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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 04:07 pm

School closure questioned

Cost savings unclear, one board member says


Scholars at Capital College Preparatory Academy in Springfield will transition to other middle schools at the end of the school year, following a vote by the school board to close the school as a cost-saving measure.

Scroll to the bottom to see what the School Board cut and what it kept.

In the wake of a controversial decision to close a popular and successful middle school in Springfield, the divided school board continues to field questions about the reasoning for the closure and its estimated savings.

About 200 “scholars” at the Capital College Preparatory Academy, 1101 South 15th, will transition to other facilities when their school closes at the end of the current school year. The Springfield Public Schools Board of Education voted 4-3 in a four-hour meeting on Feb. 4 to close CCPA as part of a larger package of cuts meant to close an $8 million budget hole.

CCPA was created three years ago to provide an alternative learning environment to students who struggled in traditional schools. The academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known collectively as “STEM” fields – in order to prepare students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade for college and eventual careers.

Chris Colgren, principal at CCPA, says the academy differs from other schools in the district with its single-gender classrooms, small class sizes, unique focus and teachers who have the same students for all three years. Much of the curriculum is funded by grants, Colgren says, including one from the Kern Family Foundation which allowed students to learn engineering by building and interacting with robots.

The school board adopted about $7 million in total cuts on Feb. 4, including eliminating teaching and maintenance positions, reducing use of teachers’ assistants, putting off the purchase of new textbooks, consolidating Wanless and Pleasant Hill elementary schools into Feitshans Academy, and more. Most of the cuts accepted were proposed by district superintendent Walter Milton and his administration, while the Community Budget Review Committee, composed of community members nominated by school board members, proposed the CCPA closure.

School board member Lisa Funderburg, who represents Subdistrict 1 on Springfield’s far west side, says she voted to close CCPA because she felt the school’s $1.7 million cost wasn’t justified when there are other successful middle schools available within the district.

Board member Scott McFarland, who represents Subdistrict 3 covering the northeast area, says he doesn’t believe the estimated savings of $1.7 million is accurate. He says the district probably won’t save much money because integrating CCPA students back into other schools will increase class sizes and force the district to employ more teachers. McFarland points to the previous school year, in which the board voted to eliminate teaching positions but later had to hire 13 teachers because class sizes became too large.

“If we hit a certain threshold of students in the classroom, we’re going to have to put another teacher in that school,” he said. “Based on seniority and everything else, the teachers at CCPA will find positions elsewhere. There’s no way to accurately determine if any of them will be positions we have to refill somewhere else. Chances are we’ll have to refill some of them, if not all of them.”

Funderburg says she visited CCPA, Wanless and Pleasant Hill elementaries before casting her vote to close those schools.

“I take this job very seriously,” she said. “I thought. ‘Before I make a choice, I have to go there. I needed to see and talk to kids and teachers.’ I feel like I made the best, most informed decision I could make. … We cut reading teachers last year. We’re to the point where we’re cutting good things, and it’s a personally tough decision to make.”

But board member Judith Johnson, whose Subdistrict 6 on the city’s east side contains CCPA, castigated what she called “coldhearted people” who supported closing the school.

“We have a group up here of elitists who don’t live in that neighborhood, who go to that neighborhood only because they want to try to justify that they can take a vote to cut this school out,” Johnson said during the Feb. 4 school board meeting.

Johnson didn’t respond to calls seeking further comment.

Teresa Jones of Springfield, who is running against Funderburg in the April 9 school board election, says the board should have made more cuts to administrative positions instead of closing schools.

“That’s part of the board’s problem; a lack of leadership and vision,” Jones said. “When you start making cuts, those cuts should be farthest away from the kids. These cuts are aimed right at the students.”

Jones says she feels the cuts hit economically disadvantaged students hardest, and she disagrees with the notion that closing CCPA was in the best interest of all students. About 52 percent of students at CCPA are African-American, and about 77 percent are classified as coming from low-income households.

“When did the students at CCPA become not in the equation of all students?” Jones said. “If we fail one student, we’ve failed them all.”

Funderburg refutes criticism that the board targeted CCPA because of its majority African-American student body and high number of children from low-income households.

“There’s a perception that this cut fell disproportionately on one group,” Funderburg said. “We came and voted for $8 million in cuts, and I voted for all but a few of the superintendent’s cuts. These cuts touched every corner of the district. It’s sad and emotional to make these cuts, but they are the right thing.”

School board president Susan White also voted to close CCPA. White, who represents part of the city’s west side around Wabash Avenue, says CCPA’s price tag is higher than the board originally anticipated.

“It’s a very, very expensive program,” White says. “The information we were originally given on the cost and funding and the district’s financial situation was very different than what we’re seeing now. The cost projections were much lower than it turned out to be in reality.”

Like Funderburg, White points to the district’s other middle schools as more financially viable but still academically effective.

“We have fabulous middle schools,” White said. “I’m sort of offended by statements made at the board meeting that these children will not achieve in a traditional atmosphere. It’s kind of a slap in the face to administrators and teachers at those schools because it implies the other schools and programs are not helping students achieve.”

Asked why the school board didn’t cut other specialized schools like Springfield Ball Charter School, Lincoln Magnet School or Iles Elementary School, each of which focus on specific groups of students, Funderburg and White each say superintendent Walter Milton and the Community Budget Review Committee didn’t propose any such cuts. Milton proposed 33 cuts – most of which were adopted by the school board – and the CBRC proposed 17 cuts. The only CBRC proposal adopted by the board was the closure of the Capital College Preparatory Academy.

McFarland, the board member representing Subdistrict 3, said the board should have cut more administrative positions instead of making cuts that directly affect students. Asked why board members didn’t introduce their own cuts to be voted on, McFarland said he relied on Milton, the superintendent, to know which administrators could be cut.

“My feeling is I don’t work with these administrators on a day-to-day basis, so it’s the superintendent’s purview to know what the administration is doing and where we can cut,” McFarland said. “That being said, the board needs to do a better job of articulating what we want.”

CCPA principal Chris Colgren says most of his students have now discovered their passion for learning, so he worries more for students who never got the chance to try the academy’s alternative approach. Many of his students didn’t even know what an engineer was when they started at CCPA, he says, adding that “they now want to be engineers and can speak the language.”

“It’s disappointing because this was our solution to closing the achievement gap,” Colgren said. “I’ve watched educators throughout this nation talk about the achievement gap at length, but very seldom did they propose practical solutions. This was, to Dr. Milton’s credit, our solution that we had to offer in Springfield. The frustrating thing about it is not only did we attempt it, but it was successful. To have to walk away from something like that is rather disheartening.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Here's what the School Board cut and what it kept, courtesy of District 186: http://www.sps186.org/downloads/blurbs/20248/FY%202014%20Budget%20Decisions.pdf



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