Chicago schools to compete again for special program funding, with revised rules for 2020

A year after doling out $32 million in funds for new programs at local schools, Chicago Public Schools is about to open the application process for round two.

This time, officials say, they’ll make it easier for principals to apply for the funds, meant to make neighborhood schools more attractive and program offerings more equitable across the city. They’ll also evaluate applications more on their own merit and less in the context of other nearby schools. And they’ll tell schools that don’t win new programs why.

“We are taking a much more nuanced approach this year,” Sam Mathias, who works in the district’s Office of Innovation and Incubation, said at an informational meeting Monday evening for educators and school community members interested in funding for 2020.

The city introduced the competitive program funding process last year in an effort to stem the tide of declining enrollment citywide. Then, 108 schools sent letters of intent to apply, and 58 were invited to submit full proposals. Ultimately, 32 schools were awarded funding to be used over a six-year period for new language, gifted, International Baccalaureate, personalized learning, STEM, and arts programs.

But critics questioned how the applicants were whittled down, and on Monday, some said the district’s method of judging schools left deserving schools without. The district evaluated applications using the Annual Regional Analysis, a report it commissioned that split the district into 16 regions to compare access to top-rated schools and sought-after programs.

The district then heavily weighed those geographical boundaries when deciding where to award the program funding.

In Rogers Park, where Monday’s meeting took place, none of the six neighborhood elementary schools have the sought-after programs, noted Betsy Vandercrook, who sits on the Local School Council of Kilmer Elementary.

“But if you combine us with Edgewater and other neighborhoods in the region, it seems like our region looks really good,” Vandercrook said.

Sullivan High School, the school that hosted Monday, applied for the funds last year but was turned down. Nearby in Edgewater, Senn High School was among the 32 awardees, providing the means to expand its IB programming.

“It’s not fair to our kids,” said Esther Mosak, a Sullivan LSC community representative. “What this model has done is given schools that already had programming more programming, and schools that didn’t have any got nothing.”

Mathias said this year’s decision making would be more focused on neighborhoods than on broader regions of the city. He also said decisions would be more “holistic,” taking into account not just the regional analysis but also socioeconomic data, staffing, and what programs schools already have.

It has also streamlined the application process, narrowing it down to three questions, a letter of support from the school council, and a form of approval from the network chief.

The district will host three workshops to help principals complete what used to be an “onerous” and lengthy process, in the hopes of making it easier for overworked principals to apply, Mathias said. Also new this year, schools can only apply for one program.

Even for schools who don’t receive program funding, the district’s central office will provide a clear explanation for why they didn’t make the cut, along with suggested areas of improvement and support for professional development so they can “start to tailor their school to be more in line with what the program intended,” Mathias said.

Letters of intent are due Dec. 3, giving the district time to advance the process before winter break. Final applications are due Feb. 7, with site visits and evaluations to take place before the funds are awarded in April. More information can be found on the district website.

No matter how the process changes, some school communities are likely to feel left out when the winning applications are announced next spring. Mathias took a question from one audience member who pressed him on whether the district would award funds to a school for an International Baccalaureate program if a nearby school got an IB program through last year’s competition.

“We do look at this more globally than I think a school does, to be frank,” Mathias said. “If there’s an IB school next to yours and another area of the city without an IB, that school is more likely to get it than you.”

Chicago Public Schools will host four more public meetings on the topic. Meetings are Tuesday at Benito Juarez Community Academy, Wednesday at Westinghouse Career Prep Academy, Thursday at South Shore College Prep, and Nov. 25 at Gage Park High School. Meetings run 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.