School budget cuts to hit most troubled students

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In the 2012 budget set to be approved on Wednesday, officials are quietly proposing to drastically scale back the money spent on some of the most troubled and struggling students. The rationale: Not only are these programs expensive, they are largely unsuccessful. 

Last week, three CPS-operated sites serving students released from juvenile detention centers and on probation were shuttered.  Officials also have significantly slashed the budgets of the only two schools left that serve emotionally-disturbed students, and the sole school for pregnant girls, a Catalyst Chicago analysis of school budget reports shows.

The district plans to cut all the extra resources for achievement academies, small programs inside big high schools for students who are too old for elementary school but have yet to pass 8th grade.

Last year, CPS spent between $14,000 and $30,000 per student at these various programs—significantly more than the $9,000 district spends on a typical high school student. These cuts will save the district about $7.5 million.

Advocates and teachers don’t know of specific plans for serving these young people, but the suspicion is that CPS may turn to private contractors. The recent trend has been to send these students to less expensive private therapeutic day schools or charter alternative schools.

A teacher from Healy South, which served students on probation, said many of her students were referred to Banner Schools, a for-profit company. (The teacher didn’t want to be identified because she in the process of looking for a job.) In 2011, CPS paid Banner Schools $5.8 million to run schools for young people who have been expelled, as well as day schools and programs for dropouts.

Though the schools for students on probation looked unsuccessful on paper, the teacher stresses they were dealing some of the toughest students in the district. Many students found the small, caring environment helpful in getting on the right path.

The intent was to get the students into the habit of attending school, help them catch up with credits and prepare them for transitioning into a regular or alternative high school. But in recent years, fewer students chose the option of going to one of these schools and, when they did, few of them transitioned later to a regular high school, according to district officials.

For the past couple of years, CPS has directed some students leaving the juvenile detention center to Banner schools, where they are part of the YES program. Originally paid for with a Department of Labor grant, students in YES took online classes while working with a transition counselor and a re-entry specialist on getting back into a regular school.

District officials say that young people exiting the detention program will be offered similar services as those in the YES program, though it is unclear whether the YES program is still operational.

The Healy teacher says she understands that the district needs to save money, but she worries about putting students, many of who are behind, in online classes and leaving them to their own devices. “They need to be re-taught almost everything,” she said.

For years now, staff at Montefiore and Buckingham, both of which serve students with behavioral disabilities, have feared that they were going to be phased out, mostly because of their high costs. Between the two of them, they are only projected to have about 80 students next year and they’ve been stripped of about $1.8 million.

Montefiore Principal Julious Lawson says that the school’s psychologist is now part-time, as is its art teacher. He notes that art therapy can be helpful for his students. He has also lost aides and assistants.

“It’s nearly impossible to run an effective therapeutic program with the staff we’ve been left with,” he said.

Another big question mark is what will happen with students who need to attend achievement academies. CPS is cutting $2.1 million from these programs, which served about 1,000 students last year. Achievement academies were created a few years after CPS established strict guidelines on which students could be promoted from 8th grade. The academies use a curriculum created by John Hopkins University that is designed to get them through 8th grade in the first semester and get them ready to transition to a regular program by junior year.

But the academies have low attendance rates and many students drop out. Hopkins University officials say that the implementation has been poor.

CPS officials have said they are trying to come up with something new to serve these students.