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Chicago Public Schools Contend With Massive State-Wide Budget Cuts

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Iemaan is a junior at Whitney Young Magnet School and a student reporter for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

School districts all over Illinois are tightening their belts to shoulder massive statewide budget cuts. Jean-Claude Brizard, the newly appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is a man with a plan. The former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., school system recently told The Mash in an exclusive interview that he inherited more than 400,000 high school, middle and elementary students and a $712 million budget deficit when he took over the Chicago job -- with the district expecting the budget to fall short by $860 million to $1 billion by 2014.

Brizard has already made headlines for wanting to increase the length of the school day as soon as January in some schools. He also plans to change how teachers are evaluated, cut back on physical education classes, and eliminate division/homeroom periods.

Statewide, the public school system is taking a $2 billion hit, according to the Chicago Tribune. A chain reaction of layoffs, program cuts and class-size growth in many school districts followed suit.

According to Brizard, the situation is looking dismal for CPS. “If we do get this billion-dollar shortfall, you’re going to see impacts across the system. We will see class sizes increasing, teachers getting laid off and programs being cut. I don’t think anything’s going to be kept sacred.”

Jaszmine Parks, a junior at Jones, said she has already felt the effects of cuts -- she’s noticed most of her classes this semester have 30 or more students. The choir program shrunk from five classes to one and students had to pay an extra $15 or more to participate in choir, theater or sports. Parks criticized how the cuts at CPS were handled.

“I wish they had sent out a letter explaining what was going on and why fees were being hiked up,” Parks said. “Most parents were surprised to find they had to pay about $100 more this year [for class and activities fees].”

Sai Koppaka, a junior at Northside, has noticed that class sizes are larger than they were two years ago, and that some fees went up for classes and activities.

Whitney Young junior Mary Khalaf saw that different level Italian classes were being mixed due to a shortage of teachers.

“Sometimes it gets confusing because the Italian IV students are doing the same thing as the AP Italian students,” said Khalaf. “But I think the teacher does a good job handling the situation and keeping everyone on track.”

Brizard was sympathetic to students but firm in his decisions to cut funds from programs he felt were “important, but ineffective.” According to Brizard, “$400 million [in] cuts can be made within bureaucracy, but with a billion-dollar [shortfall], you’re looking at cutting back programs in schools.”

For Phibin Philip, a senior at Lane Tech, the budget cuts meant a mass replacement of old teachers with new ones. Many students felt confused and annoyed, Philip said. “It didn’t solve anything.”

Giving teachers pink slips and starting anew is part of Brizard’s new turnaround plan for troubled schools. In the case of Dyett and Crane -- two schools that have struggled for years -- he’s phasing them out starting next school year, and will shut their doors permanently when the last of their current freshmen graduate.

Brizard said he’s concerned with the 38 percent dropout rate of CPS high school students and is focused on weeding out ineffective teachers.

“Right now we rate every [teacher and administrator] as great… When you have a system as ineffective as ours, every adult can’t be great. Every principal can’t be good.”

Brizard is hoping to change the way public school teachers are evaluated. He said the current method of evaluation is obsolete and needs to be adjusted based on student’s growth. He’s also considering having student evaluate their instructors.

In August, the city’s school board passed an $84 tax hike for homeowners as part of a $5.9 billion budget. In addition, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Brizard trimmed central office positions, combined bus routes and cut back on security personnel to save schools about $150.3 million, according to the CPS website. Brizard said these times called for “courageous decisions” to rectify problems already present in the system.

“Right now we have a system in our city that is based on failure,” said Brizard. “I’ve got schools where people are teaching the way we did back in 1971.” Brizard plans on changing the curriculum and raising the educational standard across all Chicago schools. His goals for CPS include competing with some of the best schools internationally.

“Doing ‘well’ is relative. You might be doing ‘well’ compared to kids in Chicago, but I want you to be doing well compared to kids in Finland, Singapore, Korea, Japan, France and in England. I want the benchmark for school success to be much more global, and not as local.”

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner agrees with Brizard’s mindset. “When I grew up, the town drunk could read and write,” she said. “There was no issue as to whether he could read and write. There’s an issue now as to whether students in third grade can read and write… whether an adult coming out of high school can legitimately read and write. That’s a huge issue right now.”

Kenner hopes Brizard’s new approach to education as “a public forum” will help more people understand the issues and how to tackle them.

Despite $400 million worth of massive program reductions, layoffs and property tax increases, CPS administrators still project an impending deficit of at least $860 million in 2014 due to escalating health care and pension costs, according to the Tribune.

Brizard blames state legislators, who he says have done a “a poor job of funding schools equitably across the state” and keeping up with pension payments.

Whether city kids are getting their fair share of state dollars or not, they’re not the only ones feeling the pain of budget cuts. Suburban students are too.

For Rich South junior Cierra Beckham, the cuts meant eliminating her school’s choir program. “It bothers me that the school cut choir because we all would help each other with our problems, and now that it’s gone I feel like that bond has been taken away,” Beckham said.

At Rich East, growing class sizes are a huge repercussion of the budget cuts. School yoga instructor Noreen Wessendorf immediately noted the sudden increase in students per class.

“For me the biggest thing would have to be larger classes,” she said. “It’s not always easy to control 28 people.”

Meanwhile, Rich South math teacher Justin Viau finds ways to save his school money. “We recycle a lot to save $50 to $60 a year, just so we can get supplies for the department,” he said.

Mark Hopman, Rich South’s athletic director, added that the school’s athletic programs will have to rotate uniforms every five years instead of the usual three.

In addition to a shortage of office supplies and sports equipment, some schools are having difficulty affording educational materials. Steve Jandreski, an economics teacher at CICS-Longwood, said he doesn’t have enough books for his classes.

Rich East librarians Roseanne Katrichis and Kris Guinn said a 50 percent cut in money for new books means students will have to reuse old textbooks for years beyond their typical lifespans.

Meanwhile, Rich East stopped having football games at night because lighting the field was too expensive, according to senior Jasmine Woods. Rich East Principal Mark Kramer added that more cuts are expected to come.

“The building budget has been cut in half in the last two years,” Kramer said. “[More changes] can be expected to take place in 2013.”

Back in the city at Curie, budget cuts have made it difficult for the cheerleading team to acquire uniforms for the year. According to senior Blanca Almanza, not having uniforms has interfered with her being prepared for the upcoming season.

In addition to cutting back what CPS has to spend, Brizard hopes to change the way it’s run.

While sitting in his office, Brizard confided to The Mash that he thinks the education system is faulty primarily due to a lack of a safe family setting at home, but acknowledged that such a sentiment has earned him some scorn.

Addressing his critics, Brizard smiled and said, “Some people in this country say, ‘Until you fix poverty, you’re never going to fix schools.’ I think the opposite. We’re never going to fix poverty until we fix schools.”

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