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Bridgeport's Armour School Community Optimistic Despite Budget Cuts

By Casey Cora | September 3, 2013 7:08am
 Hampered by budget cuts, Armour Elementary school enters a brand new year.
Armour Elementary School
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BRIDGEPORT — The school day at Armour Elementary School begins with a 15-minute morning exercise, when students, teachers and a couple of confident parents stretch and twist through a series of calisthenics before the first bell.

New this year, the program is part of a push by leaders at the Bridgeport elementary school to keep kids active, but it's also serving as a symbol of optimism after an uncertain year that saw the 112-year-old neighborhood school survive the controversial closing of 50 public schools earlier this summer and more recent budget cuts.

"It's always a lot of ups and downs. Our focus is about the kids and we're doing the best we can with what we've got," said veteran Principal Shelley Cordova.

Like other schools throughout the city, Armour took a big hit under the new CPS per-pupil budgeting system, which reconfigured part of the district's school funding formula.

Because enrollment is down and the school is getting less money than years past, Cordova was forced to cut a handful of jobs: two special education teachers, a physical education teacher and two teaching assistants.

The school is also losing a kindergarten teacher whose salary was partially funded by money Armour received from cellular companies leasing space for towers on the school's campus at 950 W. 33rd St. CPS recently readjusted the arrangement with the cell companies and will divvy out the lease money to schools across the city.

Also on the chopping block are another teaching assistant and an administrative clerk position. Funding for those jobs runs out in April.

And another cut, this one to a school "literacy coach," could be coming as soon as Sept. 9, when CPS calculates the school's 10-day enrollment, a key part of the per-pupil budgeting formula, school officials said.

But the grim cuts also carry an upside. The decline in enrollment — Cordova said it's down by about 15 from last year's totals — means class sizes will remain small. Right now, class sizes hover around the mid-20s per classroom, below the "ideal" 30-students-per-classroom number touted by CPS earlier this year.

Performance is on the upswing, too.

According to school district data, Armour was taken off probation last year for the first time since the 2008-2009 school year, and other indicators like student growth and school culture and climate show Armour is holding its own among nearby neighborhood schools.

But there's another reason Cordova said the school has momentum: teachers and parents.

Those groups rallied loudly to keep the school open during community forums hosted by CPS and have created a bilingual advisory council to share information among families. The student body is about 85 percent Hispanic, according to recent CPS data.

At a recent open house barbecue at the school, many parents returned the compliments to Armour's teachers, many of whom are fresh from summer training and development programs.

"It's always been great," said Yolanda Ballesteros, who's daughter Carla arrived at the school four years ago as a second-grader without knowing how to speak English.


"Well, when she got out of second grade, she got out with honors and ever since then she's been on the honor roll," Ballesteros said.

Krissy Guzman, 34, of Bridgeport, is an Armour graduate who's sent two kids through the school and has a seventh-grader there now. A member of the Local School Council, she said the school year is starting out great "but with the budget the way it is it might not be as good as we hoped." 

Still, she said she's confident Cordova and assistant principal Jessica Hartless can weather what could be another tumultuous school year. 

"They keep this school kicking. Because where do parents go? Where do teachers go? Where do students go? They eventually go to them. They've literally built this school up and give the students so much to achieve for," she said.