PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday January 8th, 2014, 1:00pm

Debate Over New Chicago Charter School Proposals Heats Up At CPS Hearing

Chicagoans braved the bitter cold Tuesday night to speak out at community hearings held by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) regarding proposals for 21 new privately-run charter schools. Progress Illinois provides a snapshot of the hearings.

Chicagoans braved the bitter cold Tuesday night to speak out at community hearings held by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) regarding proposals for 21 new privately-run charter schools.

Back in August, CPS announced plans to open new charters as a means to alleviate overcrowding in schools on the city's Northwest and Southwest sides. A total of nine charter operators are seeking board approval for the 21 new campuses, 13 of which are set to open next fall.

Three simultaneous community hearings were held Tuesday at CPS’ district headquarters, each covering applications from three of the nine different charter operators.  

    At one of the hearings that only saw about a dozen attendees (pictured), Karen Zaccor, a teacher at Uplift Community High School in Uptown, called CPS’ community-engagement process a “travesty.” CPS did not cancel Tuesday’s hearing, despite all district schools being closed that day as well as Monday due to below-zero temperatures.

“We’re having the meeting tonight when clearly it’s such a bad night for so many people to come to, and then when we get down here, we find we’re split into all these different rooms, which is that typical CPS strategy of let’s split everybody so that they don’t realize that they’re all talking about the same concern,” she said. 

In all three hearings, many attendees urged the board to put the brakes on charter expansion and instead invest in existing neighborhood public schools, many of which saw their budgets slashed significantly this year due to CPS’ budget constraints. They noted that the board has already signed off on 10 additional charters that could open in 2014.

Others explained that the 21 proposed charters, if all approved, could carry a price tag of $21 million in start-up and other added costs. 

"CPS faces a $914 million deficit next school year. There is no revenue to cover the addition of new charter schools," Jennie Biggs of the Raise Your Hand education coalition said at a community press conference before the hearing. "Charter expansion is costly and unwarranted. District schools will face further cuts, and this move will further destabilize the whole district."

Ed Hershey, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, told one of the hearing officers that he was confused as to why CPS would spend extra funds on new charter schools at a time when the district just closed a record-breaking 50 “underutilized” neighborhood schools in an effort to cut costs.

“The district closed these schools and says it’s doing so to save money, we’re told to the tune of $40 million a year, but now the district says it has $20 million to start up new schools and new buildings, including in some of the same areas [where schools were closed],” he said at the hearing held in the board's chambers, which saw the largest turnout out of the three hearings.

“Does this make sense to anybody here," he asked the more than 50 attendees. "It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The charter applications under consideration by the board come from Asian Human Services Passages; Be the Change; Chicago Education Partnership; Concept School – Horizon Science Academies; Connected Futures Academy; Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy; Great Lakes Academy; Intrinsic Schools; and the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which is also hoping to open eight additional campuses by 2018.

The new charters are being proposed for various Chicago neighborhoods such as Belmont Cragin, Chatham, McKinley Park/Bridgeport, Austin and South Shore. The board is set to vote on the charter proposals recommend by CPS at its January 22 meeting.

Eric Anderson, a teacher at Owen Scholastic Academy in Ashburn, said his neighborhood school on the Southwest Side is not overcrowded, and therefore the plan to set up the Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy in the nearby Chicago Lawn neighborhood is unnecessary.

“Last year, in fact, CPS had Owen on the list of schools that were 'underutilized,' so where’s the need,” Anderson asked.

Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy, to open next year, would serve students in preschool through 5th grade. The school would add a grade level each year to eventually accommodate up to the 8th grade.

Meanwhile, Concept Schools is looking to open two new high schools next year, with one to be located in Chatham and the other in South Chicago. Some of the hearings' attendees noted that CPS denied applications for two new Concept campuses last year.

Concept, however, later appealed to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, an independent charter authority the state legislature created back in 2011. The charter commission overruled CPS’ denials, allowing the two Concept campuses to open in McKinley Park and Austin.

CPS previously said Concept “was not worth expanding,” Martin Ritter with the Chicago Teachers Union  (CTU) stressed. “So why are we expanding them now?”

But Clarice Mills, president of the non-profit West Chatham Improvement Association, said she welcomes the proposal from Concept to set up shop in Chatham.

“West Chatham is in dire need of quality education,” she said. “The parents in our community are taking our school-age children, k-12, out of our community in search of quality education.”

For the Northwest Side, another charter operator, Intrinsic Schools, submitted applications to open four new charter schools that would serve grades 7 through 12, with one campus to open in 2015, another in 2016 and two in 2017. The first Intrinsic campus opened this year in a temporary location downtown. That school will soon be moving to its permanent building in the Hermosa neighborhood.

“We are looking to grow, because we believe scale will help us offer better resources to families and to allow structures for support in refining a new model,” said Melissa Zaikos, founder and CEO of Intrinsic Schools. “We also have a very experienced team that was assembled and built for scale.”

But Sarah Haines with the CTU fired back, saying Intrinsic needs "to go to scale because the model is too expensive.” Haines also noted that Intrinsic has only been open for one year, and it’s not yet clear if its model, which incorporates blended online learning, is effective.

Granting another charter to Intrinsic is not the best idea "when we still don’t know if the first one’s going to work just because it’s too expensive to have the one downtown while they’re building another one," she added. "This is not a good model."

The proposal from the Noble Charter School Network is also a controversial one.

The charter operator is looking to open three new charter high school campuses in 2014. One of the campuses, the ITW David Speer Academy, is set to be located across the street from Prosser Career Academy on Grand Avenue in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. Community members, who have called the proposal "bad urban planning," have been pushing back against the planned charter for months, saying the area does not need any more schools.

The specific locations for Noble's two other proposed schools have not yet been determined.

Tom Mulder with the Noble Network, who would be the principal of the ITW David Speer Academy if it's approved, said the Grand Avenue school would have a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focus, five engineering labs and four science labs.

“You have my commitment that our campus will be an engaged community partner working to strengthen the safety and vibrancy of Belmont Cragin while providing opportunities for students to serve their community,” he said.

But Dwayne Truss, West Side education activist and assistant director of Raise Your Hand, said “Noble Street is not the type of school that’s going to serve the students of Austin,” which neighbors Belmont Cragin.

“Noble Street should have talked about their disciplinary policy, and their demerits, and how poorer families are pushed out of their schools because they can’t afford the fees that they have to incur while being at Noble Street charter high school,” he said.

Northwest Side Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) also took to task the argument that the overall plan for charter school expansion in the city is “not about stealing resources from Chicago Public Schools,” but rather about offering options to parents.

“Parents in our community are not looking for choice when that choice involves private companies that operate with next to no oversight from the Board of Education," the alderman stressed. "What parents want is improvements in the neighborhood public schools.”

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