Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stimulus, Neighborhoods and Schools

A couple of recent news items from the Chicago Public schools related to stimulus spending have caught my attention. First, today's hot CPS story is the announcement of details about the district's $30 million, stimulus-funded plan to reduce youth violence. WBEZ's Linda Lutton did a good overall piece on it, which you can read or listen to here. Back in September when the plan was first announced, Englewood pastors loudly complained about a Philadelphia-based agency taking on the task of, and the pay for, working with at-risk youth. For the next five months, the district's chief executive officer, Ron Huberman, zipped his lip about the plan.

According to the Catalyst Notebook blog, Huberman unzipped his lip at a press conference at Englewood's Robeson High School yesterday just enough to let us know that the work with high-risk youth will now be split among community agencies, plus the Philadelphia group, Youth Advocate Programs. Looks to me like the pastors' voices were heard. The Philadelphia group will be paid to work with the 250 highest-risk students, while community agencies will be hired to work with another 2000 students. The two efforts will eat up $10 million, or one-third of the total funds available. Another $2 million will go toward community patrols to ensure students have safe passage to and from school, like the effort Huberman helped kickstart last March in Little Village, which I wrote about here.

I certainly hope this will be an opportunity for NCP neighborhoods with strong antiviolence work in place, like Little Village and Auburn Gresham, to put more gas in their tanks, as well as helping other neighborhoods plant new efforts or help their seedling projects grow.

Second, last week Mayor Daley and the district announced significant new bonds for school construction made possible through stimulus. According to the press release, CPS used approximately $22 million for emergency repairs at Bond, Caldwell, Ebinger, Harlan, Gallistel, Schneider, Sumner and Yale schools, plus $7 million to renovate four CPS turnaround schools: Bethune, Dulles, Fenger, and Johnson. While urgent repairs are key in an underfunded system with decades of deferred maintenance, and turning around a school ought to include needed repairs, only one of these schools (Ebinger) is on the heavily overcrowded Northwest Side. And none of the early spending addresses the long-neglected problem of overcrowded schools on the Southwest Side. (Full disclosure: I'm a Southwest Sider, though I don't live in the bull's-eye of the overcrowding zone.) Back in 2005 a colleague and I analyzed where the kids were and where CPS capital dollars went; the numbers didn't match up well. You can read our analysis here.

Back then, the district cried poor, saying there was no money left to address overcrowding. Well, there's new money now. Unfortunately, there's a lot of new faces in district leadership, which means new priorities and lost institutional memory. Let's hope some of it gets spent this time on longstanding overcrowding in places like Chicago Lawn, Gage Park and Brighton Park. Jimmy Dispensa (head of demographics for CPS), can you put a bug in Ron's ear on this?

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