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Private Funding Uneven in Public Schools

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Private Funding Uneven in Public Schools

Paul Revere Elementary School students in their after-school drama class. The class is partially funded by Gary Comer’s foundation. (WBEZ/Stephanie Lecci)

A wealthy benefactor can be a real shot in the arm for an under-performing public school—whether the donor pays for new books or a new playing field. But which schools get grants and donations and which don’t is pretty random. And some say this money only serves as a patch for bigger funding problems.

Teacher Maggie Murray sits in a classroom at Jordan Community School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. The room has shelves lined with donated books. That’s because she and fellow teacher Elizabeth Lancaster spend hours at home on-line searching for grant opportunities and donations.

MURRAY: That’s something fun and it’s exciting to like be able to come in and when the students find out that you’ve gotten something, they’re like, this person bought us all this stuff, they don’t even know who we are! I’m like, I know, they’re just that generous, and that teaches them a really good lesson.

LANCASTER: And I also use that as kind of a, we believe in you, but so does our whole community.

Last school year, CPS records showed Murray, Lancaster and other teachers at Jordan nabbed 45 grants, totaling more than $25,000. It’s not a ton of money. But Lancaster says it makes a big difference in a school where 95 percent of students are low-income.

LANCASTER: We don’t want them to feel that bc they live in poverty they should deserve less than the schools that get money from taxes and other things. So we want to make sure we can provide for them everything we possibly can get so they can get a better education.

Jordan’s Principal Willie White says these small grants are great, but they won’t make a dent in funding what the school really needs.

WHITE: Right now, we’re experiencing staff cuts right in this building. I don’t have a funder that can give me $80,000 or whatever it will take to get me another teacher back.

Although CPS got some 50 million in private dollars last school year, none of it will help White staff his school. The district’s Director of External Resources is Albert Sanchez. He says grant money mostly goes to new ideas.

SANCHEZ: It’s to fund programs that a big organization like CPS might be reluctant to put resources into. It’s kind of seed money to nurture new programs and ideas.

Sanchez says only a handful of the neediest schools get included in each major grant opportunity. Last school year, CPS reported only 243 schools received any private grants, most of them netting less than $20,000 total.

One critic of how public schools get funded is Michael Klonsky. He’s the director of the Small Schools Workshop. He says this private financial support masks the bigger problem.

KLONSKY: I don’t accept the premise that if you’re starving, what’s wrong with charity, with a soup kitchen? There’s nothing wrong with it, if you’re starving, a soup kitchen’s fine. But why are our schools starving?

Some large chunks of private money do fund district-wide changes. Since 2000 the Chicago Public Education Fund has raised $25 million to invest in training for principals and teachers. And corporations and foundations have also chipped in about $40 million to the Renaissance Schools Fund, which provides start-up money for most of the new Renaissance 2010 schools.

But even when you add all this money together, it’s just a fraction of the CPS budget. And that makes it harder for potential donors to feel like their money would make a difference. So oftentimes, a donor will focus on just one school. That’s what Gary Comer did.

ambi: school hallway

One day nine years ago, Comer—the founder of the Lands’ End clothing company—decided to visit his old South Side elementary school.

MOONEY: He showed up completely unannounced, the principal had no idea who he was, and after taking a look around, Gary said he wanted to help.

According to Executive Director Greg Mooney, the foundation Comer created has pumped more than a million dollars into the school in the past year alone.

DRAMA STUDENT 1: It’s us, Grandma.
TEACHER: Page 3.
DRAMA STUDENT 2: Oh. We’re making a birthday party for you!

That money has helped fund this after-school drama class. Revere Principal Veronica Thompson says the money’s meant a lot more than that.

THOMPSON: So I can have reduced class sizes, they’ve funded teacher positions for me. So I can help students with social emotionally needs, I have a full-time social worker, so we are really able to focus on individual needs of our students.

And these needs are complicated.

REDD: We’ve experienced gun violence in this neighborhood.

Patricia Redd runs Revere’s after school programs.

REDD: We’ve had to keep kids indoors and not dismiss them because of shootings that might occur in the area, and that’s what our kids have to live with, day in and day out. It’s one place we know they’re gonna be OK.

Revere is still on probation after not meeting standards on last year’s ISATs, but test scores have improved since Comer’s foundation has been involved. Foundation director Greg Mooney says Comer’s hope was that his model would inspire others.

MOONEY: You know, the reality is many, if not all, of the schools could really use and benefit this type of relationship, this type of resource, because unfortunately there’s often not enough public dollars to really do what’s fully needed.

In the meantime, needy schools like Paul Revere and Jordan community will continue to consider themselves lucky.

ambi: students singing

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