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Off the Team

The Board of Education just dumped an organization of private donors that was pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into after-school programs. What were they thinking?

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For eight years the Chicago

Youth Success Foundation helped fund after-school programs at Clemente High School by matching two-to-one money students raised through talent shows and dances. In the 1999-2000 school year the foundation came up with $15,000, the students with $7,500.

"Originally the Board of Education wouldn't sanction girls' soccer, and CYSF provided us insurance for a year," says Barbara Martin, a social studies teacher who acted as liaison with the group. "The uniforms for boys' volleyball came through the foundation." With CYSF's help, the Puerto Rican band got uniforms, the Spanish club got costumes, and the athletes got a sports banquet. "I can't say enough about what CYSF did for our school," she says. "When there was no money for extracurriculars, when sports equipment was shoddy, they were there."

But last spring CYSF's hard-charging codirector Linda Sheldon had a run-in with Blondean Davis, the school board's chief of schools and regions, and CYSF was out. Board officials say all high schools are getting more now for sports, band, and clubs, so there's no need for CYSF. Yet many schools that had benefited from CYSF assistance say they've been left scrambling.

The inspiration for CYSF came from Ron Chez, Sheldon's brother, who went to Niles Township High School in the mid-1950s. "I was a dismal student," he says. "I had no intention of going to college, and I got into my share of trouble--fights and things. I was not a pleasant person. About the only reason I stayed in school at all was because of sports--baseball, wrestling, and football--and my coaches." But Chez turned around, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois in 1962 and going on to become a wealthy businessman.

In 1990 he read in the Tribune about the dismal state of Chicago's high school athletic funding, and the next year he and his friend Judd Malkin, chairman of JMB Realty Corporation, launched CYSF to provide funds for athletics (they later added money for other after-school programs). They began by forming partnerships with six high schools--Kelly, Calumet, Collins, Lake View, Fenger, and Lincoln Park--and Clemente joined up the second year.

Chez and Malkin donated their own money, and they badgered their friends into donating more. "Ron was passionate beyond belief about this," recalls Mary Baim, an early executive director. "He recruited his doctor, his lawyer, and his dentist to become involved. He would bamboozle you if he stood next to you on the treadmill at his health club--and he'd exact your time and your money. He was crazed."

Chez also believed strongly in holding the recipients of CYSF money accountable. Each high school had to fill out lots of forms on budgets, plans, and events. A couple of schools, including Lincoln Park, dropped out of the partnership for a time because of all the paperwork.

"By 1997 we had grown to 17 schools, but we also had problems," says Sheldon, a retired business owner who was on CYSF's board. CYSF had gone through a series of executive directors, so she decided to step in. "I said to myself, 'You know what? I'm going to take over as executive director as a give-back.' Foolishly, I felt that my brother and myself could work together. But we couldn't."

She says there were also financial problems. "When I took over we were in arrears. We owed the schools money, and to correct that we hit up everybody we could." When she noticed that her brother's demands for accountability had turned off school administrators, she simplified the reporting procedures. She also began spending more time in the schools. In 1998, at the suggestion of schools CEO Paul Vallas, CYSF joined forces with Project PACE ("promoting academics through curricular enhancement"), another private-donor organization that had been funding music, art, and sports at Englewood High School and at five grammar schools whose kids would go on to Englewood. CYSF/PACE had a budget of $600,000, including $150,000 contributed by the school board. It was now serving 50 schools, 6 of them elementary schools, under the direction of Sheldon and Lori James, who'd headed up Project PACE.

Many schools were glad to work with CYSF/PACE. "We had a great partnership," says Al Pretkelis, assistant principal and athletic director at Kelly High. In the 1999-2000 school year Kelly received $15,000 from the foundation and made $7,500 on its own. "That kind of money doesn't go very far, but without it we'd really have been hurting," he says. Over time CYSF/PACE funds helped Kelly boost the number of its clubs from 12 to 54 and the number of its sports teams from a half dozen to 47.

Roosevelt High School, in Albany Park, also spread its CYSF/PACE money around, supporting not only sports teams but the stage crew, the student newspaper, and the science and tae kwon do clubs. "The paperwork involved with this program was a burden, especially at first, and I wasn't good at it," says Roosevelt athletic director Joseph Kail, who served as the liaison with CYSF/PACE. "But I never complained, because the money was essential."

The schools also saw value in having students raise money. "If you hand kids a dollar they think, well, this is what I deserve," says Barbara Valerious, principal of the Chicago High School for the Agricultural Sciences, where the students sold cookies, pizza, and T-shirts to earn matching funds. "But if they have to work for a dollar, there's a buy-in. It's much better."

CYSF/PACE also sponsored events among its participating schools, including math, science, and sports-trivia competitions as well as softball and three-on-three basketball tournaments. Clemente's Barbara Martin remembers one softball tournament and picnic where "kids paired off into pickup games. They weren't competing, but learning about each other informally." In addition, CYSF/PACE gave small college scholarships to two students at every participating school, putting a lot of weight on nonacademic factors when deciding who was chosen. And at a few schools CYSF/PACE mentors, mostly young professionals, developed ongoing relationships with some of the kids.

"I coach frosh-soph football," says Martin. "One year my kids were really into Notre Dame, but they didn't know what Notre Dame was except that they had a football team. Anyway, some mentors got some money, and on a Saturday they took my team to South Bend. It was an off weekend for the football team, but that didn't make a difference. Some of these kids had never seen a college campus. They met players and even the Notre Dame president. I can't tell you how impressive that was for them. All those kids graduated from Clemente, and some went on to college, though none to Notre Dame."

