to pleas from principals, it quickly expanded eligibility to include students who repeatedly committed lesser offenses that disrupted the education of other students.

For the first full school year of the program, 1996-97, the board budgeted $5,652,600 to provide 533 seats. But this time, it got an assist from the state, which forwarded $2.4 million from a new state program supporting alternative schools statewide.

To comply with a federal mandate, the state had passed the Gun Free Schools Act of 1995, which requires that all local school districts make expulsion the penalty for bringing a firearm to school. By August 1996, the state law had been amended to add the possession of any weapon, including knives, pipes or any item used to cause bodily harm. CPS went one step further. In April 1997, it made expulsion the penalty for the use, possession or sale of alcohol and illegal drugs on school property.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s Office of Specialized Services began taking stock of its Safe schools program. “We looked at the profiles of the students” being sent to safe schools, says Renee Grant-Mitchell, who oversees the program. “A significant number of our kids [were there] for drug use and possession, and they had relations to gangs.” Thus, the office revised the RFP for 1997-98 to include the requirement that school operators be able to identify students with drug problems and offer services to them.

“We also wanted [the alternative schools] to highlight school-to-career programs,” Mitchell says.

The board retained the Arthur Andersen accounting firm to help develop a pricing model and evaluation criteria for proposals. The firm also analyzed the proposals and the programs. While the firm did not find anything the administration didn’t already know, says Gamm, it did generate “some good hard-core data to work with the schools on areas of weakness and to improve strengths.”

CPS decided to reduce the number of sites to make it easier to monitor the program. The contracts of some small agencies were not renewed because they could not provide the required services, says Mitchell.

Lawrence Hall Youth Services took itself out of contention. “It came down to finances,” says Margery Doss, director of education services for the non-profit social service agency. “We were proposing additional services, and the board was cutting the funding.”

Lawrence Hall had received $11,000 per student and planned to ask for more.

“The students had learning problems that had not been addressed; special ed needs that had not been identified,” Doss says. Some students were wards of the state or in foster care—”not very stable home situations,” she adds. “We are used to dealing with that [population],” Doss says, but the agency’s case workers were taking on caseloads that went beyond good practice.

At one time, Lawrence Hall served 75 safe-schools students at two sites. By the spring of 1997, it was down to 15 or 20, because it knew it was going to bow out,” Doss says.

For-profits to the rescue

For the 1997-98 school year, the board made up for lost seats by signing contracts with two for-profit operators of alternative and charter schools. Crawford First, which operates a school in the Virgin Islands and two in Virginia, where it is headquartered, contracted for 60 students at $11,000 each. Richard Milburn High School Inc., a Massachusetts-based firm that operates 13 schools in six states and Washington, D.C., contracted for 100 students at $6,000 each.

Milburn “underbid” itself, Mitchell acknowledges. Mid-year, when the school opened its high school, the board “reconfigured” its contract to supply more money.

Anticipating growing numbers of expulsions, the board contracted for additional seats during the 1997-98 school year, reaching a high of 580. Then, in March, it also eased up on expulsions by creating an alternative for students caught for the first time with small amounts of drugs. Its SMART Program (for Saturday Morning Alternative Reachout and Teach) provides drug rehabilitation and counseling; students who attend at least seven weeks are spared expulsion.

Even with SMART skimming off some non-violent offenders, 668 students had been expelled by the end of the summer, an eightfold increase from 1995-96, when expulsion was required only for bringing firearms to school.

Despite the record number of expulsions, the board cut the safe school budget this school year to save money. It allocated $3,750,000 for 375 seats. All but $750,000 of that amount comes from the state’s Safe Schools Program.

Mitchell notes, however, that not every student who is expelled enrolls in a safe school. “Some parents put their students in other schools, parochial, private; they transfer them out of the city,” she says. “Some students just don’t show up.”

According to board records, about 25 percent of the money earmarked in 1996-97 for safe schools was not spent. The following year, about 30 percent of the safe schools money was not disbursed.

