Take 5: Closing alternative schools, lead testing, more summer jobs, budget news

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Parents and community members demonstrated against $700 million in planned cuts to schools before the Chicago School Board meeting on Wednesday.

Photo by Melissa Sanchez

Parents and community members demonstrated against $700 million in planned cuts to schools before the Chicago School Board meeting on Wednesday.

Closing Prologue schools. CPS officials are moving to close two struggling alternative schools run by the non-profit Prologue, Inc. Carole Collins-Ayanlaja, interim superintendent of Prologue, told School Board members that the organization recently received a letter from the district indicating that officials plan to recommend that contracts for Prologue’s Early College and Winnie Mandela high schools not be renewed because of financial instability and poor academic results. Both schools received the lowest possible rating from the district last year.

Collins-Ayanlaja, who was surrounded by about a dozen parents and supporters of the 40-year organization, implored the board to provide support instead of closing the schools, saying that violence in the city made it a terrible time to close alternative programs.

“We acknowledge that there needs to be improvement,” Collins-Ayanlaja said. “But what we do not believe is that this the time, the place nor climate to recommend closures of schools that some of the most left-behind students in this city attend. Those same black boys we see standing in the corner are the same boys that walk our halls by choice.”

Enrollment at the Early College campus in West Town fell from 150 students last year to 91 this fall. At Winnie Mandela in South Shore, enrollment fell from 222 to 170.

Budget wars, episode #5,327. This week’s budget news: On Wednesday, just days before the legislative session ends, House Democrats passed a spending plan that even one Chicago Democrat called a “fantasy budget,” the Tribune reports. It would send $700 million more to schools, including $287 million to Chicago, plus $100 million for its teacher pension fund. Republicans sharply criticized the proposal, saying it would just heap more debt on the state.

Meanwhile, there’s an internal divide among Democrats about how to go about funding schools in the coming year: Senate Democrats have so far insisted on tying school funding reform to the budget, while House Democrats have supported only an overall increase.

CPS is encouraging school leaders and parents to ramp up their lobbying efforts in Springfield. The district is sending buses of top administrators, parents and students to the Capitol today to demand more state funding. CPS has to make a nearly $700 million pension payment by the end of June.

Principals have been briefing parents and community members on the impact of drastic cuts proposed by CPS, including larger class sizes, mass teacher layoffs and the elimination of school programs. At a rally in Rogers Park on Wednesday, five principals gathered with hundreds of parents, students and others to address the painful cuts. “You have to be resourceful, but this goes beyond resourceful,” said Kilmer Elementary Principal Jean McKeown Papagianis. “We’re bare bones.”

More lead testing. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool says the district will test every school’s water for lead in an “abundance of caution” after an initial round of testing found high levels of lead in three fountains at Tanner Elementary on the South Side.

Fountains at the Park Manor neighborhood school were found to have levels of lead above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion—and thus high enough to potentially cause harm. Tanner parents were told of the lead in a letter sent out last Friday. Students can get their blood tested for lead at the school next week, water coolers and bottles have been made available and all access to water outlets has been shut off.

Six of the other 31 schools from the initial round of testing had levels of lead below the EPA’s action level, and the remaining 25 had no traces of lead. All except Tanner were tested using what’s called the “first-draw method,” which only tests the fixture for lead.

Around 250 other schools built before 1986 will be tested before the end of the school year using the “sequential draw method,” which can identify the true source of lead. Eventually, all schools will be tested. The district will also begin a new flushing protocol to reduce the chances of students drinking stagnant water that may have absorbed lead from pipes.

More summer jobs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s One Summer Chicago program has announced that an investment from the Emerson Collective will provide thousands of additional jobs for young people this summer.

Emerson Collective, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s new employer, is one of many private organizations that will help fund One Summer Chicago, adding $17 million to the city’s investment. The other organizations include the Chicago Community Trust, Citi Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, TCF Bank and the McCormick Foundation.

Though One Summer Chicago isn’t relying this year on state aid, many of the program’s employers do. Last month, the city paid more than $150,000 to reopen a Bikes N’ Roses site in Belmont-Cragin that had shut down without the $276,000 in state money it used to rely on. The site will employ 50 youth this summer as bike mechanics.

With the added investments and city money, One Summer will now offer 30,000 jobs for at least six weeks this summer. Young people can also apply for One Summer PLUS, an expansion of the program that includes a 25-hour per week summer job, a mentor, civic leadership training and social skills training. Emerson Collective’s investment will fund spots in the PLUS program.

But even with the increased number of jobs, each year’s program has seen more applicants than open positions. Chicago’s youth currently face one of the worst racial employment gaps in the country, with less than half of blacks ages 20 to 24 employed, compared to 73 percent of whites.

Concerns about Dunbar. Last month, local school council members seemed to support Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School would be returning to its roots with a new building trades program. But now WBEZ reports that concerns have begun to emerge from the school and its community members.

The program was marketed as a way to steer youth toward career paths by providing training and access to union jobs. But given longstanding problems with nepotism and racism in white-controlled Chicago unions, some community members are skeptical that the initiative will pan out and worry that it’s a sign of more construction coming to the Bronzeville area—and more gentrification that will push out residents.

There has also been suspicion about why parents were not informed of Dunbar’s new program sooner and why LSC members were not told upfront that the program would be open to students from across the city, not just Dunbar.

The Rev. Leon Finney, a mayoral ally, stood by the new program. “In impoverished communities, we need to grab every opportunity we can,” he told WBEZ.

On a related note, some South Side residents are pushing for more community involvement in Dyett High School, which will reopen this fall. After the school was closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, locals fought back, even staging a 34-day hunger strike. The efforts won Dyett back, but it will focus on the arts, not green technology and leadership as activists wanted.

  • Concerned Parent

    The community of Dunbar has every right not to trust CPS and Rahm. Seems like these reverends get co-opted. So rev. Finney could not have shared details earlier with the Dunbar community and the elected LSC? South Loop is encroaching further south. Look at the IIT campus. There is continued McCormick Place development and maybe the dark side of Star Wars landing there. Serious concerns for this community.