The performing arts auditorium at Steinmetz High School is packed to the rafters on the warm evening of June 17.
New street banners, designed by recent Steinmetz High School graduate Brandon Pozos and selected by community members, will soon hang on the main avenues that run through Belmont Cragin.
To prepare for this first community meeting for a quality-of-life plan for the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), with support from LISC, has been working for months with resident leaders and representatives from local churches, nonprofits, schools, healthcare providers, elected officials and others.
Now, more than 200 residents fill the seats and line the walls to hear more about Belmont Cragin’s assets and challenges and to give their ideas for what will make a stronger community.
“Recently I’ve become more aware of what’s happening in the neighborhood in terms of safety issues,” said Carlos Olivero, a community resident. “I’m telling my neighbors if you see something, call the police.”
NWSHC helped Olivero and dozens of other homeowners band together to fight off foreclosure after the housing crash in 2009, awakening his interest in the community. “I’m here to support the neighborhood and hear what concerns everybody has,” he said.
Gloria Arroyo, who founded a local block club soon after buying a home in Belmont Cragin a year and a half ago, said she’s hoping a plan will include strategies to help homeowners fix up their properties, and maybe connect to programs that support energy efficiency.
Yurida Espinosa teaches English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes at Steinmetz, her alma mater. She heard about the community meeting through a flyer at work and on Facebook and says that she hopes the plan leads to more support for neighborhood schools.
“We have beautiful schools here, but the resources and line of communication with the community is missing,” she said. “I haven’t heard of any other community gathering like this in Belmont Cragin, so I’m very excited that this is going on.”
A community in transition
Espinosa grew up in Belmont Cragin, and moved back after college to be close to her family. She said the neighborhood has changed a lot since she was a little girl and that the evidence can be seen on the commercial corridors. Most of the stores that served a predominately Italian and Polish population are gone, replaced in many cases by Latino shops and restaurants.
Belmont Cragin has long been one of Chicago’s quiet communities, where a working family can afford to buy a bungalow or rent an apartment in a two-flat to raise their kids.
But as neighborhoods like Humboldt Park and Logan Square get “hot,” many of the residents who are priced out are moving west in search of what Belmont Cragin offers. The neighborhood’s population grew dramatically in the 1990s, adding 21,000 people and shifting from 30 percent to 65 percent Latino. It continued to grow the following decade, adding 1,000 residents for a new all-time high of 78,743, while the city as a whole lost 7 percent of its population.
Yurida Espinosa, a Steinmetz High grad who now teaches at the school, hopes the plan will focus in part on education issues in Belmont Cragin.
Changes come with consequences, though. Belmont Cragin isn’t as affordable as it used to be. Housing demand is pushing up rents and home prices, and NWSHC is seeing more families doubled or tripled up. The number of households in poverty in Belmont Cragin rose from 11 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2010, higher than the citywide average. The bungalow community does not have the train lines of its neighbors to the east, so more people (80 percent of residents) are driving. And, due in part to disrupted gang territories as members move west, crime and violence are on the rise, too.
“Belmont Cragin has a lot of assets – it hasn’t seen the decades of disinvestment some neighborhoods have,” said Jake Ament, the program officer leading LISC’s work there. “This isn’t a neighborhood that often comes up in conversations across the city about communities in need, but residents see changes happening quickly and know that services and resources need to keep up.”
Planning the process
James Rudyk, Jr., NWSHC’s executive director, said that Belmont Cragin is ready for a community plan. “This is a really critical moment in time to change the course of this community. We realized we needed to do more, but we can’t do it all ourselves,” he said. “Last year, we met several times with LISC and we could see that the quality-of-life planning process fit our goals and objectives.”
Belmont Cragin is part of a new generation of plans sponsored by LISC. When the New Communities Program (NCP) launched more than a decade ago, the community-based, quality-of-life planning process was the bedrock for comprehensive development programs in 16 neighborhoods. Several NCP communities will soon start the organizing work to update their plans, joining Little Village (who updated their quality-of-life plan in 2013) and the Near North neighborhood, who unveiled their first quality-of-life plan earlier this year.
