New alternative schools, some run by for-profit companies, come with hefty price tag

May 28, 2014

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
The Chicago Board of Education is being asked to give new alternative schools $6 million in start-up funding.

Updated May 29, 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

The Chicago Board of Education is being asked to approve $6 million in startup funds for alternative school programs today.

The bulk of the money, about $4 million, will go to for-profit companies that just began working in the district last year.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is recommending seven new schools and four expansions. If approved, Camelot SAFE Schools will open another school; Ombudsman will open a fourth school on the North Side; Magic Johnson Bridgescape, run by Edison Learning, will get three new campuses; and Pathways in Education Illinois will add two more schools. The two existing Magic Johnson schools in North Lawndale and Roseland will expand, as will Banner West Academy and one of the existing Ombudsman campuses.

The seven new schools come with a collective $6,043,311 price tag.

  • Camelot Schools = $2,014,437
  • Edison Learning (Magic Johnson Bridgescape)  =  $1,827,537
  • Pathways in Education = $1,431,958
  • Ombudsman = $769,379

Those costs are entirely separate from the money all schools get for each student they enroll. When students begin enrolling, the new alternative programs will get the same amount of per student funding as other schools, plus about $1,000 per child in the first year.

The extra money appears to be a departure from past practice. In previous board reports approving alternative school programs there was no language regarding extra incubation and start-up funding.

CPS Chief of Innovation and Incubation Jack Elsey said the “incubation” money pays the salary of a staff person or two involved in the planning process for a new school, usually a principal and lead teacher or assistant principal. The “start-up funding” covers things like furniture, computers and textbooks.

“New schools need this additional funding in order to be successful,” Elsey said.

That may not sit well with district schools facing yet another round of budget cuts.

School officials say there are more than 55,000 dropouts under 21 in the city.

“I believe it’s our collective responsibility as a district to find them and re-engage them and get them back into school,” Byrd-Bennett said in a conference call with reporters Friday. “The alternative is … these are the kids that will be on the street.”

CPS data show more than 12,000 students enrolled in alternative schools last year. The overall capacity of alternative programs last year was 8,900, but since many students are not enrolled for a full year, the schools served more students than they had open spots. Next year, the number of open seats will be 11,400.

Byrd-Bennett plans to continue funding Student Outreach and Re-Engagement Centers in Garfield Park, Roseland and Little Village. Each of those centers has a $2.5 million budget and six people on staff, according to district spokesman Joel Hood.

“We have to actively hit the pavement to find those kids and very often, they’re no longer living where our records indicate,” Byrd-Bennett said of re-enrolling dropouts. 

The school operators being expanded this fall appeared to have struggled enrolling students early on last year. The two Camelot SAFE Schools had 37 students on the 20th day of school. CPS officials said that’s because those two schools primarily enroll students with severe behavior problems who have been referred from traditional schools. Those referrals don’t typically happen until later in the year.

Sue Fila, with Ombudsman Educational Services, said they had issues finding facilities and didn’t open their second and third locations until October. Over the course of the year, they enrolled about half the number of kids their contract allowed.

Updated May 29, 2014 at 5:30 p.m. for clarification. A previous version of this article stated that alternative programs get about $1000 per student they enroll. They get the same amount that other schools in CPS get, which was between $4000 and $5000 per student last year, depending on the grade. Anytime a new school opens, CPS gives the school an addition amount, roughly $1000, for the first year. 

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.