Big spend

CPS to spend $1 billion on campus improvements, including two new West Side schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an announcement about a $1 billion capital spend in July at Cardenas Elementary in Little Village.

Chicago Public Schools is plunging $1 billion into campus investments, a plan that includes two new West Side schools and two new classical schools, the district announced Friday.

Of the West Side openings, one will be an open-enrollment high school—CPS CEO Janice Jackson would not elaborate on the exact neighborhood—and the other will be an elementary school in Belmont-Cragin, which borders Austin on the far West Side.

CPS will also open two new classical schools—one in Bronzeville and one on the Southwest Side. And it will expand classical programs at McDade (near Chatham), Poe (in the Pullman neighborhood), and Decatur (in West Ridge) by adding seventh and eighth grades. McDade, Poe, and Decatur previously offered only kindergarten through sixth grades, leaving parents to scramble to find high-quality middle school programs to bridge the gap to high school.

The city’s high-demand classical programs are selective enrollment schools with a challenging, liberal arts focus, and students typically test in. Last school year, the district’s five classical programs denied seats to more than 1,000 students who had qualifying test scores.

The new schools and classical expansion were announced as part of a larger plan to boost capital spending from a meager $189 million for the new school year to nearly $1 billion—though it appears some projects listed as part of the $1 billion spend will be spread across several years. The list of improvements includes several items, such as capital costs related to the introduction of universal pre-kindergarten, that were previously announced.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district CEO Jackson made the first of two announcements Friday at Lazaro Cardenas Elementary School, a neighborhood elementary school in Little Village. On July 1, Cardenas, which serves pre-kindergarten through third grades, merged with Castellanos, which serves grades four through eight.

“This is a historic capital budget,” said Emanuel, standing in front of library shelves stocked with popular books such as “Pete the Cat” and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.” “These investments will ensure that there is equity in our system.”

Emanuel ticked off some of the cornerstones of the capital spending proposal, most of which have been announced prior: a universal pre-K program for all 4-year-olds that will cost nearly $175 million by 2021 (a first year capital spend of $18 million is part of the $1 billion plan; other costs to roll it out in the first year will come from the operating budget) and a plan to retrofit all high school science labs to bring them up to date—a cost of $75 million to be spread out over three years.

To foot the nearly $1 billion bill, the district will largely rely on borrowing. CPS anticipates selling $313 million of general obligation bonds and up to $125 million of Capital Improvement Tax bonds; the remaining $300 million will get financed at a later date as expenditures roll in. In addition, a spokeswoman said CPS anticipates a bond refunding of up to $500 million, which let it swap out debt and save money on the interest.

The district is also counting on extra monies from the state revamp of the education funding formula. That revamp yielded Chicago Public Schools roughly $350 million more this year, with $200 million of that intended to cover unfunded pension obligations.

Estimated Sources Estimated Sources (Thousands)
Total FY 2019 Capital Budget Sources $989,000
Anticipated Bond Offers and Other Capital Funds $749,900
Prior Year Bond Proceeds $189,100
Other Potential Outside Funding $43,000
Federal E-Rate Funding $7,000


Estimated Uses Estimated Spend (Thousands)
Total FY 2019 Capital Budget Uses $989,000
Educational Programming $339,200
Facility Needs $335,650
Overcrowding Relief $138,000
IT, Security, & Building System Investments $88,000
Site Improvements $45,700
Capital Project Support Services $25,250
Potential Land Acquisitions $16,000
Potential Externally Funded Projects $1,200

Supplemental funding sources include a $15 million federal grant that will be used to pay to convert three neighborhood elementary schools to magnet programs. The three neighborhood elementary schools that will be converted to STEM magnet programs are William H. Brown Elementary on the Near West Side, Claremont Academy Elementary in Englewood, and Joseph Jungman in Pilsen.

A closer look at the plan

The mayor also stressed an annual investment of $25 million over three years in technology, including new devices for every student at 20 elementary schools – among them is Cardenas, Principal Jeremy Feiwell said after the meeting – and some upgrades of devices and broadband infrastructure at 40 additional schools. “The language of the future is technology and computers,” said Emanuel. To illustrate the point, next door to the press conference, a room of elementary-aged students sat in a computer lab playing math games on Dell computers.

Among the other items included in the $1 billion spend:

  • $4 million for security equipment, including cameras, intercom phones, alarms, and “screening equipment” at 50 schools;
  • A new building for Hancock High School on the Southwest side;
  • “Significant building renovations” for Hyde Park High School to better support the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
  • A new vocational wing for Prosser Career Academy in support of Chicago Builds, a 2-year training program in the building trades for 11th and 12th grade students;
  • The relocation, previously announced, of Rickover Naval Academy into the former Luther North, which would be renovated;
  • Renovations at Senn High School on the city’s North Side;
  • Annexes to relieve overcrowding at Dirksen, Palmer, Rogers and Waters elementary schools;
  • $46 million in site improvements to design and build playgrounds, play lots, and turf fields at schools across the city;
  • $336 million for repair and replacement to structural items like roofs and building envelopes.

The Chicago Teachers Union quickly issued a statement, calling the announcement a “stunt” in the ramp up to next year’s mayoral election.

Community groups, meanwhile, were still trying to digest the news and assess the impact. “Parents worry about how new schools impact existing schools,” said Juan Cruz, a Communities United organizer who is active in Belmont Cragin, where a new elementary is proposed. “Schools in Belmont Cragin are all very close to each other. I will be very interested to know where they will build this school and not affect the other schools.”

The public will have a chance to provide feedback. Capital hearings will be held on from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. July 19 at the following locations:

  • Truman College, 1145 W Wilson Ave;
  • Malcolm X College, 1900 W Jackson Blvd;
  • Kennedy King College’s U Building, 740 W 63rd St.

Additionally, the district will hold two budget hearings at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. July 16 at the CPS Central Office, 42 W. Madison St.


moving forward

Frequent school changes are hurting students. Here’s how Detroit’s educators want to fix it.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, second from left, says a tweak to school funding policy in Michigan would alleviate some of the effects of high student mobility. Looking on from left are moderator Stephen Henderson of WDET, Darienne Driver, CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Maria Montoya, who works in the charter school office of Grand Valley State University.

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum came in the wake of a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of Detroit Today on WDET, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, spoke about the impacts of students changing schools.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Communities in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.