Residents at the community meeting used stickers to vote on the importance of local assets and write in comments on a set of “vision boards” about key issues in Belmont Cragin.
“People recognize the value of approaching a community plan this way,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC’s deputy director. “The value of not trying to do it all top down – to find purpose in engaging with the community – has really been demonstrated.”
For Belmont Cragin, the progress since January has been fast-paced and focused. In addition to a broad taskforce, five issue working groups – on health and seniors, economic development, youth development, affordable housing and education – have been meeting regularly. In April, the planning firm Teska Associates was brought in to facilitate the process.
LISC supports early-action projects as part of quality-of-life planning to build momentum and show neighbors and allies that progress is possible. Belmont Cragin has already discussed, voted on and started two such projects:
- The education group held a summit in June that brought together, for the first time, a dozen schools with local parents and service organizations.
- The economic development group is finalizing a set of banners, designed by a local high school student and bearing the names of local businesses, that will hang on streetlight posts on Belmont Cragin’s main avenues.
Carlos Olivero was among the 200 Belmont Cragin residents who met with planners at Steinmetz High School to establish goals and strategies for the neighborhood's future.
Also the youth group, a collection of teens and supporters who meet weekly, threw a picnic in May and is full-steam ahead on a mural and other projects to get their peers involved.
While all this was going on, each issue group wrote a list of possible goals and strategies to be considered for the plan, everything from improving youth relations with police to recruiting more healthcare specialists who accept Medicaid.
At the June 17 community meeting, the months of preparation are paying dividends, as residents pepper a pair of presenters with their ideas around housing issues in Belmont Cragin. Their concerns are big (investors driving up home prices, rising property taxes) and small (permit street parking, blocked storm sewers).
Ernie Lukasik, a volunteer presenter who, like Olivero, began working with NWSHC when his mortgage was underwater, repeatedly gestures to the note-taker. “Be sure to write that down, we need to look into that,” he said again and again, unwilling to let a single good idea get by.
Lukasik is one of three pairs of presenters rotating between break-out sessions, deftly leading bilingual discussions about possible goals and strategies. Even though it’s late in the evening, almost nobody has gone home. Across the cafeteria, the conversation around schools and youth is just as lively.
“I think everyone left with a sense of hope and feeling very motivated to move forward,” said Vanessa Valentin, the director of community organizing at NWSHC. “The process is great because it’s bringing the entire community together.”
“I think everyone left with a sense of hope and feeling very motivated to move forward,” said Vanessa Valentin, the director of community organizing at NWSHC. “The process is great because it’s bringing the entire community together.”
With quality-of-life planning officially launched in Belmont Cragin, the team is charting next steps. The information gathered at the community meeting will go back to the issue groups so they can refine their strategies and start brainstorming suggested projects to bring back to the community. And, Valentin is already working to pull folks who went to the meeting into these more detailed discussions, connecting their passions to the right issue group.
“My message is to keep reminding the community, you’ve got to get involved,” she said. “This is your project. Take ownership.”
The next community meeting will be Tuesday, September 15th at 5:30 p.m. Check www.belmontcragin.org for forthcoming location details and to sign up for updates.
For more information:
LISC: Jake Ament, firstname.lastname@example.org
NWSHC: Vanessa Valentin, email@example.com
Parents, teachers and students gather in Logan Square to protest the latest round of budget cuts at Chicago Public Schools Becky Vevea WBEZ
Phillip Cantor got called into an emergency meeting last week at the school where he teaches—North-Grand High School on Chicago’s West Side. The district’s central office had just sent over the budget for the coming school year.
“We had some cuts at our school, but seemed to be doing better than other schools in our area,” Cantor, who's chair of the Science Department, said. “And then we realized when we got further into the budget, we were losing $318,000 specifically for special ed services.”
It would mean the school would have to cut about three special education teachers or six full-time aides.
Cantor said there’s no way it would work.
“We’re barely meeting the kids’ requirements now,” he said.
Earlier this month, Jesse Ruiz, the vice president of the School Board who at the time was leading the district interim CPS CEO, announced that more than 500 special education teachers would be laid off districtwide. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cuts, which included special ed, “unconscionable and intolerable.”
