CN Oct 9, 2014

As the February municipal elections  get closer, we ask our panel: Will Mayor Emanuel emphasize his accomplishments in education? Will he run on his record?

We begin our conversation with the latest enrollment numbers, and they’re not looking good. Wendy Katten of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand:

“We do know that CPS projected last year that they would have 405,000 students,” she explains. “Those were projections based on some data that they had. And now we’re at 397,000. So we know their projections were way off, and that 6,000 students have left the system in two years.”  It’s too early to know for sure, she says, but she expects that the enrollment declines will be all over the city.

Panelist Sarah Karp from Catalyst Chicago: “This speaks a lot about Mayor Emanuel’s performance because the fact that parents aren’t signing their kids up for the schools – whether they’re signing up for private schools, whether they’re leaving for the suburbs – it shows a vote of non-confidence.”

Panelist Lauren FitzPatrick (Sun Times) gives an example. “I talked to the Local School Council Chair at Portage Park Elementary,” she tells us. “They were not really affected by the closings, it’s on the northwest side. She lost dozens and dozens of kids. And talked about how some of the families – you know the economy’s a little bit better, so some of them moved to Catholic schools because they could afford to do so, some just up and left the city because they could afford to do that now.”

And the charter schools seem to be feeling the squeeze, too. “We’re hearing from people that they’re getting calls from charter schools right now – come to our school, we still have openings – come on!” says Karp, “So that leads me to believe that there’s some issue there, where they didn’t make their numbers either. And I think that when CPS projected the 397,000, they were thinking that those charter seats were filled. Now if they weren’t filled, (the overall CPS enrollment) might be less than 397,000.”

In fact, says Katten, when her group analyzed the charter enrollments last year, they found about 11,000 open seats city-wide.

Hancock High School at 56th and Pulaski is relatively young and has recently received a lot of federal money to upgrade its programs and facilities. But now CPS wants to turn it into a selective enrollment school, so it would no longer be a neighborhood high school. That’s a big deal for the local community, and they were taken by surprise when the announcement was made.

“Very few people knew that they were talking about it,” says FitzPatrick. “Alderman Marty Quinn (13) had been making a case since at least March, publicly, that my kids on the southwest side need access to selective enrollment too, because we’re putting them on buses and els and they’re spending 2 and 3 hours a day just getting back and forth. Some of them aren’t going to the selective enrollment schools they’re getting into because the parents are saying the commutes are just too far. So if we’re going to have selective enrollment in the city and everybody else has access, we need one too.”

But, she says, it’s an unfortunate choice for the community. “What’s going away here? What are we giving up in order to equalize access to selective enrollment?” The feds just finished all the upgrades, and “They’ve got a dynamo of a principal. She’s got a great, working school that’s open to anyone who lives in the neighborhood.”

“So it’s essentially a school closing, in my view, of a neighborhood high school that’s working for kids,” adds Katten.

The local kids who would have attended Hancock from this point forward will have less attractive options in very crowded nearby high schools, says Karp. “Are you gonna take kids out of a school where they have space, it’s a decent school, and send them to a place where they’re stuffed in like sardines?”

FitzPatrick tells us that she had a conversation a leader of the Network for College Success at the U of C, which had partnered with Hancock to help bring about dramatic improvement at the school.

“Hancock is what you want,” the Network’s co-director told her. “Hancock is what the district should be replicating. Selective enrollment and choice are things you want when the system isn’t working. When you don’t have good choices, then you want more choices. But when you have a great choice right here, selective enrollment is not what you want, and how nice is it to just know that your child can walk across the street or three blocks away from home, and your child’s going to be perfectly fine and get a wonderful education.”

“I understand the point of view of the parents on the southwest side who feel left out,” adds Katten, ” but…I think more people have to ask why do we need selective high schools, and how do they work towards the overall health of our system? Looking at other districts around the country, I don’t think anyone has what we have in terms of sorting and stratification. I don’t think this is a healthy maneuver for the overall well-being of our city.”

In other high school news, Sarah Karp reported this week that many of the selective enrollment schools have been very successfully raising their own money with student fees. In fact, last year, Whitney Young managed to bring in $680,000 in additional cash. “It calls into question, what is a free education, and it exacerbates the inequality between schools, because when you get $680,000, even though they have a ton of kids there, you can buy a lot of stuff…and it makes the education different.

And by comparison, Manley High School, which serves a vastly less affluent population only a couple of miles away, raised only eight thousand dollars, mostly for its football team.

“The overall issue,” concludes Katten, “Is that no one is talking about how to improve funding in our state and our city for education. So we’re stuck with all of these gross inequities.”

And speaking of budgeting, CPS quietly announced this week that the so-called student-based-budgeting, which allocates a fixed amount of money to each school based on its student population, won’t be observed this year at schools where populations have declined.

“They’re saying that whatever we, CPS, projected you to have for your budget this year, whether you lost kids or not, you’re gonna get to keep your money. They did this last year because it was kind of the trial run of the whole thing. So you could see – this could be how bad your budget might be. (Barbara Byrd Bennett) said this past summer – this is it. and she had her total teacher/principal voice on, too. You knew she was serious. This is not gonna happen again, so learn what you can, and move on. It’s coming and it’s gonna be ugly. And then all of a sudden, it’s not going to be ugly. It’s not coming.”

This raises – dare we bring this up – the nasty prospect that there might be an election-year tinge to the decision, since the new budgeting plan was roundly criticized by parents of kids in the traditional neighborhood schools.

“We see things change year-to-year,” says Katten. “We saw ‘longer days”‘money given to the schools. Every school got a position and then they were yanked away the next year. Then you got half back the following year. So this is a year-to-year thing based on the timing, I believe, of campaign cycles.”

So Lauren FitzPatrick has some sage advice for principals and parents.

“This is the year to ask for things.”




About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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