First of two parts
Let's be honest here.
Few move to the Chicago suburbs for the night life. They move here for the schools.
The evidence is clear.
On the 2009 Prairie State Achievement exam, the percentage of juniors in 66 high schools across Cook, DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Lake counties meeting or exceeding state standards crushed the state average in reading by 8.7 percentage points, and 12.8 points in math.
Graduation rates at Prospect, Stevenson and Naperville Central high schools, among others, are near 100 percent.
Want your first-grader to learn Japanese? Try Schaumburg District 54.
A recognized autism program? Try Palatine District 15's Structure for Independence.
But a perfect storm of sorts hit this year, threatening the very programs that are so coveted. With a mere 0.1 percent inflation rate that by law sets allowable tax increases and a dramatic rise in home foreclosures, districts are collecting less in property taxes than they've been accustomed to. And the state's financial crisis has only made matters worse. Illinois is nearly $5 billion behind in payments, $1 billion to school districts alone.
Across the suburbs, school districts are predicting deep deficits and making Draconian cuts to avoid falling further into a hole.
Take Indian Prairie District 204, which has 29 schools in Naperville, Aurora and Bolingbrook. District officials first agreed to make $9.2 million in cuts last December and are now cutting $12.2 million more.
"I'm sure I speak for superintendents across the state. This is tough. We see the dividends of what we're doing," Superintendent Kathy Birkett said. "Those are huge cuts. What you really look at is, we try to protect the classroom as much as possible, try to make sure we maintain the academic support. Then beyond that we go program by program. That's what we're in the throes of right now. Given the state of Illinois, we are very nervous."
Wheeling District 21 - faced with a $12 million hole - is considering consolidating to create grade-based schools and even closing a campus.
Parent Joe Seymour calls grappling with those cuts "a punch in the gut."
Elgin Area School District U-46, now $48.6 million in the red, announced this week its plans to make more than $31 million in cuts next year, with more to be hashed out in the coming weeks. Closing an early childhood center, increasing class sizes and cutting elementary special education are all realities, Chief Financial Officer Ron Ally told the school board Feb. 22.
Maine Township High School District 207, predicting a $19 million deficit, has announced $15 million in cuts, which include the loss of 75 teachers - 10 percent of its teaching staff.
It could get even worse. With legislators downstate now exploring the idea of reducing general state aid next year, districts may have to cut even more from their budgets.
Parents and students who feel victimized by budget cuts are finding themselves in a new position. Faced with a loss of services, many are taking matters into their own hands.
Even though her before-school hearing services have been cut, Caylee Warpehoski wakes up like clockwork at 6:30 a.m. every day.
"She'll get up and say, 'It's time for school,'" her mother, Diane, said. "Then I tell her, 'No, honey, now you've still got a couple of hours.'"
Caylee, 5, suffers from facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. The disease has turned her spine into a C-shape and is destroying her arm muscles. It makes it impossible for Caylee to speak clearly or smile. She also suffers from both vision and hearing loss.
She, along with five other students, were receiving an additional hour of hearing support before preschool each day at Independence Early Childhood Center in Bartlett.
But in late November, a letter was sent home explaining those services would be discontinued, starting in January.
Diane and her husband Jeff were upset.
"For some kids it might work out (to lose that hour)," Diane said. "For mine, it won't."
During regular preschool hours, Caylee receives speech, vision, hearing and auditory therapy services.
The additional hour, the Warpehoskis say, really makes a difference.
"There is no way they can fit any more in," Diane says.
Diane called and e-mailed Elgin Area School District U-46's director of special education, Pamela Harris, and Superintendent Jose Torres, but says she never heard back from either.
After speaking to the school a written response from the district's attorney, Pat Broncato.
The before-school hearing program, Broncato said, was meant to be a temporary solution as the district moved away from a more costly hearing-impaired program run by the Northwestern Illinois Association, a special education cooperative.
"We believe that the students' auditory training can be incorporated into classroom instructional activities," the letter read. "In addition, this change does help the district save money in an era of significantly reduced funding from the state of Illinois. The district understands that this lessens the hours of instruction for your child. We believe that the program we have is still an excellent program."
The family is building a ranch home on Elgin's west side better suited to Caylee's needs - and in a different school district.
But with the housing market in shambles, Jeff and Diane are worried about their ability to sell their Bartlett home.
"I'm tired of fighting for everything for her," Diane said. "We have to fight for everything."
High school electives
For two full years, Alex Busch was enrolled in Bartlett High School's Science and Engineering Academy.
With a 4.1 GPA, he was, by all accounts, doing great.
But much of the academy's curriculum is centered on engineering, and Alex didn't want to be bound to an engineering program when it came time to apply to college.
This year, as a junior, Alex left the academy, hoping to broaden his horizons through elective classes.
All was going well until mid-January.
He was sitting in an English class, when counselors came in and demanded that students who were registered for seven classes choose one to scratch off - on the spot.
"I called the principal the next day, and was ranting and raving on the phone," his mother, Karen Busch, said.
The family decided Alex should leave the school's academy so he could explore his options.
Now he's not getting that opportunity.
According to Elgin Area School District U-46 administrators, high school students have long been expected to take six classes with the intention of allowing a select few to drop a study hall and take a seventh class.
In reality, more than a few students were registering for an extra course, making a seven-class course load less of an exception, and more of a standard, Bartlett High School Principal Kevin Skinkis wrote in his monthly newsletter to parents. But now, with U-46 attempting to make at least $31 million in budget cuts next school year, officials directed the high schools to firmly cap course loads at six classes apiece. Now, only academy students, students new to English, and special education students will have the option of taking seven classes - at least for now. The move will save the district more than $6 million.
The Busch family's mantra, Karen says, is "You will only get out of your education what you put into it."
As a family rule, both Alex and his younger brother, a Bartlett High School freshman, must take classes over the summer in order to take a study hall.
"If they have the academics to get into a college, it would be beneficial for us as a family to get scholarships," Karen said.
Karen has asked for a disclaimer to be put on students' high school transcripts.
"I want something along the lines of 'This child registered for a full class load, but due to budget cuts wasn't allowed to.' This looks awful," she said.
After hearing droves of parents speak out about the change at a Jan. 25 school board meeting, Superintendent Torres told parents that the district hopes that later this spring high schools will "be able to go back to some students (wishing to take seven courses) and in those classes that might not be filled to capacity, sign those additional students."
"How do I know my (students) are going to be considered? Do I have to call every day? Stand outside of the counselor's office?" Karen asks. "Nobody can tell me what the plan is."