Ever since Sonia Garcia’s 7-year-old son started learning how to play the guitar in one of the many after-school programs he attends at West Belden Elementary School, the songs “La Bamba” and “La Cucaracha” play constantly in Garcia’s home.
“He has been so excited to get to learn to play,” said Garcia, a Montclair resident and president of the Parent Teacher Organization at West Belden. “I’m so proud of him. But now I have to buy a guitar.”
Garcia may also have to start paying for private lessons, as the charter school’s after-school program funding has been cut.
Just days after receiving above-average scores on the annual Illinois Standard Achievement Test and the news that West Belden was one of the highest-performing charter schools in Chicago, Principal Kristina Baldino was notified that 100 percent of the West Side school’s after-school funding would be cut.
“I absolutely flipped out,” Baldino said last week as she waited to testify about the cut before the Chicago Public School Board of Education. “This is outrageous when I have a school that’s performing at the highest standard.”
Baldino, and other school officials attended the meeting with the hope of getting the debt-ridden district to reinstate the funding and to question why additional requirements had been added to the grant that the charter schools received under the Chicago Public Schools Community Schools Initiative.
“We understand that everyone is in an economical pinch, but we are confused and startled by the fact that they added requirements,” said Meghan Schmidt, director of special projects for the Chicago International Charter Schools. The district is asking all the Chicago International Charter Schools to provide four more hours per week for parent programs, a service that Schmidt says the schools already provide.
Baldino said the district claims that West Belden did not fulfill the initial requirements of the initiative, which state the school must have a minimum of 12 hours per week of after-school programming with at least 75 participants.
Last year, West Belden’s after-school programs served 175 students over 39 weeks with an 89 percent attendance rate, Baldino said.
Out of the 14 Chicago International Charter Schools, nine received $25,000 for wrap-around programming this year, down by 67 percent from last year, and budgets for two campuses – West Belden and Basil – were cut completely.
“We understand people have their budgets, but they are expecting us to do more with less money,” Schmidt said.
Baldino is bracing herself for the possibility of bringing the after-school programs to a mid-semester halt. She says the programs that offer classes in cooking, health, music, drama, math and science are so popular that she gets calls from parents all summer asking when the programs start again.
“These programs are such a need in my community,” Baldino said. “We are providing services that the parents otherwise couldn’t afford.”
Many students at West Belden have parents who both work and can’t afford after-school daycare, and 96 percent of the children who attend the school receive a free or reduced lunch.
“We are not in a rich neighborhood, people are struggling,” said Linda Johnson, an Austin resident with two kids at West Belden. “Parents work all day, and there is no way to make other plans for our kids.”
On most weeks, the students have recess once a week in the school’s tar parking lot and rely on the after-school soccer team and field trips to the museum to keep the kids active and enriched.
“By taking away the money and the programs, they are punishing our kids,” Johnson said. “The kids are smart and have worked hard all day and are doing a very good job.”
Chicago International Charter Schools serves about 8,500 students in 14 neighborhoods across Chicago. Funding for Chicago International Charter Schools per pupil has been cut by 6 percent while expenses have increased by 4 percent, Schmidt said.
Charter schools receive public funding based on enrollment, just like regular schools, but they don’t have to follow as many rules and regulations.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the financial woes that Chicago schools are experiencing are no different than what the rest of the country is going through.
“Have the charter schools seen the papers?” Lewis said. “If the cuts have to be across the board, then they have to get cut. Everybody gets a turn.”
In July, the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education fired 600 educators and staff employees as part of a statewide effort to close a massive budget deficit. Chicago Public Schools face a $370 million shortfall in this fiscal year, and school officials plan to make up for this by firing at least 1,000 more workers and shutting down schools by the end of the school year.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman said he and the Office of New Schools would investigate the budget cuts and follow-up with West Belden this week.
Baldino says the programs are a necessity, keeping her students smart and safe.
Surrounded by the Austin and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods, West Belden is in an area that Baldino says is territory for four of the toughest gangs in Chicago.
“So far, I’ve been able to keep the gangs at bay. But if my kids are hanging out on the street corners from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., that may not be the case,” Baldino said. “The parents know these programs provide a safe haven and keep their children enriched until they can pick them up.”
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