Zigzag course taxes even veteran groups

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When the School Board’s request for alternative school proposals went out in October 1995, Pamela Kennedy, a division director for Ada S. McKinley Community Services, thought her agency was in good shape to respond.

It already was operating a school for special education students from the Chicago Public Schools and had a history of serving children with emotional and behavior problems. As it turned out, even this venerable organization was in for a surprise.

It met the one-month deadline for submission of a proposal and managed to open alternative schools at five sites three months later. But the program it planned did not fully meet the needs of the students who showed up.

McKinley was ready to offer conflict resolution classes but quickly learned they wouldn’t suffice. “These kids needed one-on-one counseling,” recalls Kennedy, who directs McKinley’s therapeutic and educational services division. “Over 50 percent of them needed counseling. A number of them needed drug counseling.”

McKinley also discovered its curriculum fell short of CPS requirements. “We thought we had a pretty rich curriculum,” says Kennedy, but it didn’t match the School Board’s frameworks and standards. “We didn’t envision having to buy new textbooks and materials for five sites. We hadn’t budgeted that kind of money.”

“In all honesty, for those of us who went into the program at its inception, the view that we had of the program was somewhat different than the reality,” she says.

Sue Gamm, the board’s chief specialized services officer, acknowledges that the board was winging it, too. “I don’t think we knew precisely what the population was going to be, so we did a lot of conjecture.”

Well-established, multiservice agencies like McKinley were able to ride it out.

McKinley’s safe schools can tap the agency’s family counseling services and job placement and college readiness programs.

Similarly, Garfield High School can get housing, short-term rent assistance, day care and bus tokens for its students through its parent organization, Catholic Charities.

And Latino Youth Alternative High School can refer its students to a variety of in-house services. The school grew out of a community agency established more than 20 years ago to address the problem of drug abuse in Little Village. Counselors and clinical therapists are available not only to students, but also to Pilsen and Lawndale residents.

All three organizations participate in both the board’s safe schools program and its dropout retrieval program.

Over time, Latino Youth learned to use that arrangement to its students’ advantage. Initially it taught its 10 disruptive students separately from a larger class of returning dropouts. The former were told that if their attendance and behavior improved, they could join the rest of the students. If they then misbehaved, they were told, “You’re just not ready for this place,” and sent back to the safe school classroom, says Stephen Bonzak, Latino Youth’s education coordinator.

However, with only a handful of safe school students in one classroom all day, “They were going loopy,” says Bonzak. “It was like a party in there. They ended up wanting to be sent there.”

Now Latino youth mixes the two kinds of students together. “They keep each other in check,” says Marcella Glusman, Latino Youth’s art and social studies teacher. The students in the dropout program are proud of their school, she says. “They won’t stand by somebody disrupting their goal.”

Dealing with uncertainty

Agencies in the safe schools program also have had to deal with uncertain enrollments. Last school year, for example, the Richard Milburn High School won a contract for 100 students. Three months after the school opened, only 32 had enrolled. Kris McCully, an English and history teacher at Milburn, says that at first, she attributed the low enrollment to the program’s newness. When a similar situation arose this fall, she says, “I realized that’s how it’s going to be.”

Last summer, only about 20 of 30 expected students showed up regularly for a summer school program, and Milburn had to cut one of its three summer teachers, she says.

In the second semester last year, the board increased Garfield’s contract from 30 students to 50. As a result, Garfield figured it would have at least 30 students in 1998-99 and probably more. However, the board cut Garfield’s slots to 25 for this school year, creating a “frustrating” budgeting situation, in the words of Garfield administrators.

As a rule, says Tina LaCorte, who until November was Latino Youth’s high school coordinator, “We find things out very late in the game.”

The board reduced the size of McKinley’s program this school year, from 95 slots to 55. “Ideally, we would like between 70 and 75,” Kennedy says.

To adjust, the agency reorganized its program. Last year, it operated safe schools at five sites, some of which educated both elementary and high school students. For this year, it closed the safe schools program at one site and restricted each of the remaining sites to either elementary students or high school students. “It was absolutely cost prohibitive to be trying to operate both elementary and high school students at every site,” Kennedy says.

Meanwhile, the board has turned to Human Resources Development Inc. to make up for the cuts it handed the program’s original operators. The 25-year-old, Chicago-based social service agency addresses a variety of problems, including substance abuse, violence and mental illness. Its clientele includes youth at Cook County Jail and the Valley View Juvenile Detention Center in St. Charles. In the late 1980s, it also ran a school for children with behavior disorders, says Valerie Wright, the agency’s senior vice-president.

With $600,000 from the board, it has opened Lakeview Preparatory School to serve 60 students in the safe schools program.

The board also signed a contract with another local, non-profit agency, Treatment Alternative for Safe Communities (TASC), to conduct weekly violence-prevention seminars this past fall at three schools, Milburn, Crawford First and South Central.

McKinley’s Kennedy acknowledges that the School Board’s demands are “within reason.” But the money it provides leaves a gap between the services she wants to provide and those she can afford. This year’s $10,000 per-pupil allotment is about $300 less than McKinley’s safe schools got last school year, when, Kennedy says, “I closed with a significant deficit. The requirements coming at us are more and more stringent, but the resources have not increased.”

Kennedy says that by the end of this school year, she’ll know whether her agency can afford to continue operating a safe school. “You don’t want to compromise the integrity of the program.”