CITY HALL — A charter group's bid to open a school in McKinley Park cleared a big hurdle Tuesday when the city's zoning board approved a switch to convert a vacant factory into one of the city's newest charter schools.
"Everything is ready to go," said Salim Ucan, vice president for Des Plaines-based Concept Charter Schools, which operates 27 schools in seven states, including the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park.
The measure needs the full approval of the City Council, which meets May 8.
Concept is hoping to convert a vacant factory at 2245 W. Pershing Road into the Horizon Science Charter School Academy McKinley Park, a K-12 school with an enrollment of 750 and a special focus on science, math and technology.
The school's proposal would create 18 classrooms, four science and computer labs, a library and school cafeteria, in addition to administrative offices within the 69,000 square-foot building.
The academy would enroll 432 K-8 students when it opens its doors in September and would hire 80 teachers — recruited locally, at statewide charter school job fairs and nationally from Teach for America — when it reaches full capacity.
The zoning board's decision was hardly a landslide. Three aldermen — Ameya Pawar (47th), James Cappleman (46th) and Bob Fioretti (2nd) — opposed the measure and seven approved it.
Concept's original bid to open a pair of new schools, one in Bowmanville and the other in McKinley Park, was denied by the CPS Board of Education in September. The group won an appeal in March from the Illinois State Charter School Commission to open the facilities.
For some aldermen, Concept's appeal amounted to circumventing the rules.
"You go back to the drawing board" after getting denied by CPS, Pawar said. "You don’t draw an end-around."
If it’s approved by the City Council next month, the McKinley Park branch would "operate in Chicago, but will be authorized through the State Commission, held accountable and supported through this commission," a CPS spokeswoman said.
John Kugler, a McKinley Park resident and a representative from the Chicago Teacher's Union, said the neighbors were blindsided by the group's intentions to open. He said that Concept hasn't held community feedback meetings.
"Why do we need to rush this through?" he said.
Ucan acknowledged the group never held a big community meeting, but said they went door-to-door this summer collecting about 1,000 signatures from residents in McKinley Park and Brighton Park who support the school.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th) has backed the charter group from the outset, saying it offers another option for parents in the overcrowded schools.
"I make decisions...on the merits of the project. If I didn't think they were bringing something substantial to the project I wouldn't do it," Cardenas said.
Concept Charters, founded by Turkish Americans, has been scrutinized in recent years for its hiring practices.
Although the company says some of its founders may have been inspired by Fethulla Gulen — a Turkish Muslim scholar whose teachings center on public service, peace and education — the company said it has no ties, including financial or religious, to the "Gulen Movement."
Company officials, on their informational website, distance themselves from the Gulen Movement, with a pages labeled “Getting the Story Straight,” “Accusations and Allegations” and “What the Media Misses.”
Tuesday’s zoning hearing turned heated at times, with Cardenas accusing some of his City Council cohorts of crusading against charter schools.
Cardenas said an accusation made by Kugler that the alderman — who rents a condo next door to the proposed school site — was involved for financial gain “a cheap shot.”
He said he’s waited a decade for city projects to wrap up in his ward, including two new schools, a police station and new library.
“Should I wait ten more years? That’s how long it takes. So people want me to wait until CPS has not only the funds or accommodates the politics? I won’t do that.”
Backers of the school, including a pair of moms who testified at Tuesday’s zoning hearing, said Concept was a good choice for their students — the kids wear uniforms, the teachers enforce discipline and students get instruction on academic subjects where students could use a boost.