Projections leave budgets in flux

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Columbia Explorers Academy

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Columbia Explorers Academy

Each year, schools play the enrollment game, hoping the district’s projections are on target. If they are too low, schools find themselves scrambling to have enough teachers and staff ready to go on day one. In these four schools, 2007 projections were off—either too high or too low. Here’s how administrators coped with the faulty projections.

Amundsen: A rising reputation

Amundsen High is a classic example of what Catalyst Chicago’s analysis of enrollment projections discovered: Neighborhood high schools are more likely than other schools to have faulty projections.

Estimates exceeded enrollment by 10 percent or more in 11 of the 59 neighborhood high schools, while enrollment ballooned above estimates at Amundsen and four other schools.

CPS projected that the Lincoln Square school would have 1,461 students this year. But Principal Carlos Muñoz quickly appealed that figure last spring, hoping that, with the school’s reputation on the upswing, some 1,500 students would show up.

“The magic number for high schools is 1,500,” says Muñoz. That number is the threshold that qualifies schools for an additional assistant principal and librarian.

Sure enough, an October 2007 audit showed Muñoz’s thinking was on target: Enrollment came in at 1,611. Muñoz had to bring on several former teachers as full-time substitutes in September, until he landed the five additional teachers he needed.

Amundsen’s academic star is rising, in part, because of a popular International Baccalaureate program. The school has also added a “freshman academy” that helps 9th-graders adjust to high school, and counselors are busy spreading the word about it.

Assistant Principal Brian Rogers hopes the district’s bid to improve how students choose and are assigned to high schools will make for better projections and, in turn, a more accurate budget and staffing process. This spring, CPS will automatically assign students to their neighborhood high school if they have not secured a spot in a selective school.

“It’s a good thing,” says Rogers. “It provides stability. It helps with the budget. It helps with the planning. It helps. It helps. It helps.”

Pritzker: Losing top candidates

Pritzker Elementary is among those schools that will take in displaced students from schools that are closing; Pritzker is slated to take students from Andersen.

CPS is in the midst of redoing enrollment projections that take the closings into account.

But Principal Joenile Albert-Reese already knows first-hand what can go wrong when projections are off, and she’s hoping the coming school year won’t be a rerun of this one.

When last year’s projections came in, Pritzker had 595 students, but CPS predicted that just 525 students would show up in the fall and cut three positions from this year’s budget. Albert-Reese appealed, thinking that the school’s improved reputation would keep enrollment stable, but lost. (The school also has fine arts and gifted programs, with an abundance of applicants.)

In the fall, 580 students showed up.

Class sizes temporarily rose; one kindergarten class served more than 40 youngsters.

“The teachers were stressed, the kids were stressed, education was compromised, and the parents were upset,” Albert-Reese says. “And everybody was looking at me like, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ ”

By October, the district restored the three positions. Anticipating that she would need some new hires come fall, Albert-Reese had interviewed teachers at a district job fair over the summer, and had resumes on hand for about 10 teachers.

But when she made calls in mid-October, several of her top choices had already been hired elsewhere. Albert-Reese ended up hiring two of the applicants; the third spot was filled by a teacher already at the school who had initially applied for a different position but was never hired due to a bureaucratic mix-up.

Next year, Albert-Reese thinks enrollment will climb to 650 or 700. In addition to 30 kindergarteners, she expects to gain 50 to 60 older students, some following their younger siblings.

Albert-Reese believes low projections are a back-door way for the district to save money. “If you get a whole [unpaid] month of a person’s salary, for hundreds of people, you’ve saved a pretty good penny.”

Low projections also hurt schools because the most recent, carefully selected hires are the first to lose their positions, Albert-Reese adds. By the time schools get the positions restored, many of the best teachers have already gotten jobs. “Where am I going to find a teacher of that [same] quality after the cream of the crop has been skimmed off?” she asks.

Already, Albert-Reese has appealed next year’s projections. “I think this year they’re going to grant my appeal, just because of the big mess we had last year. One would think they’d learn from mistakes, and do it right this time.”

Columbia explorers: Facing a reckoning

Columbia Explorers Academy reaped a one-year cash bonanza when the district over-estimated the number of students the school would enroll this year.

As part of the district’s pilot program in per-pupil budgeting, Columbia received a lump sum of $5.3 million in July, some $5,460 per student. Enrollment was projected to be 968.

But the opening of a new charter school a few blocks away, by the United Neighborhood Organization, cut into Columbia’s enrollment, according to Principal Jose Barrera. Instead of the projected 968, 850 students showed up—but that left Columbia with some $644,000 extra in cash.

The money allowed Columbia to keep class sizes low this year, and the school also spent more than $100,000 to upgrade computers.

For next year, however, a reckoning looms.

Projections were off by 20 students or more in eight of the 14 schools piloting the new form of budgeting this year. Four of the schools received more children than expected; the other four enrolled fewer. Budget officials say the schools that received more students got additional funding. School budgets were left alone, however, wherever enrollment fell short.

Forrest Moore of the CPS Office of Budget and Management says the district is still fine-tuning the per-pupil funding formula and did not want to put the pilot schools in an undue financial bind. Next year, Moore adds, the district may switch the per-pupil model for district-run schools to the same model used for charter and contract schools; in those schools, quarterly payments are made and account for changing enrollment.

Meanwhile, Columbia’s latest projections predict an enrollment decline of 113 students for next year.

Barrera, however, is taking steps to ensure enrollment bounces back, including a word-of-mouth campaign to coax more families into the school and a bid to the district to scrap the school’s multi-track calendar. Several families opted for the new UNO charter school, Barrera explains, because Columbia’s multi-track calendar, adopted to relieve overcrowding, put some siblings onto different attendance schedules.

The school’s own grade-by-grade analysis shows no enrollment drop is in sight.

“If I have them, I don’t know how I’m going to lose them,” Barrera argues.

Lindblom: An exception to the rule

Enrollment projections are usually spot-on for selective schools.

“It’s easy for us, because we have seats that everyone in the city wants,” says Donald Fraynd, principal at Jones College Prep in the South Loop. “We know we have 730 now, and we know we will have 730 next year.”

But Lindblom, the district’s newest college prep high school, defied the norm this year when a late recruiting push boosted enrollment to 484, compared to a projected enrollment of 340.

(Since opening in 2005 with a freshman class of 110, the school has added grades each year and now enrolls 9th- through 11th-graders. By 2009, the school will have 7th through 12th grades.)

Principal Alan Mather, former assistant principal at top-ranked Northside College Prep, was hired in March 2005, the same week students were required to accept or reject offers to attend the city’s top schools. He had 12 acceptance letters in hand when he started culling through lists of students who had qualified for other selective schools, but didn’t make the cut at their top choices. Mather was able to boost his freshmen class to 110.

In his second year, Mather and Lindblom’s Englewood community were rocked by two separate shooting incidents just before the signing deadline for selective schools. Terrified parents rescinded acceptance letters en masse, Mather says. Enrollment, however, rose to 250 kids.

This year, the selection process ran without a hitch, and Mather doubled enrollment to nearly 500. Mather knew last spring that the school would have a flood of students and would exceed the district’s estimates, so he hit the phones, calling James Dispensa, head of the demographics department, as well as the budget office and CEO Arne Duncan’s office.

“I made the rounds,” Mather says with a laugh. “I think there was always a sense that the people in the central office were willing to look at it … but it wasn’t the most immediate and pressing issue at the time.”

He also began looking for top teachers to hire, though he wasn’t able to formally offer positions until his budget was corrected in July. Still, Mather adds with some satisfaction, the adjustments were made early enough to give his staff enough time to finish planning for the first day of school.