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Budget Cuts Slam Wells H.S., Eliminating 4 Special Ed Teaching Jobs

By Alisa Hauser | October 12, 2015 6:06am
 Wells parent Mary Moore and her sons, Amyrio, at left, and Xavier.
Wells parent Mary Moore and her sons, Amyrio, at left, and Xavier.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

EAST VILLAGE — Describing Wells High School as "a lone wolf surrounded by 12 charter schools," principal Rita Raichoudhuri told parents she will be appealing $900,000 worth of budget cuts that could take away four special education teachers on a campus that needs them, she said.

"Suspensions are at an all-time low and our dropout rates are down. We have homeless students and students in foster care who don't have parents. They come here with a lot of trauma and anger and it takes resources and money to keep moving in the right direction," Raichoudhuri said at a Local School Council meeting Thursday in Wells Community Academy High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave.

Located in West Town's East Village enclave, Wells was projected to serve 540 students in grades 9-12 for the 2015-16 School Year, though a "Day 10" enrollment count of 462 put the school at 78 students fewer than planned.

 Wells High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave., faces budget cuts due to declining enrollment.
Wells High School Faces Budget Cuts
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Wells' 4-story brick building has capacity for 1,600 students.

Raichoudhuri said there is a false perception that charters are better than neighborhood schools.

"This is the primary reason why we are under-enrolled and, therefore, under-resourced," she said.

Each CPS school is given a budget for the year over the summer based on the number of students expected to attend — known as student-based budgeting.

Ten days after school starts, CPS compares the expected enrollment with actual counts and re-adjusts its budget per school. That is especially challenging for Wells, which has a "mobility" rate of 26 percent, meaning that about a quarter of the school's students transfer in or out each year.

One-fourth or 25 percent of Wells' student body are special education students who are in self-contained classes because their individual education plans call for it.

Of Wells' 40 teachers, 14 are special education instructors.

Wells also employs a full-time social worker, which Raichoudhuri said is unique compared to other schools but needed because of social and emotional challenges that students face. 

About 96 percent of Wells students are low-income and the majority are black or Hispanic, according to CPS.

"The reality is we have to make decisions on whether we can keep all of the programs we have alive,"  Raichoudhuri said. 

On Thursday, the seven local school council members voted to use its contingency or emergency funds to keep an art teacher employed and to eliminate hiring parents as aides at the school.

Amid the somber tone, though, there was a lot of optimism.

"We have a lot to celebrate as a school. The fact we can even make these budget decisions as an LSC is something we could not do before," Raichoudhuri told the group.

Wells got off probation during the 2014-15 school year, which meant it was the first time in 16 years that the council could vote on the budget and other school matters.

"There is growing interest in the school but we are also competing with 12 charters within walking distance," Raichoudhuri said.

The school, previously in CPS's 8th percentile academically, climbed to the 43rd percentile last school year during Raichoudhuri's first year as principal and is now rated as getting "provisional support," meaning that is operating under a school improvement plan drafted by the district.

In addition to being a neighborhood school that also accepts students from around the city, Wells offers "academies" or specialized programs for those who plan to pursue teaching or law degrees.

Attendance rates have also dramatically improved, from a 60 percent average four years ago to 90 percent, in part due to new creative incentives, such as not allowing seniors to attend prom unless they have a minimum of 90 percent attendance, said Berenice Pond, the school's Family and Community Liaison and local school council coordinator. 

Pond described Wells as "one big family."

It was that family-like environment and smaller campus that attracted Austin resident Mary Moore, chairwoman of the council, to Wells.

Moore's two adopted sons, both juniors, chose to attend Wells over a charter school because of the programming, in particular the Wells' Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, part of the Chicago Public Schools JROTC programs, which is the largest in the country.

Amyrio Moore was duke of the JROTC's recent ball and won an award for rifle shooting, which is displayed in the school's lobby, while his brother, Xavier, has also benefited from the strong support system of friends and staff at Wells, Moore said.

After Thursday's meeting, Moore said she was "shocked" that cuts could be happening at the same time the school is seeing performance boosts.

"We are getting better because of our teachers. We need these teachers," Moore said.

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