Community schools in jeopardy with budget cuts

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As principals make tough decisions in the wake of massive budget cuts, one major casualty could be the out-of-school time programs offered by community schools.

Chicago’s 150 community schools provide after-school and specialty programs in partnership with outside organizations. The goal is to provide expanded learning opportunities for children—most in lower-income neighborhoods—as well as programs to address students’ health and social-emotional needs. Families are part of the mix, too; some community schools offer GED classes or other programs for parents.

“Community schools work to put in place a structure where family engagement and family assets are valued and they’re able to access support in the school for life-long learning,” says Melissa Mitchell, executive director at the Federation for Community Schools.

Though partner organizations get the majority of their funding from sources other than CPS (the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, administered by the Illinois State Board of Education, provides the bulk of funding for community schools in the state), layoffs of teachers and other workers due to CPS budget cuts jeopardizes programs.

One problem is likely to be a lack of support staff to help run the after-school programs that are a hallmark of community schools. If janitorial services are cut, for instance, schools simply won’t be as flexible in their options, says Patrick Brosnan, executive director at Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.  BPNC partners with seven community schools and offers academic and social enrichment programs, mental health resources and adult education workshops.

At Kelly High School, Brosnan points out, most teachers who got pink slips were newer teachers, who were willing to work long hours after school and had been hired by BPNC to help run its community school offerings.

“Those teachers were selected because they wanted to do it and they have a following,” Brosnan says. “Students gravitated towards them, so they could bring students to the program. So now we have to start from scratch.”

Melissa Mitchell says that while some partnerships won’t survive, others will be able to sustain programs on a more modest level.

The community school vision includes a full-time resource coordinator at each school, who creates collaborations to broker resources and connects with families. But with the budget cuts, most resource coordinators will now be either part-time, or full-time and working in more than one school.

“A lot of resource coordinators really become bridges between the family and the school, and they’re able to connect with parents,” Mitchell says. “Also, if there’s not somebody coordinating partnerships, how do we know that what’s coming into the school is efficient and successful? Without a coordinator it falls on the principal or assistant principal to coordinate and that’s not sustainable.”

Brosnan says that even when a resource coordinator is available and finds opportunities, schools may still lose out because they can’t afford the services.

Youth Guidance Director of Counseling Dave Simpson speculates that programs focusing on social-emotional learning will probably be the first casualties. Research suggests that social-emotional learning can lead to better academics.

“Social-emotional services are often not seen as the higher priority [at schools] because teaching is the most important function,” Simpson says. “Other services – lunchroom, security – you need to have those in order to run the building. Most schools would agree that social-emotional services are very important, but if there are cuts and they have to choose between those and lunch or cleaning supplies – that’s hard.”

Taking hits with school closings

This year, 18 community schools were closed while 19 were designated as ‘welcoming’ schools for displaced students in the fall.

Principals of welcoming schools will have an extra challenge, understanding the needs of the new kids coming as well as the types of support and programs those students had at their previous school.

Mitchell says partner organizations have made efforts this summer to ensure that there is continuity in services that are transferred from one school to another. Organizations have also talked to principals at welcoming schools that are not already community schools, trying to inform them about what it could mean to have a community school structure.

“The loss of community, the loss of parent networks, will take a long time to rebuild,” says Mitchell. “It’s going to be about how are we creating a new shared school culture, how are we creating opportunities for families to truly engage and feel like the school is a place to access support, and how can we sustain that long term?”

Still, optimism remains a common thread among community school supporters.

“It’s very frustrating, annoying, and concerning to me,” says Brosnan, “There will be dramatic impacts to our community schooling. But we’re going to continue and we’re going to be successful this year, we’re going to meet all our objectives. I wish the cuts weren’t taking place but we can’t throw our hands up. It just makes our job harder but it makes us keep working, keep fighting.”

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy. For links to more stories, visit our page on Expanded Learning Time.