This is an interview with Kimako Patterson, the superintendent of Prairie-Hills Elementary District 144, a 2,600-student district in the south suburbs of Illinois where 95 percent of students are from low-income families. The average per-student instructional spending in Prairie-Hills is $5,700—$2,000 below the state average. She is a member of Funding Illinois’ Future, a coalition supporting HB1, a historic school funding reform law passed by the Illinois legislature that seeks to fix the state’s school funding formula. The funding formula has long created gaps between low-income students and their peers in wealthier schools. For every dollar the state spends on a non-low-income student, Illinois spends only 81 cents on a low-income student, which ranks it among the worst in the nation for funding disparities. The funding formula deepens inequities and leaves too few student prepared for college, career and citizenship. Follow #fixtheformula on Twitter or visit www.fundingilfuture.org.
What’s happening in your district makes it clear that HB1 is not just a bailout for Chicago Public Schools. Paint me a picture of how the state’s funding formula hurts students in your district—in other words, give me a specific example or anecdote that will make this real for people who don’t know why this is important.
There are several examples that come to mind when I think about the inadequacy in funding for our students.
For instance, quite a few of our students come to school with no uniforms and parents are unable to afford uniforms for the students. We don’t have adequate funding in our budget to purchase uniforms for students, but we would if we received all of the monies owed to us by the State of Illinois. So, my staff and I purchase underwear, socks, shirts, pants, coats and shoes in some cases to ensure that students are able to sit amongst their peers and learn without ridicule.
I cannot tell you how many students come to school for breakfast because they cannot depend upon eating breakfast at home. We always manage to feed our students, but there have been times when parents have brought students to school well after breakfast and the children enter the building crying because they are hungry. Why on earth should this ever be an issue for a 5, 6 or 7 year old child? So we have had to be flexible and work outside of our boundaries to ensure our students are fed, even when we know we won’t received the money from the National Breakfast and Lunch program.
We also struggle to supply other basics. We purchase tons of school supplies every year, because we have students who will arrive in our buildings without paper, pencils or bookbags. Our reality is that we must meet the basic needs of our students who don’t have alternative resources. The South Cook County region continues to have a high concentration of poverty and the needs of these students vary greatly–so when any money is taken from our budget, we have to find other means to meet the needs of students.
If you could convince your parents to say one thing to the governor (or state legislative leaders) about what your schools need, what would you want them to say?
Our parents would ask the Governor how in good conscious he can advocate for ALL children while not ensuring that the neediest children receive the necessary resources. At what point will we put aside adult differences and really focus on what is in the best interest of students instead of spouting rhetoric?
A lot of people think suburban schools are “just fine” — that all the needs and issues that hurt children educationally are just focused in urban schools or rural schools. What is the one thing you wish people understood better about your south suburban district.
We have some of the smartest children in the state attending schools at Prairie-Hills Elementary School District 144. We have some of the most dedicated and committed adults working in our District. We have the most supportive parents and community members. Here is what happens in our District, we take what is given to us and make the BEST opportunities possible for our students, staff and parents. We seek competitive grant dollars to fill in the “gaps” that exist in our funding structure. To date, my administrators and I have written $5.2 million dollars in competitive grants. Why? Because we are determined to ensure that OUR students receive the same exposure, opportunities and experiences that other students with more resources receive.
If you really care about school equity, it’s hard to accept this as a reality: Most voters/parents/constituents really just care about what’s happening in their backyard and with their own children. If they live in an area where the funding favors their community, they don’t want to give up any resources, they will fight to protect what they have even if it’s clear that the funding formula is hurting the state’s most vulnerable children. How do we get beyond that essential self-interest/selfishness?
We believe that ALL children should be provided the same basic resources, and those with less resources should receive more BUT never at the detriment of others. Why must we take from some in order for others to have equity? I think the basic paradigm should shift throughout the state. The State of Illinois should do its part in providing adequate funding for all school districts. This means that NO school district would receive less than what they currently receive. However, those districts with the neediest of students would receive additional monies. The reason we enter into these conversations, about taking from one and giving to another, is because the State of Illinois doesn’t want to fund ALL districts at an initial adequate level. Let’s start there and then focus on local resources and additional dollars for the neediest students. I don’t believe that any community should have to give up their resources to provide equity for ALL.
It seems like we’ve been talking about the abysmal state of school funding in Illinois for decades—but nothing seems to get fixed. Why do you think this problem has been so impossible to fix and what might be different now?
I don’t believe constituents have been angry enough to demand change. I believe some legislators and elected officials have focused on adult issues and politics instead of putting those differences aside and rolling up our sleeves to say, “What’s in the best interest of All children? What can we do to ensure that future generations have the necessary education and training to be successful in life? How do we ensure that our society continues to thrive?” The answer to ALL of these questions rest with our children. We must be able to adequately educate future generations to be globally competitive. Think about this: Name one area in Illinois that hasn’t seen crime and violence? Do you know how many times we turn on the TV and people make the comment that they have never witnessed crime in their community.
Guess what? If we don’t stop and demand that adequate funding occur in ALL communities, these problems are going to persist and get worse. We cannot control negative elements entering into our communities. However, if we provide funding for schools to educate students during the day and provide adequate resources for after-school and mentoring programs then perhaps we can lessen the hopelessness that exists among some of these young people who feel abandoned by the system. Why wouldn’t we ALL join forces to try and see if this is perhaps one of the answers to our problems. We already know that what we are currently doing isn’t working. We are living out the definition of insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results. So guess what Illinois? Let’s DO something DIFFERENT and perhaps the end results will change!
Photo of Kimako Patterson (center) courtesy of District 144.