When Ada S. McKinley Community Services opened its new alternative schools in mid-February, they were so swamped with students that director Pamela Kennedy had to get up at 3:30 a.m. for a week to get the schools organized.

“We had so many students show up, I ended up teaching class—and I haven’t done a lesson plan in 12 years,” says Kennedy, division director of therapeutic education, with a laugh. “But I’m really excited about it. So many of the kids are saying, ‘This is my chance to get myself together.’ ”

Ada McKinley, a private, non-profit social service agency, won a $650,000 contract from the School Reform Board to operate programs for dropouts and disruptive youth at six sites on the South Side. In all, the board distributed $6 million to 39 organizations to open or expand alternative programs for about 1,560 students; McKinley’s contract is the largest.

The alternative schools initiative generally has been applauded as a long-overdue attempt to give dropouts a second chance and make regular schools safer by shipping out troublemakers. “This is an idea that’s been kicked around for 15 years,” says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. “Now, in the space of four months, it’s up and running.”

Enough money?

But the alternative schools face several hurdles. First, there’s money.

The board estimates that it will cost $12 million to run the existing schools for an entire year, and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas already has said he wants to expand the program. While the board hopes to get new state funding for alternative schools, most of the needed money will have to come out of existing funds.

The Illinois State Board of Education is asking lawmakers for only $6 million in alternative schools money to distribute statewide next school year. And at Catalyst press time, Chicago was counting on passage of an amendment to state law to make it eligible for a share.

With 23 percent of the state’s population, Chicago hopes to get 23 percent of the state money, says Budget Director David Agazzi. However, that would amount to only about $1.5 million.

“But the bottom line is, we won’t rely on the state to keep them up and running,” Agazzi says.

Todd Rosenkranz, budget and policy analyst for the Chicago Panel on School Policy, believes the board probably can find the money for the next few years. “It’s just a question of what they want to forego somewhere else.”

The board recently announced a new round of initiatives that will be competing for funds, Rosenkranz observes. “There’s not one mention in their [education] plan of how they’re going to pay for these things,” he notes. “That just kind of raises red flags for me.”

More costly

Because of small class sizes, the alternative schools for disruptive students are quite costly, $10,640 per student per year; the per-pupil cost for dropouts who enroll is $5,800 per year. Altogether, the cost is higher than the average per-pupil spending throughout the school system, $8,220 compared with $6,525.

Still, having private agencies mount the programs is cheaper than starting similar programs in public schools because salaries are lower. Teachers at alternative schools will earn in the low- to mid-$20,000s, Wuest notes, which is roughly half the public school average.

Meanwhile, 12 of the agencies that received board contracts had already suffered cuts this year in funds they regularly receive through City Colleges of Chicago from the state’s Truant and Alternative Options Education Program (TAOEP).

City Colleges is now channeling more of its $2.3 million in TAOEP money to adult education programs and less to those for dropouts under age 18, says Omero Suarez, vice chancellor for academic services. (The Chicago Public Schools receives about $4.7 million in TAOEP money each year.)

“What we’re doing is getting out of the business of issuing [high school] diplomas,” Suarez explains. Dropouts under 18 “ought to be with the public schools.”

Eleven of the 12 agencies saw their TAOEP funding cut by 15 percent; the 12th, Aspira of Illinois, saw a 6.7 percent cut. In addition, City Colleges’ own three “middle colleges” for high school dropouts saw 5 percent cuts, dropping from about $420,000 each to $399,000 each.

Prologue Alternative High, one of the city’s better-known alternative programs, had its TAOEP funds cut from $100,000 to $85,000. But, says Executive Director Nancy Jackson, “with the cuts we took, we did not cut back on services. We’re absorbing them [the cuts] as best we can, but that’s not to say we can continue to do so.”

Now, with $130,500 in new money from the School Reform Board, Prologue is hiring several new teachers and says it will serve up to 100 more students.

Another challenge the new alternative schools face is supply and demand. Currently, there are slots for only 1,000 dropouts and 560 disruptive students.

But in 1994-95, for example, the school system’s one-year dropout rate was 16.6 percent, which translates into roughly 16,000 of some 100,000 high school students dropping out.

Also that year, there were 2,684 cases in which students were suspended for Group 5 discipline code violations, according to the board’s Department of Safety and Security. Students must be found guilty of a Group 5 offense and chalk up 15 days of suspension to be sent to an alternative school.

However, the board’s statistics do not show how many of those cases involved students who had been suspended more than once—which is, in effect, a requirement for referral because of the 15-day suspension threshold.

“There may very well be” more disruptive students eligible than slots, acknowledges says Sue Gamm, chief of specialized services, who oversaw efforts to get the new schools up and running.

Some high school disciplinarians contend that the most problematic students don’t commit Group 5 violations, which are primarily criminal offenses such as aggravated assault, arson and possession, use or sale of illegal drugs. Instead, they repeatedly commit less serious Group 3 or Group 4 violations, which include fighting, using profane or obscene language, and vandalism.

“When the idea first came out, all the disciplinarians said ‘Thank God,’ ” says Mike Pols, disciplinarian at Sullivan High. “But I’ve got 20 kids who are stopping the education of 1,200—these are kids who should go to alternative schools, but they’re not [guilty of] Group 5 offenses. I don’t think that by sending one or two kids per school you’re going to make a big difference.”

