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posted: 4/12/2010 12:01 AM

Recession hits 'private public' schools, too

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  • Field Elementary School in Elmhurst was labeled a "private public" school in a Fordham Institute study, but it now has enough low-income students to qualify for Title I funding.

      Field Elementary School in Elmhurst was labeled a "private public" school in a Fordham Institute study, but it now has enough low-income students to qualify for Title I funding.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer


A study published last month by a nonprofit think-tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, reported that more than 1.7 million American children attend "private public schools" - filled with predominately white children, with less than 5 percent coming from low-income homes.

In Illinois, 45 of the 60 schools deemed "private publics" are in the suburbs.

"By serving only well-off children, these schools are arguably more private than many private schools," co-author Michael Petrelli said. "Perhaps they should stop calling themselves 'public' schools, because they are hardly open to the public."

Such schools, the study charges, do not happen by accident. "These institutions - generally found in wealthy urban enclaves or well-heeled suburbs - educate many of the children of America's elite while proudly waving the 'public school' flag."

But unlike the Chicago Archdiocese's Catholic schools, which reported declining enrollment at dozens of Cook and Lake County campuses this year, public schools can't turn away students because of an inability to pay.

With the unemployment rate rising to 11.4 percent last month, much has changed since the study's authors began crunching numbers.

The study analyzed public elementary, middle and high schools' data on low-income and minority students, as reported to the federal government's Common Core of Data for 2007-08.

But that academic year, remember, the recession was just getting into full swing.

Take Field Elementary School in Elmhurst, one of the report's so-called "private-public" schools. According to the study, it had just 4.74 percent of students coming from low-income homes.

But low-income numbers jumped to 8.9 percent last year, and now stand at nearly 10 percent, according to Elmhurst District 205 spokeswoman Karen Geddeis. The school will be one of three designated as a Title I school - receiving federal funds earmarked for low-income students - next year.

Title I funding originally was established in 1965 under the American Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and revised in 2001 after No Child Left Behind was implemented. Its purpose, according to the legislation, is "to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments."

Schools that have high percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches are eligible to receive the funds.

Schools must use the funds to attempt to improve achievement, but have a choice on how to do so - hiring reading or math specialists, enhancing curriculum or providing more professional development opportunities for teachers.

District 205's Title I funds will be used for after-school activities, parent programs and summer school sessions targeted specifically at low-income families, Geddeis said.

Along with Field, a Daily Herald analysis found that 33 of the 45 suburban so-called "private public" schools - nearly 75 percent - saw low-income numbers rise the next year.

The schools called out in the study are still more exclusive than most - predominately white, and filled with students who hail from middle and upper-middle class families.

Thomas Many, superintendent of Buffalo Grove-Long Grove Elementary District 96, pointed out that districts don't control who walks through their doors. "We don't turn kids away. We serve all the kids who register," he said.

Though each of the five District 96 schools on the Fordham Institute list saw slight growth in levels of low-income students, all remain well under 5 percent.

A much different world than Elgin Area School District U-46, which, according to January figures, now has 50.5 percent of students classified as low income.

Still, "private publics" are not immune to the economy.

Foreclosure database RealtyTrac reported that roughly 3.5 percent of Kane, McHenry, Cook, Lake and DuPage counties' properties were listed as foreclosures in 2009 - the highest number in decades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Illinois' employment rate has stayed above 8.5 percent in the last 14 months.

By the Fordham Institute study's own standards, seven of the 45 schools are no longer considered "private publics" with more than 5 percent of low-income students - Field; Sycamore Trails Elementary in Bartlett, Dryden and Olive-Mary Stitt elementaries in Arlington Heights; Field Elementary in Elmhurst; Kingsley Elementary in Naperville; and Prairieview Elementary in Downers Grove.

Seven more schools are on the cusp, with only a few tenths of a percentage point away from the 5 percent mark.

St. Charles District 303 had six schools on the list - Bell-Graham, Corron, Ferson Creek, Wasco and Wild Rose elementaries; and Haines Middle School. All six schools saw an increase in the number of low-income students from 2007-08 to 2008-09.

"There's North Shore wealthy and St. Charles wealthy," Superintendent Donald Schlomann said of the study's designation. "St. Charles wealthy means we have upper middle class. I don't see a lot of $10 million mansions in St. Charles. If you have two family members working, one family member losing their job can change the economic situation of that household really quickly."

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