New law gives boost to community schools

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A little-known aspect of the new federal education law is breathing life and extra money into community programs that pick up where schools leave off.

No Child Left Behind earmarks $1 billion for the national program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an effort to expand after-school academic programs.

About $325 million of that amount will go directly to states to be distributed to school districts. Illinois is slated to receive an additional $12.5 million this year, and may get more in the future. This year, Chicago Public Schools anticipates $6.2 million in 21st Century funding.

CPS is looking to expand the number of schools that are open after hours to students and community residents for academic and extra-curricular activities. The goal is to open 100 community schools by 2006.

Now, at least 26 schools offer such programs, which can boost student academic performance, as well as morale, says Schools CEO Arne Duncan. “You have to give reasons for students to be excited about coming to school everyday,” he says. “It’s not always going to be algebra, trig or biology. Often it’s the extracurriculars that keep students motivated.”

The idea is to keep schools open in the evening and on weekends, and offer courses and services to meet the community’s needs, such as GED and computer classes for adults, and structured recreational activities and counseling for children and families.

CPS, along with Bank One and the Polk Bros. Foundation, have contributed $4 million to the newly created Campaign to Expand Community Schools towards the effort.

Long history

Local advocates like to point out that the community learning center concept dates back to the late 19th century, when Jane Addams founded Hull House. More recently, principals have used school reform to create alliances with community-based organizations.

When he was principal of Spry Elementary in the early 1990s, Carlos Azcoitia, deputy chief education officer, says he invited police from the precinct to help create a sports and safety program.

In 1997, Polk Bros. Foundation launched pilot community schools at Brentano, Marquette and Riis. (See related stories.) Once the pilot ended three years later, Polk Bros. teamed up with CPS to launch three more schools.

At the same time, CPS applied for and received millions in 21st century grants to develop after-school programming across the district.

In the fall of 2000, an influential community schools supporter from New York moved to Chicago and took up the cause. Judy Dimon, whose husband, Jamie, is CEO of Bank One, had worked for more than 10 years with the Children’s Aid Society, which oversees a network of nine community schools and provides technical assistance to program newcomers.

Dimon began talking up the concept in civic and political circles. At a meeting with Duncan two days after he was appointed CEO, she found a like mind and support. Soon after, a Chicago chapter of the national Coalition for Community Schools was born.

After the No Child law passed in January, Duncan made a commitment to increase the number of community schools. Despite state cuts, Duncan is sticking to his pledge to match corporate and foundation support for community schools up to $1.5 million.

“We cut where we needed to cut,” he says. “This was an area we thought was critically important.”

The Campaign to Expand Community schools will allow donor corporations and foundations to select partner schools. However, all schools will have to formally apply to get funding. New community schools may also receive technical assistance from the Campaign, which is exploring the option of hiring a campaign director and a small staff.

Still fundraising, the Campaign has several mid-size foundations on board, and it has requests pending at larger ones, says Suzanne Kerbow of Polk Bros. Foundation. Eventually, a steering committee will oversee Campaign activities. It will likely be comprised of donors who contribute $20,000 or more, along with CPS and the Mayor’s office.

New grant process

Meantime, schools and nonprofits, many on their last year of funding, are restlessly awaiting the release of the revised 21st Century grant application. State Board of Education officials say it will be available in late August or September, and plan to begin funding schools in January.

Besides shifting responsibility for distributing grants from the federal government to states, the No Child law also allows states to extend funding for up to five years. (The current limit is three.) The grants are also tied to stricter academic standards, and community-based organizations are allowed to apply independently. Previously, such groups had to apply through educational entities.

When the state begins distributing its first round of 21st Century grants, CPS should get a substantial chunk, Duncan adds. The law requires that grants go to schools that are deemed “in need of improvement,” the official term for schools required to offer choice.

Viewed as seed money, 21st Century grants require community schools to spend too much time and energy trying to secure future funding, says Judy Kaplan, who is part of a task force that trains 21st Century grantees nationwide.

Kerbow of Polk Bros. counters that community school partnerships can survive if nonprofits cut costs by moving staff into schools.

The struggling Boys and Girls Club is looking to do just that. Published reports say the organization is looking to move its centers into CPS schools and move away from managing its own facilities. But some say such a deal would funnel federal dollars into a single program rather than allowing all interested nonprofits to compete.