Vallas gambles to pay for Lighthouse

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Depending on what happened in Springfield the first week of December, either 69 schools are looking forward to the start of the after-school Lighthouse program, or 106 schools that have the program are facing its loss next year.

As Catalyst went to press, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas did not have the money to pay for all the Lighthouses he promised.

“I’m really anticipating that we’ll get that money [from the General Assembly],” Vallas told Catalyst at the Reform Board’s November meeting. “But if we don’t, the number will drop back down to 40. But I don’t think that is going to happen.”

Lighthouse popular with schools

The Lighthouse program, on the verge of being renamed as well, daily provides an extra hour of instruction in reading and math, an hour of recreation and a late-afternoon meal. Currently, 30,000 children at 146 schools are participating, at a net cost of $14 million to the board. The program also is supported by a $4 million, three-year corporate grant and $3 million in reimbursements from the federal government.

The program was first offered last January to 40 elementary schools, mainly ones on probation. It was an instant hit. Schools that had been paying for after-school programs with their own discretionary dollars could redirect those funds, and schools that couldn’t afford after-school programs got them.

“Schools keep writing us, and Paul told me to tell them they could have it; he’d find the money,” says Blondean Davis, chief of schools and regions. “It started out as a program for schools who needed the help, but now, that is no longer the case.”

Take, for example, newcomer Byrne Academy in Garfield Ridge. More than half its students have scored at or above national norms in both reading and math for the last six years.

“Even though 50 percent of our kids are above the national norms, that still means there were some students below, and we aren’t content to say, OK, we’re over 50 percent,” says Principal Thomas Doyle. “Our teachers want to give additional time on task, too, and we’ve got very little money to play with, so I jumped on it.”

By late November, a total of 209 schools had been promised Lighthouse programs; 63 of them were still waiting. If Springfield comes through, Vallas says, then the total could rise to 350 next year.

Uses of funds

Raymond Elementary School in Douglas is among the schools that had been paying for after-school classes on its own, using $50,000 in state Chapter 1 money; it is going to use the freed-up funds to conduct summer classes for 2nd-, 4th-, 5th- and 7th-graders. The board pays for the summer Bridge Program in the other elementary grades.

Nash Elementary in Austin will buy additional books and supplies. Jungman on the Lower West Side will launch a Saturday School program.

“We have kids who have limited proficiency in English, and that has been a major concern,” says Jungman Principal Fausto Lopez. “We are trying to give them as much time as possible to help them develop their English skills.”

Lopez adds that the extra meal (initially, a sandwich, fruit, milk and a snack, like applesauce) is important, too. “We have needy families here. There’s a 100 percent poverty level in this community, so the meal has been an advantage.”

The meals are provided by Aramark and Marriott, the two companies that provide the lunches for the regular school lunch program.

“We’ve always funded an after-school program, but this year the funds were just not there for us to do another one,” says Helen Craft, principal of Yale Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing. “We had $23,000 in STIR [desegregation] money taken away from us that would have been used for areas like staff development, so now we’ve had to use our discretionary funds for that.”

The board reclaimed STIR money systemwide.

Principal Patricia Kent of Penn Elementary in North Lawndale says with a laugh: “I’m not redirecting funds, because I had none to redirect. My teachers volunteered. They stay until 4 p.m. working with students, and sometimes later until I chase them out of the school. I’m just so glad I can now pay them. They sure deserve it.”

She adds, “Usually anything we [local schools] do comes out of our money, so it was nice to see the board supporting us by paying for this.”

Additional instruction time

Lengthening the school day was an early goal for Vallas. Under the Chicago Teachers Union contract, the school day for elementary students is 315 minutes, about a half hour less than many suburban schools. Of the 315, Vallas figured, no more than 200 were devoted to instruction in the core subjects.

Davis agreed. “Instruction doesn’t begin right at 9 a.m. You’ve got at least 10 minutes where kids are taking their coats off, getting settled and so on.”

Almost two years ago, Vallas urged schools to rearrange their schedules or use discretionary dollars to ensure that 300 minutes were devoted to core subjects. Schools responded that it couldn’t be done. Vallas’s own budget office estimated that at most schools, it would take a quarter of the discretionary budget to foot the bill.

For Vallas, the Lighthouse program is half a loaf. It’s voluntary for schools, teachers and students. Teachers are paid at their regular rates for the hour of instruction but get only $15 for the hour of recreation, which is the rate for workers in the board’s social center program. As a result, many don’t stay for the second hour.

Sources of funds

The board supplies teaching materials for the three promotion-benchmark grades (3rd, 6th and 8th) and provides $5 per pupil for materials for students in the other grades.

Last year, the total cost per school was a uniform $98,000; this year, the cost ranges from $22,000 to $133,000.

The program got a boost in September, when Ronald McDonald House Charities pledged $4 million over three years. It was the first time the corporate foundation gave such a sizeable grant to a school system, says Charities Director Susan Kerr.

Kerr says the foundation and the school system had been discussing options for about a year when Vallas proposed an assist for Lighthouse. “Our board was looking to fund a program that it felt had the greatest impact on the greatest number of children,” she says.

McDonald’s also decided to sponsor a contest among Lighthouse participants to give the program a new name. At press time, an announcement was pending.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture is picking up the tab for the late-afternoon meal. Its Adult and Child Care Program reimburses school districts for a third free meal for low-income students 3 to 12 years old.

“The grant has been out there for a while, but Mr. Vallas heard about it and tracked down himself if we were eligible,” says Sue Susanke, the board’s manager of food services.

Favorable evaluation of Lighthouse

There have been no formal studies of the program’s effectiveness. But Blondean Davis notes that 30 of the 40 schools posted gains last year in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and 39 showed gains in math. In addition, five of the eight schools that got off probation last year were in the program.

“I’m not going to say it was just the Lighthouse program,” says Vallas. “Sure, there are other things happening in schools, but still, schools tell us that the extra hour has been very beneficial.”

“If you ask me, it’s made a difference,” says Maggie Moradi, school clerk at Byrd Elementary on the Near North Side. “Some of our kids would have been in the Summer Bridge program if they hadn’t been in the Lighthouse.”

Katrinia Riley, a teacher and Lighthouse coordinator at Grant Elementary, says that teachers were asked to look for differences between children who participated in Lighthouse and those who didn’t. “The teachers who did, said the kids who participated in the program were successful. The kids who didn’t were not as successful,” she reports.

Even Chicago’s most successful schools are clamoring to get in.

Edison Comprehensive Gifted Center, which ranks second in the state on IGAP reading and math test scores, approached Vallas about the program.

“Can you believe it?” says Davis. “They’re No. 2, and they want the program. They said being No. 2 is not good enough, they want to be No. 1.”

At press time, Edison was not on the list.