The move, he said, came after Chicago Public Schools conducted an 18-month review of services and staffing for students with special needs and found that even as enrollment in special ed was declining, the number of staff was increasing.
“The long-term goal is for more students with unique learning needs to be able to receive services at their neighborhood schools,” he said.
But the district has kept pretty quiet about how it’s going about making changes to how special education is delivered.
“When we looked more closely, there was a line in the budget that said All Means All pilot,” Cantor said.
If you haven’t heard of All Means All, you’re not alone. The district made no formal announcement about it and some of the 102 schools now in the pilot didn’t know they would be part of it until their budgets came. Last year, about two dozen schools were part of the program.
Internal district documents provided to WBEZ outline how the All Means All program is designed, and it’s complicated, but boils down to what some call “student-based budgeting for special education.”
Principals get a lump sum amount for special needs students instead of specific staff positions. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the way the rest of Chicago schools have been funded for the last few years. Principals get a lump sum for each student and then they decide what to do with it.
The internal document about All Means All did not list the actual per pupil amounts for students with special needs. CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner provided the following chart to WBEZ.
*CPS refers to students with special needs as “diverse learners”. They get a base amount under the main student-based budgeting formula, reflected in the Column 2. Column 1 includes the flat amounts per student for additional special education services under “All Means All.” Added together, in Column 3, is the total amount a school will get for a student with special needs in each category. These amounts are being used at just 102 schools this year. The remaining 500-plus schools will continue to be staffed under the old formula, where the Board provides positions based on enrollment and need.
The system is meant to give principals more flexibility and bring the funding formula for special education in line with the formula for all students in CPS. Student-based budgeting is something many urban districts are using now. In theory, money follows students, creating a more equitable formula.
But its roll out in Chicago was not well-received, in part because it came at a time of financial crisis and at many schools, the total amount of funding has not been enough to cover existing programs and staff.
But having money follow students gets more complicated with special education, Cantor points out. That’s because you can’t easily change a student’s schedule. It’s dictated by a legal document called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
“There’s a process for changing IEPs, you can’t just change it,” Cantor said. “It has to be done at a meeting with the parents with parent’s permission.”
Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with the disability-rights group Access Living, said there’s a reason special education is expensive. Those IEPs outline, down to the minute, when students should be working with trained adults, like social workers, speech therapists, and certified teachers. The students may be deaf or dyslexic or have one of many conditions that make it harder for them to learn.
Federal law dictates students in special education must also be spending as much time as possible in regular classrooms. Creating schedules that fulfill both requirements can be a nightmare for principals.
“These are not easy choices that are being thrown down on principals to make,” Estvan said, noting that many principals do not have any background in special education.
“CPS will, over the course of the school year, be forced to reallocate additional staff to schools and open positions,” Estvan predicts. “Whether or not they can fill them or not is another question that late in the year.”
District spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district is working closely with principals at these 102 schools on scheduling special needs students most efficiently. She said an 18-month review of special education found that the number of students with special needs in district-run schools declined 3.4 percent over the last five years, but staff serving them increased 13 percent.
Earlier this month, in announcing the cuts, then CEO Ruiz said the changes coming with All Means All would save $42.3 million.
Bittner said CPS would make sure schools have enough staff to work with special needs students and will absolutely meet all students’ IEP requirements, as outlined by law. She said the overall funding for special education is decreasing by five percent and still remains 14 percent of the district’s total budget.
But some still are worried that the shift in the formula could still give principals and staff mostly bad choices.
“I think that’s going to lead to a lot of pressure on principals and teachers to do the wrong thing in order to get services for their kids,” said Kristine Mayle, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union and a former special education teacher. “We’re already hearing they’re trying to take kids out of self-contained classrooms and put them into regular ed classrooms. I fear that across the district, kids are going to be moved into placements that are not appropriate.”
The All Means All program also includes a financial bonus for schools who successfully transition students out of special education or move more kids into mainstream classrooms. Bittner said the intent is to better prepare special needs students for life beyond school, when the same services aren’t guaranteed.
