Bridge program being built with school cuts, rollover funds

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As Chicago principals hurried to finish their 1996-97 budgets last month, they faced a new challenge: how to finance the School Board’s newly required summer “bridge program” for low-scoring 3rd- and 6th-graders.

Hundreds of schools were paying for summer school before the board told them they had to mount remedial summer programs at these two grade levels—the board itself is paying for the 8th-grade bridge program, which this year will cost $3 million.

Last school year, 189 elementary schools, or about 40 percent, budgeted state Chapter 1 or federal Title I money for summer enrichment and remedial programs; this year, the number was 233, or 49 percent, according to the Chicago Panel on School Policy. The administration has forecast that some 300 schools will, in fact, offer remedial programs this summer for 3rd- and 6th-graders, and it is chipping in $1.2 million for supplies.

However, with inflation eating into Chapter 1 and with outright cutbacks in Title I, some schools figure they will have to reduce summer offerings at other grade levels to serve the targeted 3rd- and 6th-graders.

Under the School Board’s new promotion policy, 3rd-graders who score more than a year below grade level on the reading portion of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills will be required to attend summer school, beginning in 1997, and are to be held back if their scores don’t improve. For 6th-graders, the cutoff score is a year and a half below grade level; for 8th-graders, it’s two years below. The administration anticipates that 8,000 students will fall short of the cutoff at each of the three grade levels; that’s about a quarter to a third of each class.

“We had full summer school, remedial and enrichment,” reports Kathleen Kemp, principal of Bass School in Englewood. “We had about 220 kids.”

Now, with cuts in discretionary funds, Bass is planning for half that number next summer and anticipates it may be able to serve only the targeted students. “We can’t offer enrichment if we have to bring some kids up,” Kemp notes.

In addition, Bass is cutting back on planned computer purchases and stipends paid to parent aides, which Kemp says will hamper the school’s efforts to get off the state’s so-called watch list of schools that score low on the state’s IGAP tests.

Kemp thinks that schools should be expected to pay no more than half the cost of the bridge program. “It’s the board’s responsibility to get additional funding for these programs,” she says.

In addition to refocusing summer programs and making other cuts, schools also are counting on state Chapter 1 “rollover” money—that is, unused awards for the current school year—to fund next year’s required summer school.

In the past, Fulton School, also in Englewood, has used state Chapter 1 rollover, typically about $40,000, for summer school. “We’ve been offering summer school for a while for kids two grade levels behind, but it’s been voluntary,” says Deborah Heath, assistant principal.

She estimates that 60 youngsters will “qualify” for the 3rd- and 6th-grade bridge program in 1997, which is slightly more than the usual complement of students from all grade levels who attend voluntarily. Further, Heath is concerned that the school’s rollover amount may be smaller than anticipated, in which case the school will have to cut supplies and other programs.

“We are operating on a shoestring budget. We feel the pinch,” she says.

Heath has other concerns about the program, too. “Not all the kinks have been worked out. What do you do with children who don’t attend? How do you make them go?”

Board officials respond: Qualifying students who don’t attend may be held back for a year, and other pupils can take their place in summer school.

‘Good idea’

Financing aside, most principals contacted by CATALYST believe the promotion policy and the bridge programs are good ideas. “Our kids took the test seriously, because they knew the outcome of the test affects whether or not they’ll go to summer school,” reports Suzanne Dunaway, principal of Andersen Elementary School in West Town. “It makes them accountable for their own learning.”

Anna Correa, principal of Stockton School in Uptown, says that forcing schools to pay for the bridge program themselves makes them more accountable, too. “You have to look at what you’re doing with the rest of your school,” she says. “You can’t blame the board because half your kids are on remediation.”

Correa estimates that only nine pupils at Stockton, a K-5 school, will qualify next summer.

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says that remedial summer school generally is a good idea even though it is no solution for some of the main causes of low achievement, including poor attendance and parent neglect. “Our take on this as principals is that we want to cooperate with this administration, but we still want the right to make these decisions at a local level,” she says.

Tunney says the board should fully fund the programs. “CTU contracts make these programs expensive,” she adds.

School reform advocates contend it’s illegal for the board to tell schools how to spend any of their state Chapter 1 money. State law says that these monies “shall be used … at the attendance center at the discretion of the principal and local school council for … educationally beneficial expenditures which supplement the regular and basic programs as determined by the State Board of Education.”

Robert Markin, the board’s chief attorney, cites another part of state law: “The local school principal shall develop an expenditure plan in consultation with the local school council … which reflects the priorities and activities as described in the school’s local school improvement plan and is consistent with applicable law and collective bargaining agreements and with board policies and standards.” The requirement regarding “board policies and standards” was added in May 1995, he notes.

Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, counters that Markin misinterpreted the passage. “The State Board of Education has been clear that ‘board policies and standards’ refers only to systemwide requirements, like teacher salaries, that schools must attend to as they decide their budgets,” she says. “The board cannot tell schools how to spend their money.”

At Catalyst press time, a spokesman for the state board had not responded to written questions about the board’s view of these issues.

Chicago school officials have shied away from words like “mandate” or “required.” In a Feb. 21 letter to principals, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said “summer bridge programs will be established” and that as schools develop their 1996-97 school improvement plans, “provisions should be made to allot funds” for 3rd- and 6th-grade bridge programs. In the same letter, Vallas said schools “should plan to purchase an additional hour of instruction time,” a seeming mandate that subsequently became a strong recommendation for low-scoring schools. (See Catalyst, April 1996.)

“The letter doesn’t answer the question, And what if I don’t?” notes Markin. “I don’t think it’s necessary to do that. The purpose of the letter was to put the full support of the administration behind this idea.” Asked what the board would do if a school refused to spend its discretionary money on a summer bridge program, Markin said, “We’d have to take that case on an individual basis.”

O’Hagin asserts that Vallas chose a remediation strategy because it’s a “hot button, a quick fix” for a public tired of failure stories, but that he didn’t carefully think through what it would take to accomplish it.

Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, says that if he were a principal and thought his students were doing fine, he’d tell central office “to jump in a lake.” Hess wrote the provision of the Reform Act giving individual schools control over state Chapter 1.

However, he adds, “If I didn’t have a plan, or if I wasn’t confident that my plan is right, I’d do what they suggested.”

Unlike O’Hagin, who argues that the board strong-armed principals into using their Chapter 1 funds for summer school, Hess says it may be that principals don’t know how to stand up for their schools’ individual needs. Rather than lambaste central office, Hess says, reform advocates should work to develop confident local leaders who won’t blindly follow the administration.

Summer school past

Before the advent of school reform in the late 1980s, the School Board used both general and earmarked funds to operate summer programs in elementary schools. Spending rose gradually from 1985 to 1991, hitting $6.9 million in 1991, according to separate budget analyses by Catalyst, and Todd Rosenkranz of the Chicago Panel. (The Board of Education could not supply a history of summer school spending.)

Then, as state Chapter 1 funds were shifted under reform from the systemwide budget to individual school budgets, the board discontinued funding for most elementary summer programs, and schools began to pick up the slack. By the early ’90s, the majority of funding came from state Chapter 1 and federal Title I. Spending hit $18 million in 1992, plunged to half that amount in ’93, dropped again to $8 million in ’94, and rebounded to $12 million in ’95.