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Chicago Plans Boarding School as Safe Alternative

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Eager for a new way to keep inner-city students away from drugs, gangs, and other lures of the streets, public school officials in Chicago are eyeing a traditionally private-sector solution: boarding schools.

The Chicago Cluster Initiative, a nonprofit school-reform group, wants to convert a section of the Robert Taylor Homes--the nation's largest public-housing development--into a residential extended-day school by next fall. About 300 students in grades 4 through 8 from three local schools would attend their designated schools during the day. But after regular school hours, they would go to the residential school for additional classes and supervision.

In 1996, about 60 students from DuSable High School would live at the school, and, in each year after, the program would expand by 60 students until the school reached its 540-student capacity.

"We're looking to create a safe environment," said Donna Wilson Williams, the new executive director of the c.c.i. Details of the plan are incomplete, Ms. Williams said, but she said parent involvement would likely be a key aspect of the school's mission.

The school is not about removing students from their home environments, she said. It would be opened in one of the 16-story, 160-unit buildings operated by the Chicago Housing Authority--close to the students' families.

Students would live in a supervised environment, Ms. Williams said, and they would have access to after-school programs, social services, and organized parent involvement.

The c.c.i. also wants to build a sports stadium and a learning center for students, parents, and the community on land across the street from the housing project.

The housing authority, whose chairman is a c.c.i. board member, would allocate the space and help finance the school, with help from other public and private donors. Ms. Williams said the project's cost is unclear because plans for renovating the building are incomplete.

Progress Elsewhere

A few hundred miles east, administrators at the Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit plan to offer boarding to students, also by next fall. "We want to insure that young people [here] have the same opportunities that children of greater means have," said Ray Johnson, the principal of the 560-student African-centered school serving children in preschool through 5th grade.

At the start of this school year, the academy moved from a cramped building on the east side of Detroit to a former home for neglected youths. Still downtown, the new school is on 18 acres and has a dormitory, a large athletic facility, an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a chapel.

Mr. Johnson said he expects to have 50 to 60 boarding students the first year.

The academy will receive the same per-pupil funding from the district as other schools, he said. To raise enough additional money for the residential component, he said, the district will explore subsidies aimed at at-risk children.

Three years ago in New York City, students at Bronx Regional High School began sprucing up some abandoned houses next door to their school and turning them into dormitories for some of their neediest classmates. (See Education Week, 04/03/91.)

Though the living space is ready for up to 20 boarding students, officials at the 350-student alternative school have not opened it. They have been waiting for more money from the state for operating costs, according to Steve Shreefter, a history teacher and the chairman of the dormitory project's board of directors.

Other Models

Public boarding schools are not new, said Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the Washington-based International Center for Residential Education.

For example, she said, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has for many years supported boarding schools for students on very large but sparsely populated reservations. Some students live so far away from the schools they attend that it helps if they can sleep there during the week, she said.

"Boot camps," or facilities at which discipline is the primary focus, also tend to be residential.

But few boarding schools are academically based, public schools in the inner city. Some districts, such as in Paterson, N.J., have latched on to the idea. During the summer, officials there operate the Paterson Residential Education Program. But they have not yet been able to secure enough funds for a full program during the school year.

Ms. Goldsmith's group is working to spread interest in public boarding schools. Some students, she said, need "total, 24-hour educational facilities to turn their lives around."

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