CPS is in a financial crisis and it’s looking everywhere to cut costs. Nothing is off-limits. Not even special education.
But Cantor, the teacher at North-Grand, thinks that’s a big legal risk that could cost the district in the long run.
“It’s going to become more expensive when they do this because parents are going to sue,” Cantor said. “There’s going to be massive lawsuits. There’s going to be massive settlements. We’ve seen this over and over in the city. It’s this short-term managerial thinking that’s going lead to long term costs for the city.”
Right now, CPS can’t really afford any more unexpected costs.
CHICAGO – Teresa Labastida dijo que no le parece justo que mientras padres como ella pagan impuestos, la escuela de sus hijos se quedó sin maestro de música porque las Escuelas Públicas de Chicago (CPS) le cortó casi medio millón de dólares en fondos.
Labastida, de 38 años y madre de tres estudiantes, dijo que aún falta por ver qué tipos de recortes o reducciones va a realizar la dirección de la primaria James Monroe para enfrentar el recorte de $490,054 para el próximo año lectivo.
Labastida fue parte de un grupo de padres, estudiantes, maestros y activistas que se reunieron el martes temprano en el monumento de Logan Square, de ese vecindario, para pedir a funcionarios locales más fondos para la educación y la vivienda pública.
“Dinero para la educación, y que pare la ‘gentrificación’”, coreaban los manifestantes en una mañana quemante y húmeda, mientras portaban carteles que decían “Estamos aquí para pedirles a los concejales que nos ayuden, y que las escuelas de nuestros hijos no se queden sin fondos. Ellos (los niños) necesitan programas para estar bien preparados y sin esos fondos no los van a tener”, comentó Labastida.
Según los manifestantes, a diez escuelas de Logan Square se les avisó que verán un recorte colectivo de $4.7 millones para el siguiente año escolar.
“Estos recortes masivos son el resultado de la insuficiente financiación del sistema escolar en los planteles de la comunidad y la baja de estudiantes debido al rápido desplazamiento de las familias de bajos y moderados ingresos”, según un comunicado de la organización Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), que está asociada con algunas escuelas de ese barrio.
Los manifestantes pidieron a concejales y al alcalde, Rahm Emanuel, comprometerse a usar fondos de los distritos TIF (dinero de impuestos para pagar por proyectos de infraestructura) para las escuelas de los barrios, así como $440 millones de la Autoridad de Vivienda de Chicago (CHA) para crear vivienda de bajo costo y evitar el desplazamiento de familias de bajos ingresos.
Los concejales Milly Santiago (D-31) y Carlos Ramírez-Rosa (D-35), así como una representante del concejal Proco “Joe” Moreno (D-1) accedieron a la petición.
Una portavoz de la alcaldía o CPS no había respondido hasta el cierre de está edición para comentar al pedido de los manifestantes.
Sin embargo, Emanuel y Jesse Ruiz, entonces CEO interino de CPS, anunciaron a inicios de julio los recortes y pidieron un préstamo millonario para enfrentar la deuda al sistema de pensiones.
El concejal Ramírez-Rosa indicó que para lograr que los fondos TIF sean adjudicados a las escuelas la comunidad va a tener que ejercer mucha presión sobre sus concejales y la alcaldía.
Ramírez-Rosa dijo que las corporaciones también deben pagar más para financiar la educación.
La concejal Santiago indicó que si hay fondos para las escuelas chárter debe haber fondos para las escuelas de la comunidad.
En la manifestación participaron administradores como Mauricio Segovia, director de la primaria Charles Darwin, quien indicó que ese plantel recibió un recorte de $150,000 y aunque logró evitar despidos, recortó algunos fondos para capacitar maestros y recursos para los estudiantes.
“Sólo espero que no haya más recortes”, dijo Segovia.
Para leer más de nuestra cobertura sobre CPS, visite este enlace.
Logan Square parents, teachers and students rallied Tuesday morning to speak out against the deep spending cuts affecting local public schools. The group also demanded that tax increment financing (TIF) funds be used to restore school budgets.
