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CPS aims to add 2,500 slots for at-risk kids in alternative programs

BarbarByrd-Bennett  CEO Chicago Public Schools. |  Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

Barbara Byrd-Bennett , CEO of Chicago Public Schools. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 25, 2014 6:09AM

Chicago Public Schools will make more room for children who’ve dropped out, fallen far behind or need alternative plans to complete school under a plan to add 2,500 more seats in “options” programs unveiled Friday.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she will ask the Board of Education to approve the plan at Wednesday’s meeting of seven new campuses, including three to the for-profit Magic Johnson Bridgescape and two to non-profit Pathways in Education in Illinois — and of letting more students into four existing campuses.

“There are approximately 56,000 school-age children in Chicago who are currently not enrolled in school,” Byrd-Bennett said on the telephone. “I believe it’s our collective responsibility as a district to find them, to re-engage them and to get them back into school.

“The alternative for these children if we don’t aggressively take these steps, these are the children who will be on the streets. These are the kids who won’t have a productive life.”

The district currently has 41 options schools and programs and if the expansion is approved will have room for 11,400 places by September. CPS also runs three centers in Englewood, Roseland and Lawndale that’s tracked down 1,615 students this year who were out of school or about to be.

The district reports that some 12,000 students have attended their programs, with between 1,600 and 1,800 graduating each year since 2010.

With the exception of four schools, including those in the Cook County Jail and in the Juvenile Detention Center, the options programs are run by for-profit companies or not-for-profit organizations whose teachers aren’t in a union.

Byrd-Bennett said the district needed to contract out such services because it lacks the skills.

“When you look at serving overage undercredited and children who have left school for a year or so and you want them to come back, it’s a very unique population with incredibly unique needs. Very often our school people are not trained, are not equipped to deal with that specific population.”

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis said these types of programs were “the intended purpose of charter schools before they got hijacked by the voucher movement.

“It is unfortunate that the district, with no real educational or facilities plans cannot find a way to utilize well-educated, certified teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals to provide high-quality publicly funded public education to these young people,” she said in an emailed statement.

“It is very interesting that in an election year, the mayor who said that 25% of our youth were never going to be anything and he wasn’t going to throw money at them had, had a change of heart,” Lewis wrote, referring to a 2011 private conversation she said she had with Rahm Emanuel. “But once again his answer is to always privatize public services.”

The district arranged interviews with some of the directors and students.

Cory Gold, director of the Magic Johnson Bridgescapes campus in North Lawndale open since August, said his campus of about 150 will rise to 200. His school has a retention rate of about 91 percent, meaning all but nine percent complete the program or transfer back into a CPS school. Half the 150 students attend a morning session of electronic courses in a large lab, the other half go in the afternoon.

In its first year, the campus graduated two students in December and should have about eight more in June.

Homeschooled until he was 16 then “goofed off for two years,” Haman Cross still has a few years to go at the North Lawndale Campus. The 19-year-old said he did one year of traditional public school but aged out, so he almost has 14 of the 24 total credits he needs for a high school diploma. Cross takes Algebra II, English, U.S. government, chemistry, French and his electives include career planning.

“You can learn at your own pace but when you have to be willing to accept the consequences of not learning,” Cross said of his school now. “You have to put a lot of effort into it, a lot more than traditional school.”

He wishes his French teacher were on site instead of online so he could work on pronunciation, but otherwise is happy with the school that allows him to work full time, too.

“It’s a really good idea for schools like these to be available,” he said.

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