“These are the kids we are overwhelmed with, the 3’s and 4’s,” says Frank Preo, disciplinarian at Schurz High. Still, he adds, “At least [the board is] doing something, which is more than we’ve had in the last 20 years.”

Pols, who is working to get three students sent to alternative programs, says that schools might give up on the process if they can’t get students removed because the alternative schools lack space. “Then the whole thing will fall apart. It’ll become like expulsion, such a burdensome process no one tries it.”

But Ron Beavers, the board’s new director of alternative programs, says students guilty of lesser offenses ought to remain at local schools. “The majority of those kids you can turn around in some way,” he contends. “Maybe it’s the program they’re in. Maybe it’s the school.” Even students who have met the referral criteria shouldn’t automatically be shipped out, “depending on the case,” Beavers adds.

He and Gamm explain that the focus group that drafted the guidelines felt strongly that only students who had been suspended for the most serious offenses should qualify. “We were looking for criteria that had some fail-safe so that kids would not be dumped,” says Gamm. “It’s important that we’re not just looking at behavior after the fact. We’ve been telling principals, this is not your behavior-management program. It’s just part of it.”

Schools will have to prove that they have their own behavior-management program “that minimizes the need to enforce the discipline code in the first place,” Gamm adds. And integrated schools “will have to prove that they’re enforcing [discipline] fairly across racial lines.”

The strict guidelines apparently quelled principals’ initial enthusiasm. When the board’s proposal was first announced, Catalyst spoke with several principals who said they planned to refer anywhere from six to 50 students; after the guidelines came out, the same principals reported they planned to refer around three to five. Overall, referrals to the disruptive programs are coming in at a slow pace because of the process involved, Beavers notes.

Says Gamm, “I think they may have been sobered. This is not just putting a kid’s name on a piece of paper and getting them out of your building.”

Eva Nickolich, Region 4 education officer, says that ridding schools of a few troublemakers won’t solve school’s discipline problems.

“I used to say the same thing—if I could just get 10 kids out of my school things would be great—but sometimes that’s just talk,” says Nickolich, a former principal and disciplinarian. Discipline problems are a never-ending battle, she adds. “Every freshman class brings in new students.”

Encouraging data

It’s too soon to tell how successful the new schools will be, but performance data from alternative schools that have served dropouts are encouraging. (See story.). However, the schools for disruptive youth are an untested venture for Chicago.

The board has arranged to have an independent evaluation of the schools conducted at year’s end by University of Wisconsin education professor Tony Baez, who evaluated Milwaukee’s alternative schools and advised Chicago on setting up its programs.

Smaller classes and a more personal atmosphere help alternative programs succeed, says Margery Doss of Lawrence Hall Youth Services, which is operating a school for disruptive youth. “Our attitude is, that kid can’t fail—we fail the kid,” Doss says. “When you get them in that [type of] setting, you can do things that are darn near impossible to do in a bigger setting.”

Dedicated staff are also important, notes Jackson of Prologue. “What we look for are people who want to work with this population, who come with a missionary zeal,” she says. “It’s what we’ve relied on all these years—it does take a different level of commitment.”

“It’s certainly better than expelling them,” says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy. (Under the state’s school code, school districts are not required to provide educational services for students who have been expelled, says state board spokesman Lee Milner; however, Chicago has provided home-based instruction.)

But, Hess adds, “it’s traditionally not a good idea” to place students who aren’t eligible for expulsion in an alternative setting because “generally, wherever you put them is worse.” He’s taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Some students do create a problem for schools. You’ve got to balance the rights of one kid against the rights of other kids in the school.”

Boredom = misbehavior?

Even the best-run alternative schools won’t solve the system’s dropout and discipline problems; ultimately, regular high schools must change. Alternative schools “are only one piece of the puzzle,” says Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network. “The fundamental thing has to be restructuring high schools.” Along those lines, the Reform Board has been pushing innovations like small schools and separate academies for freshmen, which would ease the transition to high school.

Curriculum must improve as well, notes Rodney Estvan, a former Calumet High School teacher now with the social service group Access Living. Estvan recalls dealing with a number of disruptive kids and realizing that many who misbehaved often did so out of boredom.

“I would think, if I could just get Antonio and Leonard out of the classroom, I’d be OK,” Estvan recalls. “But what I found was, when Antonio and Leonard were gone, there was someone to take their place. It wasn’t the kids, it was me.”

“There’s a definite link between boring curriculum and disruptive behavior,” Estvan adds. “Removing those kids won’t create a better environment if the teacher has not created it in the classroom.”

Estvan asserts that alternatives are “just making kids be out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” A better solution, he maintains, would be to create special schools-within-a-school in which students with discipline problems are assigned to a full-time faculty member who “shadows” them to class each day. “These kids will essentially have a social worker/cop with them all the time, who will make it clear that this is a stigma.”

But Kennedy of Ada S. McKinley believes some students will need an alternative setting, no matter what. The “dumping ground” stereotype of such programs, she notes, is similar to criticism leveled at special education.

“People say we ought to be fighting to get rid of special education. Well, we ought to be fighting to get rid of the negative connotations around special ed, instead of trying to get rid of the support services some people legitimately need,” Kennedy says. “It’s the same thing with alternative schools.”

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