New school year brings anxiety for Chicago parents

After closings and massive layoffs, is Chicago 'setting schools up to fail'?

Jocelyn Padilla, a sixth-grader, protests with other students and parents outside the office of the Chicago Board of Education president
Scott Olson/Getty Images

CHICAGO — Walking along bustling 47th Street in Bronzeville, a poor, almost entirely African-American neighborhood on the city’s South Side, Irene Robinson pointed out two men exchanging money in what looked like a drug deal, and sites where young men, including her godson, have been gunned down in recent years.

Her six grandchildren would pass these locations on Monday on their six-block walk to Mollison Elementary, the "receiving school" they were assigned to after their neighborhood school was closed. The path is among the city-designated "Safe Passage" routes for children who will be attending different schools because of a recent wave of closures.

"This is safe passage? No, this is murder city," Robinson said, shaking her head.

Fourteen miles north, in the wealthier, majority-white Lakeview neighborhood, the school that Terry Culver’s children attend, Blaine Elementary, isn’t closing. But budget cuts have hit the school so hard that she worries its basic functions will be impossible.

"We don’t even have money to pay for books, or toilet paper," Culver said. "They’re throwing these very basic things out the window."

With Chicago’s new academic year beginning next week, many parents in neighborhoods across geographic, class and racial lines are concerned about their children’s education following two recent moves by the school system.

In May, the city decided to shutter 50 schools it said were "underutilized" as part of an effort to close an estimated $1 billion deficit. A month later, the school system rolled out a new way to pay for education, shifting to a "per pupil" formula instead of block amounts of money.

The result: 3,168 layoffs, including about 1,700 teaching positions — 7 percent of the district's teaching staff — and huge budget cuts at schools of all types, including high-performing magnet schools. The cuts, which the city says total $68 million at the classroom level, capped a turbulent year that began with last September's teachers' strike.

Parent activists and some teachers say the combination of layoffs, cuts and closures will result in a chaotic and resource-starved school system come Aug. 26.

"It’s going to be a disaster," said Robinson.

Gang violence

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city officials acknowledge that the closings are painful but say children will be attending higher-performing schools when the academic year begins. City officials say they are taking pains to keep children safe from harm by creating the 53 Safe Passage routes.

On Monday, 600 new employees in fluorescent vests will watch over children as they walk past abandoned homes and cross through the city’s patchwork of rival gang territories. The program will cost the district approximately $7.7 million; another $155 million is budgeted for upgrades to schools receiving students who are displaced by closings.

But the city's assurances aren't enough for parents and grandparents like Robinson. Multiple shootings have occurred along the routes since the program was announced this summer, including a drive-by shooting on Monday during rush hour at a busy North Side intersection. More than 20 shots were fired, injuring five people.

Robinson said she is considering home-schooling her grandchildren in protest. "You can’t trust this district with your kids," she said.

'Crowd control'

School closures and budget cuts have also prompted concerns about overcrowding and the loss of veteran teachers.

Roughly 1,000 students, about 50 more than last year, will be attending Blaine Elementary, where Culver’s children go. The school’s budget was cut by $733,000, and the school has dropped many of its fine arts classes -- a serious concern for an institution classified as a fine arts magnet. Six teachers were laid off and an innovative teaching-assistant program eliminated.

In protest, the local school council, an elected board of parents, teachers and community members, took the unusual step of voting down the school's budget for the coming year, saying it did not allow them to meet the school's basic needs. Eight other councils have also voted to reject their budgets.

Culver worries it will become impossible for students like two of her children, who have learning disabilities, to receive the necessary support from teachers.

"It was my son's second-grade teacher who suggested that he might have a learning disability," she said. "If you have 35 kids in a classroom, I don't think any teacher would catch that. They’d be doing crowd control all day."

Patrick Clancy has taught seventh- and eighth-grade math at Blaine for six years. He said this year he'll be teaching classes with 36 and 37 students.

"I’m just lucky to make sure everyone's on task, much less are they doing it well," he said.

School officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But in the past they've emphasized the importance of teacher quality over class size.

"You could have a teacher that is high quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed," said Becky Carroll, a spokesperson for the school district, to reporters earlier this year.

Parents and some administrators have said the new "per pupil" financing approach discourages hiring veteran teachers, who typically command higher salaries.

"We have to pass up on highly qualified candidates because they cost too much," said Troy LaRaviere, Blaine’s principal, at a press conference last month at City Hall. "I’ve lost my ability to recruit and retain and hire the most effective teacher."

Fighting the cuts

On Thursday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced $89 million for capital improvements in Chicago Public Schools. But the funds will not reverse classroom-level cuts like teacher layoffs.

Some parents, school administrators and City Council members challenge the school district's math and are fighting the cuts.

The parent group Raise Your Hand says that if charter schools' budgets are taken out of the equation, the classroom-level cuts total $162 million, more than the $68 million figure the district cites.

The city's expansion of charter schools, even as it closes traditional public schools, has been a particular bone of contention. Many activists see it as apush to privatize public education. Just last week, the city issued a "request for proposals" for charter operators to pitch new schools by the end of the month, as part of a plan to open 60 new charters by 2017.

"I'm not sure the deficit is real," said City Council member and union ally Bob Fioretti at a teachers-union-sponsored tour of closing schools earlier this year. "This is a manufactured crisis."

School officials and the teachers union are also at odds over how to resolve increasing pension costs, with the union arguing for the district to raise revenue rather than slash benefits.

Some parent and community groups are encouraging the city to dip into tax increment financing funds (TIFs), a tool originally designed to alleviate blight but alleged by critics to be a "slush fund" for the mayor that starves schools of resources.

At a public hearing this month, a crowd of about 100 broke into chants of "TIFs! TIFs! TIFs!" as Tim Cawley, Chicago Public Schools’ chief administrative officer, presented a graph showing the rising costs of pensions for the district. The sight of speakers dragged off by security or having their microphones cut after exceeding their time limits has become common.

Kate Bolduc, who sits on Blaine's school council, said schools in poorer neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides have faced underfunding for years. Now that white, middle-class North Siders "are learning about what's been happening among these communities, we’ve realized it’s unacceptable," she said.

"This isn’t just about our own children anymore," said Bolduc. "We can’t solve the funding problem for Blaine unless the problem is solved for the entire district."

Irene Robinson agrees. Walking back home along the Safe Passage route, she said, "Right now, it feels like they’re setting all the schools up to fail."

Video from "America Tonight" on Al Jazeera America

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