Plan to expand community schools

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Chicago Public Schools will expand its community schools effort over the next year with an infusion of $7.5 million from CPS and between $700,000 and $800,000 from Chase Bank.

Funding for the schools became a question mark this year, when three-year grants from the Campaign for Community Schools ran out. The Campaign primarily raised funds from private sources to seed the community schools, which also receive money from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

The last-minute reprieve will allow CPS, which has become a national leader in the community schools movement, to keep all 110 of its community schools and add 40 more. Meanwhile, a new non-profit called the Federation for Community Schools is taking up the task of lobbying for more public funding on behalf of the effort, which provides extended-day academic and social opportunities through partnerships with community organizations.

The new CPS funding, which was painted as part of a districtwide anti-violence initiative announced in September, came as a relief to those schools that were set to lose their Campaign grants. Some school officials had feared they might have to scale back or close their programs. That won’t happen now that $2 million of CPS’ funds will be specifically targeted to those schools, says Havilah Darnieder, program associate with the Federation for Community Schools. The successor organization to the Campaign, the Federation will focus on lobbying the public sector for ongoing funds.

Erica Harris of CPS’ Office of Extended Learning Opportunities insists those schools’ programs were never in jeopardy. “We are continuing the public match of $50,000 for those schools, and we will be picking up the $50,000 that used to be the private match.”

Five of the 40 new schools already have been chosen, Harris says: Cameron in Humboldt Park, Haley in Roseland, Lloyd in Belmont Cragin, O’Toole in West Englewood and Marquette in Chicago Lawn. (These schools have had extended-day programs but were not officially part of the community schools initiative.) The other 35 schools will be chosen by late November and programs are expected to begin next September.

The Federation hopes its lobbying efforts will convince state legislators to provide long-term funding, although state money for community schools was “gutted when everything came to a standstill down in Springfield,” says Suzanne Armato, the Federation’s executive director.

The group also plans to lobby the Illinois State Board of Education, which has had an unfunded item in its budget since 2002, to put dollars toward CPS and other districts.

“We hope not to be back at this same point because we’re hoping to make inroads with policymakers to support community schools for a longer period of time,” Armato says. “We’d like to get a more permanent solution for the funding problems, so we don’t keep running into some schools being in danger of getting cut off.”

She adds that data thus far—including ISAT scores, grades and discipline statistics—prove that the comprehensive opportunities offered by community schools result in real benefits to students.

“The case has been made. It will be our job to take that to policymakers and say, ‘Here’s the facts.’ Hopefully, they’ll be convinced,” Armato says.

Chicago’s schools probably will be OK this year and next, Darnieder says, but after 2009, a large number of schools are set to lose federal funds. “That will be the critical time again.”

Darnieder notes that the federal government also is debating the issue. The Full Service Community Schools Act, currently in committee in both houses of Congress, would provide $200 million per year nationwide.

If the feds come through with funding, community schools nationwide will have Chicago to thank for its leadership on the issue, says Marty Blank, staff director with the National Coalition for Community Schools, who says Chicago has the most extensive initiative in the country.

Blank says CPS’ effort “represents a really important signal to other urban school districts that deep connections with communities are an important part of any school reform strategy.”

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.