Private alternative school eyes shuttered DuPage youth home
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org June 5, 2012 3:04PM
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:41AM
The operator of a school program designed for kids with behavior issues wants to rent vacant space in Wheaton from DuPage County. Officials from Joseph Academy have their eye on the former Youth Home, where kids used to go after their behavior issues landed them on the wrong side of the law.
The county-run home for youth offenders was at the center of a firestorm last fall after County Board Chairman Dan Cronin pitched a plan to outsource the well-regarded facility to the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center, saving DuPage some $800,000 annually. After hearing hours of testimony, most of it from people opposing the closure, the board passed the measure with an unusually close 10-8 vote.
“Despite disagreements during (the) discussions, all parties did agree that it is critical to expand proactive diversion programs that help the youth before it is too late and their behavior results in incarceration,” Cronin wrote in a recent memo to the board.
Joseph Academy Executive Director Michael Schack brought the space rental request to the county’s public works committee Tuesday. The structure, now referred to as Building 2, currently houses the county’s Office of Emergency Management and the adult work release program operated by the sheriff’s department. Nearly 20,000 square feet of vacant space will be used for the diversion program if the County Board agrees with the committee and endorses the plan at its meeting June 12.
Serving students with emotional disturbances, severe behavior disorders and learning disabilities, the company would meet “very specific schooling needs,” committee chairman Jim Healy of Naperville said.
The county now has a gap in prevention programs tailored for “high cost children,” Schack said. Some DuPage kids attend the Joseph Academy program in Melrose Park, one of four schools run by the company, which works with about 200 kids from 50 Illinois school districts. Strategic planning manager Tim Trotter said he was told by regional schools Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti that there is no comparable diversion program in DuPage, so troubled kids must travel long distances to attend special schools elsewhere.
Schack, former head of the special education department in New Trier Township High School District 203, said private education is particularly well suited to the mission of keeping kids out of the criminal justice system.
“The non-public sector seems to be able to offer a better service at a lower price ... If you build it, they will come,” he said.
He said it will be difficult to predict the age population at the school until he has had a chance to meet with local school administrators to gauge the need, but the school likely would operate on a small scale initially, accommodating about 17 to 20 students at first. An “optimal number” for the eventual head count is in the mid 40s, Schack said.
Rental rates were not discussed, but Kathy MacLennan, deputy director of facilities management for the county, said the income would be put to good use.
“We believe that we can lease the space ... and use the money to pay for a new roof,” she said.
The Illinois State Board of Education has to sign off on the plan, which will be implemented in July if all needed clearances come through. County officials are hopeful they will.
“It made us all feel good that we had an opportunity to help some of these kids,” Trotter said.