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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Laura Rodríguez Presa, Tracy Swartz and Joe Mahr

Chicago alternative high school serving at-risk students lost half its staff. Educators say it leaves a void

CHICAGO -- An alternative high school in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood that has served as a “sanctuary” for hundreds of vulnerable Black and brown youth is losing nearly half of its small teaching staff because of budget cuts — a move that employees and alumni say limits the services they can provide and their ability to recruit more students attempting to reform their lives.

“We are the answer to this gun violence. We are the answer to these unemployment numbers. We are the answer to helping those students because every student deserves to be seen. Every student deserves to be loved, and that’s what we do at Association House,” science teacher Andrea Czarkowski Ng told the Chicago Board of Education at its meeting last month.

Czarkowski Ng and two of seven Association House of Chicago teachers are said to have received pink slips in June. And while Czarkowski Ng worries about her future, she is more concerned about the fate of the students at the Youth Connection Charter school, which is said to offer a “new path” to graduation for 16- to 21-year-olds who have been “left behind” by traditional public schools. The school is also expected to lose one full-time and one part-time child care program aide.

Several teachers and some alumni attended last month’s Board of Education meeting to decry the cuts hours before the board approved the district’s $9.4 billion budget for the coming school year. The finger-pointing started almost immediately.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he was learning of the cuts for the first time at the board meeting. There was discussion among board members about how CPS provides money to charter operators, such as YCCS. These schools have autonomy over budgetary decisions, including staffing levels, CPS general counsel Joseph Moriarty said. An audit of each charter school’s finances is required to be conducted annually.

YCCS Executive Director Sheila Venson said in a statement that, “Association House, as well as all YCCS vendors, are funded based on the student-based funding formula of CPS. How funds are budgeted and used to support the program is determined, in this case, by Association House.” Association House principal David Pieper said the school’s budget is down about $500,000 compared with the last school year, as enrollment declined 27%.

Pieper lamented that the budget cut will “significantly impact” the school because its staff is already small and it thrives on student-staff relationships. Pieper pointed out that students of color from disadvantaged neighborhoods and those facing difficult life circumstances were disproportionately affected when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and remote learning was implemented.

“Although we opened the door for in-person learning … it’s been an ongoing struggle to get them back,” Pieper said. “And though I’m starting to see success in getting the students back to school, it’s too late now since we’ve already been funded for next year.”

The school often recruits students through word-of-mouth or social service agencies, Pieper said. Most of its students are in temporary living situations and require extra support, such as transportation and child care, he said. Pieper promises the school will offer “intensive support for students who have not been successful in traditional schools because of their life’s circumstances,” with the funding available.

Association House employees say one of the perks of the program — free child care for kids as old as 5 — has taken a hit as well. Staff members say they can care for half as many kids as they used to because of cuts. Teachers worry about how this instability will affect their students.

“Our kids are the kids that needed a second chance, that needed another opportunity and needed someone to tell them, ‘We believe in you. We care about you, and we’re going to sit with you until you get this done — however long that takes,’” mentor Jemina Lyle told the Tribune.

“It takes a special type of educator to push us to succeed,” said Demiyon Eastling, an Association House alumnus turned after-school teacher. The school became his home after he attended eight elementary schools and two high schools. The Association House staff welcomes formerly incarcerated individuals, young parents, immigrant children who struggle with the language, and students with addiction or mental health issues, Eastling said.

Board President Miguel del Valle — who was once the executive director of Association House — said it was heartwarming to hear at the board meeting from graduates who achieved success once they received the necessary support. He noted enrollment in the program — and across CPS — has declined. Association House High School can’t be allowed to “fade away,” he said.

“I think all of us — the teachers, the administration at Association House, the community, all of us have to ask ourselves, why aren’t there more students in that program? The need is there,” del Valle said.

Ninety-eight students were enrolled at Association House High School in the fall of 2021, according to CPS data captured on the 20th day of school. About two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, while more than a quarter are Black. There were 155 students enrolled just two years ago, district data shows.

The drop at Association House mirrors drops across the city’s schools, including at many of Youth Connection’s schools. Of 20 schools in operation as of the 2013-14 school year — the most recent comparable data available — enrollment dropped from above 4,000 to just over 3,100.

Association House employees say they are needed more than ever.

“These students have built these walls and protection from trauma and all the crap that they endure in their lives. We, like, slowly peel the onion back, and slowly let them open up,” Czarkowski Ng told the Tribune. “I see us as like this fertilizer to let these flowers bloom. They’re great kids, that just no one’s taken the time.”

Nancy Velazquez said her 20-year-old son, Benjamin, struggled with attendance at a district-run CPS high school. She turned to Association House for help.

“They gave him an opportunity. He graduated this year, in 2022. It took many years for him to graduate, but he finally did it,” she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union said Youth Connection should use any of its unspent federal COVID-19 funds to stop the Association House cuts. The union is also calling on the district to dip into its remaining $800 million in pandemic money, which must be allocated by the fall of 2024, to prevent job losses.

In CPS district-run schools, 256 teachers have received layoff notices and 189 paraprofessional staff have been let go, according to CTU. Charter school data was not immediately known.

The district said it has already appropriated $730 million in pandemic money for the next school year to focus on academic recovery and social and emotional learning supports. Nevertheless, budget cuts have claimed the longtime librarians at Coonley Elementary School in North Center and Nixon Elementary School in Hermosa, among others.

“I can confidently say that the reason my administration waited until the very last moment of the school year to tell me this was the backlash that they knew they would receive from devastated staff, students and family. My students love me, and I love them,” outgoing Nixon librarian Leslie Westerberg said at last month’s board meeting.

At the meeting, parent Cheryl Conner highlighted the impact of budget cuts at Sabin Dual Language Magnet School in Wicker Park.

“Eighty percent of families at Sabin are below the poverty line, and our school is 98% Black and Latinx students. This is a student population that has been really hurt in the pandemic,” Conner said. “Due to budget cuts, kids at Sabin are going from five specials to only three specials in the upcoming year. We’re losing technology and library classes.”

In an emailed statement last Friday, CPS said it is pumping an additional $240 million into its school budgets districtwide compared with this past school year. Per-pupil funding has also increased by 8%, CPS said.

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