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Did right schools get CPS welcoming cash?

Sun-Times Library

Sun-Times Library

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Updated: November 17, 2013 6:20AM

In the weeks leading up the first day of school, Chicago Schools officials proudly boasted that 78 percent of the nearly 12,000 students from schools that had closed in June had enrolled at their designated “welcoming” school.

Turns out it’s more like 60 percent, according to 20th day of school enrollment figures first reported by WBEZ radio and the Chicago Tribune and reviewed by this page.

Even more accurate is a lower figure still, 52 percent. That tally by the Tribune excludes about 10 “closed’’ schools that changed names but the student body got to stay in the same facility, making it more likely that kids would re-enroll.

But here’s the real news: The real, lower-enrollment figures are neither surprising nor unexpected.

CPS has been closing schools for years, and any principal who has been through it would tell you that students scatter.

And CPS has data to show it. When four schools closed in 2012, just 45 percent of the displaced students went to their assigned welcoming school. From one closed school, Guggenheim, students landed at 45 receiving schools. In addition, the Tribune reported this year that welcoming schools were being pressured to enroll students from closed schools, even when parents couldn’t be reached, a charge CPS denies.

Despite that, the school system’s cheerleaders all summer long encouraged the public to believe we’d see enrollment close to 80 percent, based on early enrollment data. There was no mention of this historical context.

CPS’ spokeswoman says they had no way of knowing how things would pan out; no school system had ever closed 47 schools at once as it did this year. Fair enough, but an honest look back would have given CPS and the public a more accurate picture of what to expect.

And that matters.

CPS invested heavily — $156 million for air conditioning, computer labs, iPads and more — in its 54 welcoming schools to entice students to choose them and make them more attractive options. Investing in welcoming schools was the right call, both as a recruitment tool and because nearly every school needs an upgrade, but did the right schools get the money?

In total, students went to 410 different schools, with 20 schools getting between 34 and 161 displaced students, CPS figures show.

CPS says schools that absorbed more than 25 displaced students got an extra $525 per student for a total of $527,000 (money that was already in CPS’ budget), as well as support from CPS administrators. Also, a new budgeting system means a per-pupil amount follows each student wherever they go.

Any issues that have come up at the “de facto” welcoming schools, as WBEZ labeled them, have been addressed, CPS tells us. We reached out to several principals to check but no one was willing to call us back.

Mobility is nothing new in Chicago. The student population is consistently transient in some areas, and CPS has a broad array of schools from which families can choose — in theory, no one should be forced to go to any school.

CPS also has a history with school closures: Less than half its displaced students last year opted for a welcoming school.

CPS tried to bend that curve this year by pouring money into its welcoming schools. And it paid off some — about 52 percent of students who had to change schools picked their welcoming school, up from 45 percent in 2012. In total, 60 percent of students went to their designated welcoming schools. Many families made different choices but with time CPS hopes more of the welcoming schools it enhanced will become community anchors.

But we did not see 78 percent picking their welcoming school this year.

That leaves us wondering this: Did the students forced out of their schools get all that they deserved?

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