Board reaches to retrieve dropouts

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Every year, nearly 15,000 teenagers drop out of the Chicago Public Schools and into a bleak future. For more than two decades, the school system paid these youth little heed, in part because it had little extra money. That attitude changed in July 1995, when both the financial and political rules of education changed in this city.

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s School Reform Board of Trustees began paying community-based organizations to expand or launch dropout recovery programs. The CPS money was a first for these organizations.

This year, the board chipped in money to help City Colleges of Chicago increase the number of students that can be served by its preparation program for the General Education Development (GED) certificate.

Also this year, the board opened the first of three new inside-the-system alternative schools. While the system always has had several alternative schools on its roster, the new ones are emerging from the Office of Specialized Services.

In a related development, a proposal has been floated to allow high schools to create in-house alternative schools for dropout-prone students—though segregating hard-to-teach students remains a controversial educational strategy.

The cost of these programs to the Reform Board varies widely: $450 per student for the City Colleges GED programs, $4,729 per student for the community-based programs and $10,500 per student for the first of the new, in-system alternative schools. Here’s a status report on these efforts.

Community-based alternative schools. For 18 months beginning in February 1996, the board disbursed $9.2 million to 47 programs, most of which were non-profit agencies that had long operated schools for dropouts.

The question then became, as Catalyst asked in February 1996: How do you pay for these programs year after year? In 1997, the Reform Board hit upon a novel idea. It created a charter school, Youth Connection, and invited the 26 dropout programs that passed muster the first 18 months to sign up as subcontractors. The goal was to be able to count the 1,500 some alternative- school students for state aid. (See story.)

City Colleges GED partnership. The program provides for three-hour GED prep classes twice weekly in 12 high schools, two in each CPS region. With a capacity of 2,400 students, the program will more than double enrollment in City Colleges GED classes, which dropped from 2,700 in 1993 to about 2,000 in 1997.

CPS pays for a site coordinator, engineer and security staff. City Colleges provides instructors through its Adult Learning Skills Program, paying them $15.21 to $21 an hour for a maximum of 24 hours a week. Unlike the community-based programs that offer GED classes, the City Colleges partnership provides few support services, such as child care or job counseling, to keep students coming to class.

While this is the least expensive dropout recovery program for the School Board, there are questions about its cost-effectiveness in terms of student success.

A recent study by a local public policy research group is critical of City Colleges’ GED programs. For example, in 1996 only 34 percent of the GED test takers from City Colleges got passing scores, compared with 46 percent of all Chicago test takers and 64 percent of all Illinois test takers, according to the non-profit Taylor Institute, which conducted the study for Women Employed. The previous year, 48 percent of City Colleges test takers passed.

The institute didn’t study community-based programs to see if they were more or less successful. “I just don’t think anything is real successful,” says Taylor researcher Jody Raphael, noting that only about half of the test takers who report taking any preparation course pass the test.

Catalyst surveyed a half dozen highly regarded community-based programs that had received School Board contracts. In 1996-97, 71 percent of their students who took the GED passed it, the schools reported. Most of these programs are part of the Youth Connection Charter School.

Some observers see the City Colleges partnership as “back to the future.” From 1973 to 1995, City Colleges operated diploma-granting night schools in Chicago public schools; it stopped because of budget constraints. Before 1973, the Board of Education ran them.

“I guess I’ve been at this too long,” sighs state Senator Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago). “I have an institutional memory. I’ve met with people from my district who were at Schurz when the board closed the night schools. We protested. We said, ‘Please don’t close these programs.’ We’re going back to where we started from.”

But del Valle isn’t complaining. “I believe you have to have as many options as possible for students.”

In-system alternative schools. The Irene Dugan Institute, the first of the board’s own alternative schools, was the idea of and planned by community activists. (See story.) However, it fits the vision outlined in a December 1997 internal memo from Sue Gamm and Renee Grant-Mitchell of the Office of Specialized Services.

“The Chicago Public Schools has the capacity within its own system to serve the needs of students who have dropped out of school,” the two write, acknowledging that the system currently “has very limited education options” for such students.

The memo stresses small size, voluntary enrollment and comprehensive programming.

These elements plus Chicago Teachers Union salaries for teachers make in-system alternative schools more expensive than the board’s other programs for dropouts. For example, the Dugan Institute now costs $10,500 per student.

In-school alternative schools. Last spring, principals were given the opportunity to submit proposals to create schools-within-a-school to serve students that are particularly hard to teach. Some principals said that having a designated space for chronic truants and discipline problems would keep them from roaming around the building. Others advanced the idea in the hopes it would accommodate students who are just one or two credits shy of graduating and don’t want to attend classes the whole day.

However, concerns from the Office of Accountability have put the initiative on hold at least temporarily.

Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen is sympathetic to the principals’ position but concerned about the logistics. To receive its proportionate share of funding, a school-within-a- school would need a separate unit number. Giving it a separate unit number, in turn, would separate its performance data, such as attendance rates and test scores, from that of the larger school, he says.

“Would that change probation?” Hansen asks himself. If a school-within-a-school had only 10 percent of its students meeting national norms but the larger school had 20 percent, “Would we want to take that school off probation? It would just not be a good idea.”

Meanwhile, some external alternative schools wonder what impact all the board’s initiatives might have on them. Richard Stephenson, board chair of the Youth Connection Charter, is not concerned. “It seems there are more than enough youngsters that we are not reaching even with the programs that we have,” he said at the charter board’s April meeting, according to the minutes. “This is an urban setting. Were we a smaller community, I would say it would probably kill your kinds of programs. I don’t think that would be the case here.”