MCKINLEY PARK — A charter management company’s bid to open a new school was met with loud and heated protests during a hastily planned meeting called by Ald. George Cardenas (12th) Tuesday.
Cardenas has backed Concept Charter’s proposed K-12 school at 2245 W. Pershing Road, saying it would be an alternative to neighborhood schools in the ward, including Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts and Shields, Davis and Burroughs elementary schools, and a yet-to-be-built Back of the Yards high school.
But many residents and activists at the meeting weren’t buying it.
"The kids are not a number. They are not a business," Abel Mota, a teacher at Evergreen Academy, shouted from the back of the auditorium.
Some called the meeting — announced several hours before its 5 p.m. start time — a sham and suggested city approval for the school was already a done deal.
A zoning committee’s recommendation to approve the conversion of the vacant factory into a school was expected to go before the City Council on Wednesday.
John Kugler, a McKinley Park resident and Chicago Teachers Union representative, questioned whether the site, home to a former carpet padding manufacturer, was environmentally safe. Last week, Kugler authored a blog post labeling the property as toxic.
Concept hired AES Due Diligence, an environmental assessment group, to analyze the site.
In its site assessment, the company noted a “minor” 1996 spill of five ounces of Toluene Diisocyanate that it called “not an environmental issue,” and concluded there was “no evidence” of environmental hazards at the site, except for asbestos that Concept would remove before the school opens.
City officials say the building would be subject to environmental inspections before it can open as a school.
“We’d never go into a building that is not safe for our students,” said Salim Ucan, vice president of the Des Plaines-based Concept Charter Schools, a nonprofit group that manages more than two dozen schools across the Midwest, including two schools with top-notch Blue Ribbon designations from the federal government.
Ucan said Concept approached Brighton Park and McKinley Park residents throughout the summer and collected about 1,000 signatures from people supporting the school.
But some neighbors say they never heard of Concept’s plan.
Unlike the charter management company’s bid to open a school in Bowmanville, where the plan was met with vocal opposition from community groups and Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Concept’s plans have flown under the radar — until they made headlines after the group’s zoning proposal was killed, then put back on, the agenda of a recent zoning committee meeting.
Patrick Brosnan, head of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said his group was unaware of Concept’s plans and said the company never reached out to his organization.
“This isn’t the way it should be. We should all be participating,” Brosnan said.
Also in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting at the McKinley Park Field House was Jean Nowaczewski, director of the newly created Illinois State Charter Commission, the panel that OK’d Concept’s plan after it was denied by CPS.
She said board members of the charter company impressed the commission with their "very detailed investigation" of Concept schools and a three-hour interview. Groups that authorized Concept and analyzed its performance in other states said "if they had the chance they would have more Concept schools," she said.
Nowaczewski also addressed the group's alleged ties to the teachings of a Turkish Muslim scholar Fethulla Gulen. She said the Concept board "has nothing to do with any movement, Gulen movement or any movement."
Although the company says some of its founders may have been inspired by Gulen, the company said it has no ties, including financial or religious, to a "Gulen Movement."
Teachers and students at Concept-run Chicago Academy of Math and Science in Rogers Park also had their say at the meeting.
Clad in powder-blue school shirts, the teachers backed Concept, saying the school's focus on math, science and technology fills a growing need for students.
"We're in the community. We're involved in the community. Give it a chance," said Rosemary Roman, an eight-year veteran of the academy.
One student at the school, Blessed Nahn, 15, of Rogers Park, said she could "see her future for the first time" after years of attending CPS schools.
Ucan said the company was going to spend $9 million renovating the building and running the schools, which "wouldn't cost CPS a dime."
At the McKinley Park site, Concept would enroll up to 725 students, create 18 classrooms and science and computer labs, and hire 80 teachers — recruited locally, at statewide charter school job fairs and nationally from Teach for America — when it reaches full capacity.
The school would also provide bus transportation for some students.
The company is confident it has a model with a "huge, long successful track record" that can work on the South Side. Ucan predicted there would be "flocks of parents" clamoring to enroll their children there.
Throughout the meeting, Cardenas reminded the crowd that he wouldn't back the school if there wasn't a need. And he also reiterated a point he's made before: No one's forcing kids to enroll in a charter school.
"If (Concept) is not wanted or not needed, then it won't exist," he said.