CHICAGO — For Sarah Preston, the decision to explore moving her children to a charter school came down to the violence at some of her neighborhood high schools in Roseland.
“They do too much shooting up there for me,” Preston said, referring to past violence near Harlan Community Academy High School and shootings at other area schools.
With the deadline for applying to selective-enrollment and magnet Chicago Public Schools coming Friday, Preston was one of hundreds of parents — some frustrated by the traditional public education options — who sought more information on charter schools over the weekend at the Sixth Annual New Schools Expo. Application deadlines for charter schools vary.
Preston's husband, Christopher, said finding a good public high school in a safe neighborhood can be a challenge.
"Most good schools are in rough neighborhoods. Gwendolyn Brooks is a good school, but look at where it's at," he said.
He said he might continue private education for his daughters, who attend St. Columbanus Elementary School in Greater Grand Crossing.
“If I cannot find a good charter school for them, then my wife and I are prepared to send them to a private high school to ensure that they get the best possible education," Preston said.
Another parent said she was attracted to charter schools because many have dress codes.
“Kids need more supervision when it comes to how they dress, especially these young ladies who think it is OK to wear anything to school,” said Chatham resident Gloria Turner. But her 14-year-old daughter, Raquel, and 13-year-old niece Ronisha Mosley worried that charter schools were too strict.
“I hear they [charter schools] be on you about your clothes, how your hair looks and what type of makeup you can wear,” Raquel said. “I don’t know if I am ready for all that.”
Preston said he attended the expo in part to learn more about “how charters are controlled." Charters, while still under the CPS umbrella, are operated by nonprofit organizations and its teachers are non-union, so charters were not affected by the recent teachers' strike. And up until this year when a new state law allowed CPS to extend the school day, most charters already had a longer school day. At Urban Prep Academy for Young Men High School in Englewood, for example, the school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. for all students.
But not every parent at the expo was a fan of charter schools.
Logan Square activist Larry Ligas, a father of an eighth-grader, was not impressed with the offerings.
“Too many parents are blinded by the ‘fluff’ charter schools present to them. Charters are nothing more than experimental. How many college graduates have charters produced? That is the real question parents need to be asking,” he said. “When my son graduates next year I will not be sending him to a charter high school.”
A Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman agreed with Ligas and added that parents should ask a lot of questions before deciding on a charter school.
"We believe parents should be armed with all of the information when deciding on where to send their child to school. Do the schools offer music, art, physical education, technology and world languages?" said Stephanie Gadlin, a spokeswoman for CTU. "What programs are available for struggling students? What are the schools’ overall test scores [in reading, math and science] compared to the same scores of students attending the local neighborhood school?"
However, Phyllis Lockett, chief executive officer for New Schools for Chicago, which hosts the expo each year, said charters have and continue to produce college graduates. Lockett said there are 19,000 students on waiting lists to attend a charter school, which uses a lottery system to select students.
Regardless, Samantha Stinson, who lives in Hyde Park, said she plans on sending her 10-year-old son Khalil Myles to a charter high school if she cannot get him into a selective enrollment school.
“Kenwood Academy is our local high school, but I am not comfortable with that school,” explained Stinson. “The [gang] atmosphere at Kenwood is not good, and I do not want my son nowhere that is not safe for him.”