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Be the Change Charter School Eyes Bridgeport

By Casey Cora | March 18, 2013 8:31am

BRIDGEPORT — If a group of teachers gets its way, Bridgeport would be home to one of the city’s next charter schools.

Called Be the Change, the project is the brainchild of a group of University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program grads trying to raise money and interest in starting the school, which they say would focus on interdisciplinary learning, a method that connects separate disciplines and allowing students to see themes and issues from multiple viewpoints.

“Not only is it doable, but kids tend to retain the information better because they’re thinking about it in multifaceted ways. It’s research-based but not widely used and certainly not widely used in an urban context,” said Eliza Bryant, 30, of Hyde Park, a former teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School in Auburn Gresham.

CPS shot down the nonprofit group’s first attempt at getting the school concept approved back in 2011.

The group, which includes a 5-person curriculum design team and a 6-person governing board, will try again in August, assuming CPS puts out a request for proposals from prospective charters.

That’s not a given. A proposed moratorium on new charter schools is pending in a Chicago City Council committee and could go in front of the full council for discussion, though that too is a long shot.

But if they get the green light — and their bid is approved by CPS — Be the Change could open in fall 2014.

During a recent interview, project founders Sonia Wang, Eliza Bryant and Jeannie Kim said community interest in the school has waned as concerns have risen about CPS school closings.

But anyone who thinks Be The Change wants to take over public education in Chicago has it wrong, they said.

Through emails and Facebook postings, the group supported the Chicago Teachers Union during the fall teachers strike and said they’re against closing neighborhood schools.

In fact, they said, working with the neighborhood schools is one of their main goals "because we think we have a lot to learn from what’s successful in those schools just like if we have something useful we want to be able to share it with them," Bryant said.

“Schools should be all be in it together to improve the lives and education of students. I think as an independent charter public school, we have that opportunity to make the relationships lasting,” she said.

Be the Change would not be part of the city’s larger charter networks such as Noble and UNO, which has come under fire after reports of lucrative contract cronyism among network and city leaders.

And the group said it has no plans to expand beyond one location, similar to the other independent charter schools such as Namaste, Epic Academy and Polaris.

The way it’s drawn up now, enrollment at Be the Change would be based on a lottery, and students could come from all over the city, although the group wants to focus on Bridgeport, Armour Square, Fuller Park, Douglas Park, New City and Chinatown.

“It’s not going to be exclusively to those neighborhoods. If somebody from Edgewater wants to make the trek down, they should,” Bryant said.  

Within five years, the school would hire upward of 25 teachers and enroll as many as 500 students, organizers said.

One of the board members, Realtor Peter Schuler, is scouting Bridgeport locations at the design team’s behest, “because that’s a community that has obvious diversity,” he said.

An edict by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett would prevent standalone charter schools such as Be the Change from taking over elementary school buildings that might be closed by the school district, including Hendricks Elementary in Fuller Park, McClellan Elementary in Bridgeport and Canaryville's Graham Elementary.

Those schools are all part of CPS' southwest side Pershing Network, which happens to be where Kim, 29, works as an Instructional Effectiveness Specialist aiding principals in their evaluations of teachers.

That relationship  — trying to start a charter school while working for a CPS network where seven schools are eyed for closure — has raised a few eyebrows.

Kim declined to answer questions about her employment, saying in an email she didn't "want to let down the BCCS team nor the team that I work for in CPS."

For now, the group said they’re focusing on promoting the potential school, which they say is an experiment worth taking.

“We share a philosophy on seeing students as a whole child and I think that’s something we’ve taken into consideration as we’ve been developing Be the Change,” said Wang, 29, of Bridgeport, a literacy specialist at University of Chicago Charter Woodlawn campus.

“We’re not just imparting information … our student are so complex and if you don’t factor all these things in, you’re missing something.”