Enrollment data supplied by the board show a similar pattern:

In 1996-97, 549 students enrolled in safe schools, but 283 were chronically truant, meaning they missed at least 18 days.

In 1997-98, 592 students were referred to safe schools, but a total of 549 enrolled. Records for the last half of the year show, however, that in any given month, no more than 373 students were enrolled, while an additional 59 to 140 students were no-shows or chronic truants.

But that was before 334 students were expelled last summer.

Show up or ship out

With only 375 safe-schools spots this school year, the board decided to run a tighter ship. It reduced the number of unexcused absences a student could log before losing his seat. Last school year, 10 to 18 days were permitted before a student risked losing his place. Now, only 5 unexcused absences are permitted. The student and parent sign a contract that outlines the rules, Mitchell says.

Bonnie Pollack, a board case manager whose portfolio includes Milburn Alternative, stresses that discontinued students may return to the program. “Anytime they are ready to come back, we will find a place for them,” she says. “We do everything we can to keep the child in school.”

However, the student may have to go to a different safe school and will have to attend a reinstatement conference at the new school with his parent and case manager.

Legally, the board is not obligated to serve an expelled student. “He cannot even come on Chicago public school grounds,” says Mitchell. “But we really feel that it is better for a student to be receiving some education.”

Students are enrolled for a minimum of 15 weeks and a maximum of two years. They are referred throughout the school year but can return to their home schools only at the end of a semester. Initially, they could return any time during the school year. Mitchell says the board then recognized that a mid-semester return put students at an academic disadvantage. “We don’t want to set these kids up to fail,” she says.

Mitchell now is pushing to have expulsion termination dates coincide with semester breaks.

Another change for 1998-99 was that the board decided to budget a flat $10,000 per student. “We’re expecting all of [the schools] to provide equal service and quality,” says Mitchell.

The program also stands to benefit from a recently announced federal grant to fund after-school substance abuse programs in Chicago, Elgin and Aurora. Mitchell says CPS will use its share, which she estimates at $2 million, for the safe schools and SMART and to train social workers, nurses, psychologists and youth outreach workers to identify and work with students who have substance abuse problems.

At press time, the board also was expected to make SMART an expulsion alternative for students who commit non-violent, non-threatening offenses that don’t involve guns, such as being caught with a box cutter. Under the proposal, says Mitchell, principals could refer such students to SMART if they believe they would benefit.

Mitchell readily acknowledges that the board is learning as it goes along. The Safe Schools program “is not perfect, and we’re not trying to act like it is,” she says.

The board has set specific performance goals for the safe schools.

For attendance, the target is 75 percent, a rate slightly higher than Chicago’s high school average but lower than its elementary average. Last school year, five safe school sites reported reaching the goal. Under the 1997-98 contracts, each was to receive a bonus equal to 10 percent of its funding. That incentive was dropped this year to save money, says Mitchell.

Other goals are:

70 percent of students should exhibit a decrease in aggressive behavior.

70 percent of high school students should earn at least two credits.

70 percent of their elementary school students should advance to the next grade.

70 percent should continue their education or seek employment.

The board did not make the results of these measures available to Catalyst.

Dora Phillips, the principal at Crawford First, a high school, says the number of credits earned is the best overall indicator of a student’s readiness to return to his home school. Students getting passing grades in science, algebra, history and English indicate “their outside world is under control,” she says.

After they leave?

In Mitchell’s mind, the best way to judge the program is to “track the students and see how successful they are after they leave.” The board has laid a foundation for that effort by compiling a database on students who entered the program last fall; it includes each student’s history in the school system and will be updated with information on his or her life after leaving the safe school.

Mitchell says she gets questions from “the community at large” about why the board is spending so much money on students who have such a poor track record. “They are the students who require the best,” she contends. If the school system doesn’t help them now, society eventually will pay more for their misdeeds. “It’s either now or somewhere down the line.”

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