The Courier-News

Youngest are big victims of school budget cuts

Thursday, September 16, 2010

CARPENTERSVILLE -- Orange 37 has a dark brown ponytail and a pink flowered backpack. She goes with a green pickup truck, where a man waited to scoop her into his arms last week after her morning preschool program ended at the deLacey Family Education Center.

It's easy to tell she should accompany the man by the orange tags with the number 37, pinned to the preschooler's backpack and displayed in the window of the truck.

It's one of the ways early childhood education programs such as deLacey's have adjusted this year as area school district's littlest students have become some of the biggest victims of budget cuts.

Those cuts have included discontinuing all transportation for Preschool for All students in Community Unit School District 300 and closing Woodland Heights Early Learning Center in Streamwood, part of Elgin School District U46. Both school districts also cut music and P.E. programming for their regular, half-day kindergartners.

And students in preschool and kindergarten, as in every grade level, have been impacted by the number of teachers laid off, the single largest cut in either school district.

Preschool busing

"The transportation was big. That was a huge savings to the district," said Terri Cronin, principal of deLacey.

District 300 will save $672,000 this school year by not offering busing to all Preschool for All students.
That means deLacey sees about eight school buses a day -- only for students with special needs who require transportation as part of their individualized education plans -- instead of about 17, Cronin said. The Carpentersville area school district also pushed back bell times by half an hour at deLacey this year to use those buses more efficiently -- an additional savings of $140,000.

And U46 cut its Preschool for All transportation in half this year, saving $593,000.

The Elgin district now offers busing one way in the middle of the day. Students in morning classes at the Illinois Park Center for Early Learning in Elgin get a ride home from school, and students in afternoon classes get a ride there, according to Julie Kallenbach, the district's director of early childhood education and principal of Illinois Park.

Even without transportation, Kallenbach said, parents are finding ways to get their preschoolers to Illinois Park.
She's seen moms ride up on city buses with their children and students arrive at school in the morning alone in a taxi cab, she said.

District 300 even moved some preschool classrooms from deLacey into neighborhood schools -- such as Perry, Golfview and Meadowdale elementary schools, all in Carpentersville -- so parents without transportation can walk their children there.

At Perry, the new preschool program has an attendance rate of about 94 percent, according to Principal Craig Zieleniewski. He'd like to see at least 95 percent, he said.

Having transportation last year was easier, according to Jackie Moss of Carpentersville, who has three children -- two already students in District 300 schools. She recognizes the plus of preschool for her son Zion, but it presents a problem: Moss is expecting a fourth child, and when he or she is born, she said she'll have to find someone else to drive the boy to Perry.

"He is too intelligent to sit at home with me and his little brother. He is too smart," she said. At school, "my son is learning to count in Spanish, and he's only 4."
U46 also has moved some of its preschool and kindergarten classrooms from a central location this year, but that's because it closed Woodland Heights Early Learning Center in Streamwood. That move will save the school district more than $300,000.

Kindergarten 'specials'

At the kindergarten level, both U46 and District 300 have cut music and P.E. programs for students this year. U46 also has cut art, which District 300 doesn't offer at its elementary schools, and scaled back its library services by cutting its media staff in half.

Cutting staff for those programs will save the Carpentersville district $160,000, and cutting staff for and reorganizing its kindergarten fine arts program will save the Elgin district $1.7 million.

Cutting apart strips of orange and blue construction paper earlier this week, in the new art center in Mary Kay Foote's bilingual kindergarten class at Illinois Park, was 6-year-old Emanuel Garcia of Elgin. He'd pasted the colored squares onto another strip of white paper, then glued that onto a stencil of an airplane he'd traced to give to his mom.

"I like doing art!" Emanuel said.

Foote pointed out the boy was pasting the orange and blue squares in a repeating pattern -- really a math skill, she said. That's one way she, like other kindergarten teachers, are trying to work art, music and movement into their typical classroom activities, she said.

"You walk into any classroom -- the kids don't know it," Kallenbach said. "The kids are still happy and relaxed, which is another testament to the teachers. They really keep all the politics out of the classroom."

Those cuts haven't stopped parents from enrolling their children in either district's early learning programs, either, officials said. Class sizes are at their caps; and in preschool, there are waiting lists of about 150 students in the Carpentersville district and expected to hit 500 in Elgin.

That's partly because there are seven fewer preschool teachers in U46 and two fewer preschool teachers in District 300. It's also partly because there are fewer teachers' aides and office staff and guidance counselors and Birth to 3 Parent Educators, people who not only headed up classrooms but also helped screen new students.

And that means deLacey only can take about 380 students right now, although the school is hopeful it may be able to hire back another teacher soon, Cronin said.

The Preschool for All grant from the state "is written for 460 kids, and we have to fill those spots in October or we have to give back that money," she said. "That's our dilemma right now."

Another dilemma for both districts: Even after both school boards lopped money for Preschool for All busing from their districts' 2010-11 budgets, Illinois announced it will cut $146 million in funding for transportation from the state budget. And it still owes about $12 million to U46 and $6.5 million to District 300 in similar categorical funding for the last school year.

"We all knew it was going to be hard, but we hadn't thought about all the details," Kallenbach said.

"I can't even picture how we could cut even deeper. It's too hard to predict what more we could possibly cut."