LINCOLN SQUARE — On a day when Chicago Public Schools announced plans to shutter 54 schools and 61 buildings, a proposal to open a new charter school drew a standing-room-only crowd to a meeting of the Bowmanville Community Organization.
Interest was so great, a number of people were turned away at the doors due to fire hazard concerns at North Community Bank.
Overall, it was not a warm welcome for Concept Schools, which operates 27 charter schools throughout the Midwest.
Concept Schools, which operates the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park, has applied for a zoning change in order to open a new school at 2050 W. Balmoral Ave., currently the site of the vacated Duray Fluorescent Manufacturing.
On Thursday night, Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Schools, which was founded in Ohio in the 1990s, outlined plans for a 34,000-square-foot, $10 million facility that would initially enroll 400 students K-8, and expand a grade at a time to K-12, with a maximum capacity of 750 students.
The proposal was immediately challenged by attendees.
"This school will be in the Chappell [Elementary] neighborhood," said Eric Rojas, parent representative on Chappell's Local School Council.
"Where's the notion the need is here, when there's already good performing schools?" Rojas asked.
"We shut 61 schools today, including Trumbull," which is within walking distance of the proposed Concept school, added Cindy Henkin.
"I don't understand closing 61 schools and opening charters," Henkin said.
Ucan responded: "First, we are not the ones closing schools."
Concept Schools originally aimed for a location in Belmont Cragin, Ucan said. When that plan fell through, it set its sights on the Duray property.
"The choice, in this community, we thought would be welcome," Ucan said, citing Concept Schools' emphasis on math, science and technology curriculum, Ivy League mentoring for high-performing students, and college visits beginning in the middle-school years.
"We haven't seen a community that got to know us ... and still did not want the school," Ucan said.
Yet residents were particularly rankled over what they considered Concept Schools' lack of outreach before applying for the zoning change. Ucan's presentation was hastily arranged after Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) shared news of the zoning application.
"Neighbors who live within 250 feet found out two days ago. We're not happy. We probably will fight this tooth and nail," said Sharon McGill, who owns a townhome directly across from the Duray plant.
"I was so livid about this," McGill said.
Additional red flags were raised when Ucan conceded that CPS had rejected Concept Schools' charter application to open additional schools, a decision Concept Schools appealed at the state level. Approval was granted on Tuesday.
"CPS had their own reasons for denying," said Ucan, who refused to elaborate when pressed by residents.
Claire Shingler, president of the Bowmanville Community Organization, led a discussion among members after Ucan left the meeting.
Residents mentioned limited access to public transportation for students and the resulting traffic, lack of green space for 700 students, and the impact on neighborhood schools.
"I'd hate to see [Chappell] lose 100 kids," said Hannah Shearn.
"It seems like they found a site, and they're trying to make it fit. It's a good building site, it's not necessarily a good location [for a school]," Shearn said.
Shingler read a statement from O'Connor, which suggested Concept Schools' zoning application may already be dead in the water.
"I'm informed today by Mayor Emanuel ... they are not supportive of a zoning change," wrote O'Connor, who would typically have final say on zoning change requests in his ward.
"It's no guarantee," Shingler noted, encouraging neighbors to remain engaged with the process and turn out en masse should O'Connor hold a town hall to gauge constituents' sentiments on Concept Schools.
"It's a bad idea," said McGill. "We will rally to the end."