In September 1999 Sheldon, Lori James, and Martin "Mike" Koldyke--the venture capitalist and school activist who'd founded Project PACE and was now cochair with Chez of the CYSF/PACE board--were scheduled to meet with Vallas to talk about funding in the coming year. But there had been shootings in the schools, and Vallas couldn't make it. So Blondean Davis chaired the meeting. "We made a PowerPoint presentation on how we were committed to make an infrastructure for extracurriculars," says Sheldon, who wanted to expand CYSF/PACE. "Blondean said she'd never heard of our program, and she didn't see the benefits. When I raised the idea of return on investment--something our program had been realizing on a five-to-one basis by leveraging other [school and foundation] funds--she looked at me like I was speaking Chinese."

Sheldon says that in subsequent meetings Davis agreed that CYSF/PACE should continue, but by last January she'd backed off. "We got into a pissing match that day," Sheldon says. "I told Blondean, 'I can explain our program to all these other people, but why can't I make you understand it?'"

Davis insists she did understand the CYSF/PACE program and what Sheldon meant by "return on investment." "I resent her implications," Davis says. "She is hostile because I didn't fund her program."

At the time Sheldon was pressing the board to again give CYSF/PACE $150,000 for the coming year. Davis says the board, which had budgeted "a large infusion" of money for extracurriculars, declined. "There may have been a need for this in the past, but there wasn't a need going forward," she says. "This wouldn't have been an efficient use of taxpayer money." Besides, she says, the academic year's budget had already been passed. "All of our money had already been allotted. In order to satisfy [Sheldon], I'd have had to cut money from somewhere else. I offered to help with some grant writing, with some creative financing, but we just couldn't give another $150,000 at that point."

Nevertheless, Davis consulted with several principals about what they thought of CYSF/PACE. "They were very positive," she says, mentioning in particular the enthusiastic response of Marshall High School principal Don Pittman. But she still believed that budget constraints wouldn't allow the board to provide further funding, and wrote Sheldon a letter explaining her position.

"That letter had so many holes in it that it was a nonletter," says Sheldon, who also complains that Davis stopped taking her phone calls and never came through on the offer to help with grant writing and creative financing. "She never got anything going. She danced away from that."

Meanwhile Davis had explained the situation to Lori James and Mike Koldyke. James was soon hired as a special-projects administrator in Davis's office. Koldyke--who's best known as the founder of the Golden Apple Foundation, which rewards top teachers in the metropolitan area--decided to shift to helping set up the Chicago Public Education Fund, a private organization that uses a business-oriented approach to recruiting teachers and principals for city schools. Sheldon was miffed by his decision. "Mike considered us small potatoes," she says. He responds, "I had so many things on my platter. I'm involved long-term with the [CPS] system."

CYSF/PACE principals and liaisons wrote Vallas impassioned letters asking him to save CYSF/PACE, and Sheldon tried and failed to get an appointment with him. She says CYSF/PACE was in a dilemma: "If the school system wasn't going to belly up, why would our donors, including the Chicago Community Trust, do it?" Moreover, the donors who'd started with Project PACE didn't seem to want to continue their commitment without CPS support.

Last June Sheldon and her board, including Chez, pulled the plug on the organization. In a letter to the participating schools she wrote, "As many of you know, the primary reason for this is the lack of support from and willingness to continue our partnership by the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. This position has impacted our ability to raise funds and successfully meet our obligations."

Davis responds that in the 1999-2000 school year the board gave $5 million to high schools for equipment, musical instruments, and uniforms, and it's giving a total of $1 million this year--all distributed on the basis of need. In addition, each high school can get $10,500 for clubs and another $40,000 to $50,000 for after-school "academies" that offer tutoring and recreational activities. And there's extra money for transportation to chess, band, and sporting events. "We are meeting our responsibilities," she says. "If there's a recreational need, we fill it."

Some high schools don't seem to have felt the loss of CYSF/PACE. "We haven't missed the funding," says Marshall's Pittman. "If we require something in the way of uniforms or paying for a bus, we just write the board a letter." At Clemente an anonymous private donor has stepped into the breach, offering the school a $7,500 yearly stipend, so long as the students can raise $3,700.

But other schools have noticed the loss. "It's been a big blow that they closed up," says Roosevelt's Kail. He says his school did get new sports-equipment money, but "all the academic clubs got washed out completely." Martin says she hasn't seen extra money from the board for Clemente. "I'm sorry, but right now the drama coach is putting on a play. She needs so much money. Who do I call?" Barbara Valerious, principal at the agricultural sciences school, says, "This year we started a girls' basketball team--which is defined as a club, being its first year--and we didn't have the money for uniforms. Linda Sheldon would have helped us. Now the girls are playing in school gym shorts and shirts."

Some observers think the issue at the center of the fight over CYSF/PACE was control. "What the board hated--and what we loved--was that the CYSF money didn't go through official channels," says a former liaison who asked for anonymity. "It was all on the CYSF books, and they [the board] had nothing to do with it." But Davis says the foundation "would still be in existence if [Sheldon] had allowed me to work with this [grant writing and creative financing]." Sheldon says, "I had no agenda in this. My only interest was to give these kids a chance at some of the education my kids had in the Highland Park schools. Education is not just learning the three Rs and taking tests."

Sheldon and her brother--whose relationship is now cool, though neither will say why--appear to be missed in some schools. "Ron came into the schools, and later Linda came," says Martin. "They listened to our needs. They didn't have a North Shore attitude that says, 'Excuse me, I'm not going to rub noses with Chicago public school kids.' When we had an international night or an athletic banquet, they were there. They were a face with the money."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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