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What, No Jerry Lewis?

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A hard-luck school district in the Chicago area last month made the unusual decision to hit the airwaves with a fund-raising telethon to keep its schools afloat.

Faced with a $1.6 million deficit requiring major cuts in programs, members of the North Chicago city school board were ready to close the district's nine schools in March, until Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois promised emergency operating funds for the 4,300-student district.

To help fill the financial gap, Mayor Bobby Thompson persuaded Partners in Progress, a nonprofit group of area business leaders, to donate time and services to produce the telethon.

A local cable-television company donated airtime, technical services, and news announcers for the 12-hour telethon, which was broadcast live from the North Chicago High School auditorium on a Saturday last month.

Local residents provided most of the entertainment, and Jerry Fontenot, a center for the Chicago Bears football team, dropped by to host the show for an hour, offering bonus gifts for donors including autographed Chicago Bull basketballs and Bears caps.

The fund-raiser also featured some cinema verite, in the form of videotaped interviews of North Chicago students and teachers bemoaning the potential loss of school programs next fall.

Donors were forthcoming, but their pockets weren't deep. The average pledge was $25 and the telethon's final take was $185,000, far less than the $1 million goal. Still, the organizers see the event as a success.

"While we hope not to do this again, the telethon drew the community together, and focused on the magnitude of the problem,'' Mr. Washington says.--S.K.G.

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