MCKINLEY PARK — Principal Marian Strok said she took one look at her school’s enrollment numbers and erupted.
“I wish you could’ve been in my office. The teachers didn’t want to even come in here. That’s how loud I was screaming,” said Strok, the high-energy, no-nonsense principal at the helm of Evergreen Academy Middle School, 3537 S. Paulina St.
The school’s enrollment sits at 388, 15 students short of CPS' projection of 403 students, and Strok blames a nearby charter school for poaching her students.
The middle school’s seventh- and eighth-grade populations have more or less held steady, but the number of incoming sixth-graders — Evergreen accepts elementary students from McKinley Park’s nearby elementary schools, Greene and Everett — is down about 20 students.
The culprit for the dip, Strok said, sits a little more than a mile away at Horizon Science Academy, a brand new charter school at 2245 W. Pershing Road.
About 15 or 16 of Evergreen’s would-be sixth-graders instead went to Horizon, Strok said, and the majority of those students scored high on standardized tests, making them sought-after recruits for the new charter.
“That to me is cherry-picking,” she said.
The enrollment dip is made more grating in light of CPS' new budgeting process, which allocates funds on a per-pupil basis. While the district pledged not to make any more budget cuts this year, the smaller sixth-grade class could have budget implications for Evergreen next year. CPS district officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Horizon has enrolled some 424 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with the vast majority drawn from the surrounding neighborhood, school leaders say.
Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Charter Schools, which operates Horizon, said the company neither selectively enrolls high-performing students nor gets a preview of applicants' standardized test scores.
“We don’t know that. We have no access to student records for anybody,” Ucan said.
Concept operates as a nonprofit and manages more than two dozen schools across the Midwest, including two schools with top-notch Blue Ribbon designations from the federal government.
The school arrived in McKinley Park to the chagrin of community activists and public education backers who cried foul at the company’s skirting of CPS approval and instead getting OK’d by a newly created state charter commission.
Ucan has said Concept went by the books, that parents have a choice about where to send their kids and and said it’s time to stop “bullying” charters for all of the CPS woes, including school closings, budget cuts and enrollment declines.
Besides, he said, “I don’t look at is as charter schools recruiting their students. I look at it as leaving one public school to go another public school.”
Still, as the school year gets underway, neighborhood school leaders say they’re facing yet more uncertainty.
CPS has targeted several areas in the city, including a Southwest Side area broadly defined as McKinley Park, as prime candidates for more charter schools. And the Board of Education’s recent approval of a 10-year “facilities master plan” indicates the district isn’t in a hurry to build more middle schools.
That’s a mistake, Strok said.
An early adopter of Common Core curriculum standards, Evergreen tailors its approach for the uniform-clad preteens who come through its classrooms. There are robust after-school offerings and Friday “club days” during which students participate in everything from taekwondo to glee club to gentry classes.
“This is where you have to grab ‘em. We know what to do with them. We create a culture for the middle-school child by making sure teachers are well aware of their issues and problems. That’s where our lives are,” she said.
Evergreen has twice been designated a coveted “School to Watch," an honor that recognizes, among other qualities, a school's academic excellence and its students' "developmental responsiveness."
Sitting behind the desk in her colorful office, Strok said she wants to petition the district to allow her school to offer a junior International Baccalaureate or Science Technology Engineering and Math program, anything to help make the school more attractive to local parents.
"We have a good neighborhood program. What else do I have to do?" she said.