When district leaders laid out their plans to close a record number of elementary schools, they promised that the new schools would be better academically than the ones being shuttered and rolled out plans to launch specialty programs in many of the welcoming schools.

To that end, over the summer CPS poured money into the schools, for decked-out science labs and carts loaded with iPads and laptops. Old schools got major renovations, and even relatively new schools got paint jobs and other touch-ups.

But it will take years before the promised new educational programs fully emerge and, with the district’s financial future uncertain, there’s a chance that they won’t. 

In addition to the one-time capital improvements, CPS put $78 million into the welcoming schools’ operating budgets to pay for social-emotional programs or extra teachers so that class sizes could stay small. 

Looking ahead, principals are already bracing for the likelihood that the “welcoming school fund” will disappear after this year.

The 11 STEM schools got $376,000 each and seven International Baccalaureate schools got $255,000. The money was to pay for one-time start-up costs such as teacher training, and two extra staff members. At the IB schools, the two extra staff members include an IB coordinator and a world language teacher. The STEM schools get one technology specialist and a math/science specialist.

The STEM and IB programs are focused on students in the middle grades, though the entire school could see some benefit. The International Baccalaureate program offers a curriculum that focuses on humanities and essay writing, while STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math and emphasizes these subjects.

While CPS officials say they plan to continue to fund these programs, there’s no guarantee that the schools will continue getting funds for extra staff beyond this year, says Kyle Westbrook, the district’s director of magnet, gifted and talented programs, who is in charge of implementing the new initiatives. 

At the moment, staff from Westbrook’s office are going to the schools to hold informational meetings about what it means to be a STEM or IB school. 

“We want to make sure that parents and community members are in the know,” he says.

Westbrook acknowledges that STEM programs don’t all look the same. Chicago has the high performing STEM Magnet School on the Near West Side that has an engineering teacher, in addition to a math and science specialist.

Like the STEM magnet school, the new STEM schools got an engineering lab and a media lab. In the media lab, students have access to “the latest and greatest” technology, including new Apple computers and the full suite of Adobe software. The new STEM schools have the technology and math/science specialists, which are paid for by the district. But they won’t have an engineering teacher—the engineering curriculum will be provided mostly online.  

Westbrook says the schools have yet to choose their engineering curriculum. 

Unlike STEM schools, the International Baccalaureate schools will have to implement a specifically designed program. It will take two years, at a minimum, to become an official IB school, recognized by the national IB program. This year, an IB coordinator is on staff to start training teachers and schools are giving students foreign language classes in preparation. 

Next year, the schools will become IB candidates and will continue to train teachers in the new curriculum. 

Yet one big question mark remains for teachers: whether the STEM and IB schools will redefine the teaching positions for middle grades and have teachers reapply or just retrain the current teachers. 

The items establishing the schools and approved by the Board of Education state that, at the end of the current school year, the IB schools will close nine teaching positions each and the STEM schools will close seven each. The jobs will then be designated as International Baccalaureate or STEM teacher-in-training positions.

However, Westbrook says it is still unclear whether these changes will be made, as CPS is in the midst of negotiating the issue with the Chicago Teachers Union. Meanwhile, the middle-grades teachers will undergo training this year so that they can qualify for the jobs. 

The development of these specialty programs coincides with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement of five “wall-to-wall” IB high schools and five Early College STEM high schools. Some of the programs at the welcoming schools are supposed to serve as feeder programs for the high school specialty programs.

Emanuel became enamored with IB after a Consortium on Chicago School Research study showed that graduates from the existing high school programs—smaller programs nestled in neighborhood high schools—did better in college. 

CPS already has 17 middle-grades IB programs, but their performance is uneven with only half of them performing above CPS averages on the ISAT”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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