No Small Plan: Public Boarding Schools for Chicago

Carlos Sadovi and Stephanie Banchero, via a kind reader’s email:

Public boarding schools where homeless children and those from troubled homes could find the safety and stability to learn are being pursued by Chicago Public Schools officials.
Under the plan, still in the nascent stages, the first pilot residential program could open as soon as fall 2009. District officials hope to launch as many as six such schools in the following years, including at least one that would operate as a year-round school.
The proposal puts Chicago at the forefront of urban school reform, as cities struggle to raise the academic achievement of students hampered by dysfunctional homes and other obstacles outside school.
Some districts, including Chicago, have looked for solutions from small schools to single-sex campuses. But residential schools are a bolder — and far more expensive — proposition. Long an option for the affluent, boarding schools are virtually unheard of for the disadvantaged.
Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan said he does not want to be in the “parenting” business, but he worries that some homes and some neighborhoods are unsafe, making education an afterthought.
“Some children should not go home at night; some of them we need 24-7,” he told the Tribune. “We want to serve children who are really not getting enough structure at home. There’s a certain point where dad is in jail or has disappeared and mom is on crack … where there isn’t a stable grandmother, that child is being raised by the streets.”
Chicago school officials are still working through details of the plan, and it’s not clear whether the schools would be run by the district, outside agencies or some combination of the two.
It’s also not certain how the schools would be funded, who would shoulder the liability of keeping students overnight or how students would be selected.
In April, as part of its Renaissance 2010 new schools program, the district will put out a formal request for boarding school proposals. Officials have already met with interested groups in Chicago.
Officials have also visited several public and private boarding schools across the country and asked some to submit proposals.
Duncan said he has dreamed for years about opening boarding schools, but only last year, when he hired Josh Edelman, son of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, did the idea take off.

The younger Edelman served for four years as the principal of The SEED School, the nation’s oldest and most successful urban boarding school. Located in Washington, D.C., the public, college preparatory campus serves 300 students from 7th through 12th grades.
Nearly 72 percent of SEED students, who hail from low-income and sometimes troubled backgrounds, go on to four-year colleges.
Edelman said Chicago Public Schools officials are interested in several models, including SEED, in which students live and attend school in the same building. Other options would include an arrangement in which students live in one building and ride the bus to a nearby school or a large central dormitory in which students live in one building but attend several schools.
All of these settings could allow students to go home on weekends, or stay at the facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Officials said they would look at both options or a combination.
Edelman said his experience at The SEED School proved to him that family and community involvement are paramount to making a boarding school successful.
In Chicago, children would attend the school only after the parents or guardian choose the option. Schools would then work with parents to ensure that the students’ academic and social needs are being met.
“This is not about doing something to parents because parents are bad,” Edelman said. “This is about doing something in conjunction with parents and the community.”
Chicago flirted briefly with the idea of public school residential facilities in the mid-1990s, when a private group proposed transforming a 16-story unit at the Robert Taylor Homes into a dormitory for 800 students. The proposal died when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over the CHA.
A few years later, then-schools chief Paul Vallas floated the idea of opening a boarding school for neglected and homeless children. Students would live at the school until the Department of Children and Family Services was able to place them in foster care or with relatives. The plan collapsed because of the high price tag.
Now the district is hoping to launch a pilot program in September 2009, operated by North Lawndale College Prep. The charter group, which runs two Chicago high schools, is working on a proposal to create an off-site dormitory, initially for about 15 to 20 of its homeless students.
The teenagers would live in the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Teen Living Program, which works with federal, state and city government to provide shelter and support for homeless teens, would run the residential units.
John Horan, director of expansion for the charter group, said officials are looking for a building that could house the students and are working through funding and liability issues that go along with operating a residential facility.
The charter group and Teen Living plan to present the proposal to their respective boards of directors in the summer. The proposal then would have to go before the Chicago Board of Education for final approval.
Horan said between 6 and 8 percent of North Lawndale’s 400 students are homeless, either because their parents are in prison or have disappeared. Some teachers have stepped in as parents, allowing students to bunk at their homes or, in some cases, taking temporary guardianship of the students.
“It’s not sustainable; you can’t really depend on your staff to do that,” Horan said. “Our notion now is if you are going to be serious about providing college prep for kids who are from [poor] communities you have to deal with the housing.”
But housing is an expensive proposition.
Illinois already has one residential school, the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a state-funded 10th through 12th-grade college prep high school that enrolls about 650 gifted students. The price tag: about $23,000 per student each year.
Providing the same services for low-income urban students who face more significant life problems is certain to be most costly. The SEED School is opening a second school in Baltimore. The cost per student: $34,000.
Chicago spends about $7,000 per pupil in operating costs.
“This is a big idea that has residual effect beyond the kids,” said Cheye Calvo, director of expansion for The SEED School. “In the long term, this is better for society because the economic impact of failure affects us all. But opening a boarding school requires political leadership to step forward and provide the resources.”

SEED success
of students at The SEED School go on to four-year colleges. The school, the nation’s oldest urban boarding school, serves students from 7th through 12th grades in Washington, D.C.

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