MCKINLEY PARK — The former factory has been gutted, its interior replaced with sparkling new classrooms and brightly painted walls.
Inside, students walk in single-file lines from one classroom to the next, guided by soft piano music that has replaced the jarring ring of a school bell between periods.
It’s the first week of classes at Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park, a charter school that earlier this summer received a cold reception from community activists fuming at the prospect of more charters opening in the city while CPS moved to close 50 neighborhood schools.
Concept Charter Schools, the Des Plaines-based company that manages 30 schools across the Midwest, has come under fire for what critics say amounted to union-busting after teachers at its Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park lost a lengthy legal battle with the school to keep its union intact.
But none of that seemed to matter to parents like Michele Rea, a Missouri transplant now living in Bronzeville. She enrolled her two kids, a fifth- and sixth-grader, after family and friends here steered her away from the city's neighborhood schools.
“We have a young boy, and I wanted him to go in a positive direction and not a negative direction,” she said. “It’s been wonderful, believe it or not.”
There are 424 students enrolled in K-8 classes, short of the 432 target set by school leaders earlier this year, when the City Council approved Concept's bid for a zoning switch. The Council's OK allowed Concept to ramp up its marketing campaign while contracting the construction work in time for the first day of classes Sept. 3.
"We did all of that in a very short time. Imagine if we had more time,” said Concept Vice President Salim Ucan.
Although the school is open to students across the city, the majority of Horizon students — 250 of the school’s 424 students — come from the surrounding neighborhoods, according to a document provided by Concept. About 80 percent are Hispanic, Ucan said.
So far, 32 teachers have been hired, with more planned when Concept opens a high school inside its building at 2245 W. Pershing Road. The highest-paid classroom teacher makes $45,000 per year, while the highest paid administrator makes $70,000.
Some Chicago Public Schools administrators, by comparison, make six-figure incomes.
Included in the roster of faculty are fresh-faced newcomers and public school veterans teaching a curriculum that includes math, science, social studies, art, music and foreign language.
David Hannsberry has spent 31 years in public education, with stints as principal at Grand Crossing’s John Harvard Elementary School and a suburban Oak Park school. Hannsberry also has been a public school classroom teacher and administrator, and he now serves as dean of students at Horizon.
He said making the transition was simple.
“My thought process has always been about quality schools. It doesn’t matter if it’s private, public or parochial. I wanted to be working in a building that would serve the students,” he said.
After the company’s bids to open two schools were denied by the CPS Board of Education last year, Concept won an appeal in March from the Illinois State Charter School Commission to open the facilities.
The company’s newest schools are what are known as “commission-authorized” charter schools, meaning the state will hand over about $1,600 more per student than CPS gives its “district-authorized” charters, according to Catalyst Chicago.
CPS did not return calls regarding the funding of its schools and commission-authorized ones.
The Catalyst Chicago website also reports commission-authorized schools “get state and federal funding for special education and low-income students directly, rather than through CPS.”
It's a rare setup — just two other schools in the state have the designation — but Ucan said the schools will be accountable to the state's commission, a governing body that will rate the school based on three major factors: academics, financial sustainability and organizational performance.
"This is about providing a high-quality education to the children in Chicago, it is not about who we are authorized by," Ucan said.