Culture of Calm Is Threatened by Budget Cuts
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As students funneled through the doors of Roberto Clemente High School on a recent Friday, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the school's Culture of Calm coordinator, could barely finish a conversation before her walkie-talkie summoned her to the next one.
Ms. Pacione-Zayas makes sure students get to school, works to keep them there and helps them deal with challenges they face beyond the school walls. Before she arrived at Clemente at the beginning of the school year, the school's culture "was basically an environment waiting to blow up," said Ms. Pacione-Zayas, who holds a Ph.D. in educational policy studies.
Chicago Public Schools announced a violence-prevention initiative for high schools in late 2009, in the wake of the beating death of a 16-year-old Fenger High School student, Derrion Albert. But the well of federal stimulus money that financed the program will run dry at the end of the year.
Though coordinators like Ms. Pacione-Zayas knew the money would run out, the program's success in increasing attendance and reducing suspensions at many schools makes the loss hard to accept. Even a new study indicating that the way a school staff deals with conflict and violence can affect academic achievement isn't likely to save the program from burial in the school system's graveyard of start-stop reforms.
"It's very easy for C.P.S. to make these kind of stopgap-measure decisions and say, 'Well, it's just for a year. Sorry. Thanks, you did a great job. Keep it moving,' " Ms. Pacione-Zayas said. "I'm not surprised, because that's kind of been the history of it."
Derrion's death in 2009 shocked the city and the nation. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and top Justice Department officials flew to Chicago to announce a $500,000 federal grant to help Fenger restore a peaceful learning environment.
Shortly afterward, Ron Huberman, then the C.P.S. chief, announced the Culture of Calm initiative to reduce violence in some of the city's most troubled high schools. Chosen as one of six focus schools, Clemente received $1.1 million to put the program into effect.
Over all, the district received $260 million in stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Of that sum, Culture of Calm received $40 million for the 2010-11 school year, the second-largest amount distributed to district programs, behind early childhood programming.
C.P.S. officials announced in March that stimulus aid would end in the next budget cycle, placing Culture of Calm on the chopping block.
With federal financing gone, Ms. Pacione-Zayas and others face an uncertain future. Joshua Gray, the district official who oversees the violence-prevention initiative, said each of the schools participating in the program had been allocated different amounts and used the money differently. Many hired new staff members, while others had an existing staff member absorb the duties of carrying out the program.
"Until we know what all of our budgets are, we won't really have an answer," Mr. Gray said, "and that's concerning for everybody."
The program faces financial uncertainty even as academic research has begun to show that an improved school culture can contribute to better academic achievement. Next week, the Consortium on Chicago School Research is expected to release a report revealing that while neighborhood poverty and crime affect school safety, they are not the most important factors. The school's organization and the relationships between teachers and students were found to be more important.
Though Culture of Calm is not the focus of the new study, it is mentioned as an example of an effort that helps schools improve safety and overall academic success.
"If you have poor safety, you have virtually no chance in improving learning," said Elaine Allensworth, an expert on school safety and a co-author of the study.
The violence-prevention initiative was designed to focus on safe passage to and from school, a better learning environment inside the school and mentoring for high-risk students.
District data show that attendance at the six pilot schools increased by 8 percent. Suspensions are down at most schools, with Clemente showing significant improvement -- a 41 percent decrease in in-school suspensions and a 25 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions.
On the Friday before spring break, Clemente students shuffled through metal detectors and then to a set of mailbox-size lockers, where they are required to store their cellphones.
Holding an empty shoebox, Ms. Pacione-Zayas walked through the building collecting raffle tickets for an MP3 player. The tickets were given to students who showed up for first period that day. Along the way, she stopped in the attendance office, where two women discussed the condition of a student who had been shot two days earlier.
In her office, Ms. Pacione-Zayas's organizes her duties on a classroom-size whiteboard, covering almost every inch with "to-do" lists, schedules for various programs and students' names. A student sauntered in with a towel over his head, sat at a small table and put his head down without responding to Ms. Pacione-Zayas's questions. She took him to a school psychologist and returned.
"I'm guessing he came in so he wouldn't go off on somebody," Ms. Pacione-Zayas said.
Many staff members treat Ms. Pacione-Zayas as one of the school's leaders. "We're not letting her go," said Maria Mercado, a bilingual teacher and local school council member. "I'll put it on my credit card if I have to."
Knowing that the current level of financing would not always be available, Culture of Calm coordinators have involved teachers, administrators and several community organizations in the program, said Mr. Gray, the C.P.S. official overseeing the program.
Joe Pancer, the Culture of Calm coordinator at Washington High School, said teacher support was necessary because the school received a relatively small amount of money for the program.
"We just did it with a lot of hard work," Mr. Pancer said. "It can be done with total teacher buy-in and total teacher support. You can't put a dollar amount to wanting your school to do better."
At Washington, more students are taking college-prep courses and are on track to graduate; attendance is at 86 percent, up from 76 percent last year; and episodes of violence and arrests have been cut nearly in half since the 2008-09 school year, data provided by Mr. Pancer show.
Besides involving teachers in the anti-violence program, Clemente enlisted the help of nine community organizations to provide student-support services. In the school's suspension room, now called the Successful Solutions Center, Ms. Pacione-Zayas said, community organizations conduct rotating workshops on varied issues like art therapy and anger management.
Those involved in Culture of Calm are realistic about the program's financial future but are hopeful that at least some elements of their work will continue.
"I'm willing to stay in any capacity, but it's a Catch-22 because cuts have to happen," Ms. Pacione-Zayas said. Though she knew the position would be temporary, she said she was frustrated with the small amount of time she had been given to make an impact.
"In order to really shift culture and climate in a school," she said, "it takes years."
First Published May 9, 2011 12:00 am