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Prospect of New Charter Schools Angers Some Southwest Siders

By Casey Cora | August 19, 2013 7:02am
 Anita Caballero delivers fiery remarks to CPS officials Phil Hampton and Julio Cesar Contreras at a July meeting in Brighton Park.
Anita Caballero delivers fiery remarks to CPS officials Phil Hampton and Julio Cesar Contreras at a July meeting in Brighton Park.
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DNAinfo files/Casey Cora

MCKINLEY PARK — A request by Chicago Public Schools for charter school applications has community leaders and school officials angry and more than a little confused about the district’s logic.

Already slammed by budget cuts because of a mix of a new district per-pupil budgeting system and districtwide declining enrollment, some overcrowded Southwest Side schools could soon lose students to the prospective new charters.

“If our area schools have … very low enrollment, then why all of a sudden are they overcrowded and need to be relieved [with new charters]?” asked Patrick Brosnan, director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “None of it makes any sense. It’s at best misleading and confusing.”

The addition of thousands of new seats means a potential siphoning of students from public schools to the quasi-public charters, neighborhood activists fear.

“Let’s assume the CPS projections are correct — enrollment is down, fine  — so then what's next for us is underutilization. And we already know what happens then," said Brosnan, referring to the district's controversial closing of 50 schools that it said were underutilized.

CPS allows charter school operators to submit applications annually. This year, the district  indicated the new schools would be opened in certain Northwest and Southwest Side neighborhoods, where the district said schools are overcrowded.

In the document, CPS has asked "teachers, administrators, national education management organizations, current school leadership teams, and nonprofit institutions from Chicago and nationwide" to contribute ideas for schools that would open in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

CPS also outlines what it calls "priority models" for the charter schools, which include "Next Generation," (a mix of online learning and in-school instruction) "Arts-Integration," "Dual Language," and "Humanities-Focused," though it said it does not limit applicants to those models.

Technically, the area identified by CPS as McKinley Park extends well past the neighborhood’s borders and stretches to include a huge swath of the Southwest Side — from Cicero Avenue on the west to Halsted Street on the east from the Stevenson Expy. on the north down to 59th Street.

That includes Bridgeport, Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Gage Park, West Elsdon, Archer Heights, Back of the Yards and Canaryville.

One McKinley Park principal who requested anonymity said he was disappointed that CPS is targeting the community, saying the district is rushing to open charters and “not looking at the resources we have in our own neighborhood.”

According to the district’s data, the current utilization rate — a mix of enrollment figures, classroom sizes and building capacity — of the area is 116 percent, “with fifteen of its forty-six schools categorized as overcrowded and four schools underutilized.”

Still, it’s an area where an increasing number of charter schools already are flourishing or beginning to sprout.

In McKinley Park, there’s Namaste Charter School — deemed overcrowded by CPS figures — and the Horizon Charter School Science Academy, operated by Concept Charter Schools, which is opening this year and aims to enroll up to 725 K-12 students in coming years.

In next-door Brighton Park, the United Neighborhood Organization plans to open two more schools in the area: UNO Soccer Academy in nearby Gage Park and UNO Brighton Park Elementary.

That’s in addition to the group’s existing schools, including UNO Marquez and the overcrowded UNO Cisneros.

And this month, CPS will open the new, $91 million Back of the Yards High School, which will accept 1,200 neighborhood students.