Suburban Chicago high schools are a mix of wealthy and underfunded

It all depends on the zip code.

 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaProspect High School students in the ipad pilot program
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaProspect High School students in the ipad pilot program
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaProspect High School students in the ipad pilot program
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaBartlett High mobile classrooms
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaProspect High School students in the ipad pilot program
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaStreamwood High mobile classrooms

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, students use iPads to navigate an interactive tutorial on the human heart. Elk Grove High School uses the tablets in Spanish class, where students can watch instructional videos and record themselves speaking vocabulary words. Both schools are experimenting more with iPads, netbooks, Kindles and other devices, with the goal of eventually furnishing all their students with mobile technology to use in school and at home. High schools in Barrington, Lake Forest, Lincolnshire and Mount Prospect have similar pilot programs.

“We’re moving the classroom outside the walls of the school,” says Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology at Township High School District 214, which is experimenting with the tablets in its six Northwest suburban high schools, including Elk Grove.

Meanwhile, at Kaneland High School near Aurora, administrators say they would like to give students iPads, but they have more pressing issues, such as teacher layoffs, growing class sizes and the elimination of school bus stops.

“We have budgeting issues we need to address before we even consider new technology,” says Jeff Schuler, superintendent of Kaneland Community Unit School District 302.

Suburban high schools have long been considered bastions against budgetary constraints, supported by rich property-tax bases that enable schools to construct new football stadiums and outfit students with the latest technology. Schools in affluent areas are cushioned by strong property-tax support: New Trier spends $20,023 per pupil, and Elk Grove $17,735, compared with a statewide average of $11,537, according to the 2011 Illinois School Report Cards.

But the recession and the weak recovery, coupled with cuts in state funding, have hurt school districts in less-affluent suburbs. Kaneland High, which serves a middle-class population, spent $11,613 per pupil, and Grant High School in Fox Lake spent $10,841. (By comparison, the City of Chicago spent $13,078 per pupil.)

Falling property values are partially to blame. The average home price in the Chicago area has fallen nearly 40 percent since the housing market peaked in 2006, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index. Those lower property values mean lower property-tax collections for suburban schools.

On top of that, state funding for schools continues to slip. The state has slashed school spending by $650 million over the past three years, and an Illinois House committee recently recommended another $258 million in cuts in the coming year. Lawmakers also are threatening to tax school districts to pay for teacher pensions.

“Property values have a great bearing on how much is spent per pupil. What exacerbates this is the state funding crisis,” says Robert Daiber, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.

Locally, that means the less affluent suburban school districts have had to make some drastic cuts. Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville has laid off teachers and staff, added more pupils per class and reduced library hours. The school has even stopped watering the lawn to save money.

“We’ve been in a budget-crisis mode for the last three years, and I don’t see it getting any better next year either,” says Curt Bradshaw, president of the Indian Prairie School District 204 board, which operates 33 schools, including Neuqua Valley High.

State transportation funding reductions have forced Elgin Unit School District 46 to cut bus stops, meaning that high-school students now get dropped off at a nearby elementary school and have to walk to their high school—some as far as 1.5 miles. And students in two of U-46’s high schools take classes in trailers due to overcrowding. The school district is demolishing 14 of 29 mobile classrooms, but it’s doing so mainly because the trailers are aging, and enrollment, while still over what the school building can handle, is shrinking.

“Poor suburban school districts will continue to faces challenges,” says Linda Hanson, president of School Exec Connect, a headhunting and consulting firm based in Highland Park. “As funding falls, it not only affects the quality of education; they can no longer attract the best and brightest teachers. It’s a spiraling problem.”