Those who attended the rally, held at the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square, said releasing TIF surplus dollars would be an immediate way to boost school budgets while city and school officials work toward identifying long-term fiscal solutions for the district.
Leaders with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which organized the rally, said 10 of the group's partner public schools face a combined $4.7 million in budget cuts for the upcoming school year.
That includes cuts of nearly $1.7 million at Kelvyn Park High School, more than $970,000 at Carl Schurz High School, over $490,000 at James Monroe Elementary School and nearly $385,200 at Wolfgang A. Mozart Elementary School, to name a few examples.
CPS uses a per-student budgeting system, under which schools receive funding based on the size of their student population.
Rally-goers said the gentrification happening in Logan Square is driving declining enrollment at local public schools. In addition to demanding a TIF surplus for schools, the group called on the Chicago Housing Authority to use its cash reserves to invest in more affordable housing in the neighborhood to help prevent the displacement of low- and moderate-income residents.
"We're losing enrollment in our schools due to gentrification," explained Monica Soto Espinoza, who chairs Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School's Local School Council. "So losing kids means losing books, losing dollars. It's going to be a rough year for McAuliffe."
McAuliffe, which is projected to have 19 fewer students in the coming school year, is slated to lose more than $195,300. As a result, McAuliffe might be forced to cut as many as three positions, Espinoza said. Such a reduction in staff could impact class sizes at the school, which had an average of 32 students per class last year.
"I think 32 students is already a lot for us to lose a position," Espinoza said.
Another local neighborhood school, Charles R. Darwin Elementary, is expected to see three fewer students in the coming academic year. Darwin's budget is being slashed by $189,000, according to LSNA.
Jackie Charles, a 4th grade teacher at Darwin, said the funding cuts mean the school will have to reduce its classroom supplies budget from $40,000 to $3,000.
"That goes for construction paper to do classroom projects and dry erase markers, and just things that now parents or teachers are gonna have to buy because the school can't provide it," she said.
Public schools across Chicago are expected to see a net funding loss of $31 million in the coming school year. Neighborhood school budgets have been reduced by $60 million, while funding for charter and contract schools are getting a $30 million boost.
The funding difference is mostly due to enrollments that are projected to decline at neighborhood schools and increase at charter and contract schools.
The school budget cuts are part of the $200 million in spending reductions for the coming year, including 1,400 eliminated positions, recently outlined by the cash-strapped district. School officials announced those cuts after CPS made a $634 million state-mandated payment on June 30 to the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund.
In the new school year starting in September, CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit, driven by a $700 million pension payment that's coming due.
For the district's 2016 budget, CPS is depending on $500 million in pension reform savings from Springfield. If CPS doesn't get those pension reforms, school district officials have warned that more borrowing and additional cuts are likely to happen.
Chicago Alds. Milly Santiago (31st) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) attended Tuesday's rally.
Santiago called the cuts to neighborhood public schools "completely unacceptable."
"If there's money for charter schools, there has to be money for our local schools," she said.
Here's more from Santiago as well as comments from Ramirez-Rosa, who said the neighborhood schools in his 35th Ward are slated to lose $1.5 million:
Tax increment financing, or TIF, is an economic development program that depends on property tax dollars. Back in November 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an executive order related to TIF surpluses. The order formally calls for an annual TIF surplus of no less than 25 percent of unencumbered TIF funds from eligible districts to be released to local taxing bodies, including the Chicago Public Schools.
When Emanuel announced earlier this month that he's phasing out seven downtown TIF districts, he also noted his desire to make the TIF surplus executive order permanent.
At the rally, Ramirez-Rosa said he was encouraged by Emanuel's recent actions on TIFs, but said there are likely more TIF funds that could be used to help school budgets.
"What the mayor did this month is a great start, but we need him to do more," the alderman said. "We need him to use every single TIF dollar that's there to go to our schools to plug those holes."
At the state-level, Ramirez-Rosa also said he will advocate for long-term, progressive revenue solutions like a graduated income tax and a financial transaction tax.
The alderman called on the mayor to also take action and "push for revenue solutions in Springfield."