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Teachers, Union Reps Question Bridgeport Charter School Plan

By Casey Cora | December 11, 2013 9:39am
 The teachers hoping to open an independent charter school in Bridgeport presented their plans.
Be the Change NAC Meeting
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LOWER WEST SIDE — The team of teachers looking to start a new independent charter school in Bridgeport opened up their plans for scrutiny, but the crowd that gathered at a South Side union hall wasn't eager to hear them out.

Led by veteran teacher Mary Rawlins, the design team from the prospective Be The Change Charter School delivered their plans to open the school, where teachers would center their curriculum on the concept of "interdisciplinary learning," a method that connects separate disciplines and allows students to see themes and issues from multiple viewpoints.

At Be the Change, subjects like math, literacy, the arts and science would be explored through the lens of three main themes throughout the year, all while exposing students in kindergarten to eighth grade to the national and local education standards "and mastering"  them.

The school representatives, which include former CPS teachers and graduates of the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education program, said much the school's mission can be boiled down into their tagline of "peace, voice and action."

"It's not just a slogan ... everyone has a voice in our school," Rawlins said.

But many in the standing-room only audience — made up of faculty from Bridgeport and McKinley Park schools, neighborhood activists and Chicago Teachers Union reps — criticized the plans as vague. At one point, someone in the crowd asked everyone opposing the charter school to stand up. Almost everyone did.

More troublesome, critics said, is the prospect of a new charter siphoning away local students, which would put neighborhood school budgets at risk because of the school district's new per-pupil budgeting system, in which money is doled out to individual schools based on their enrollment.

Tuesday's meeting, held at SEIU offices at 2229 S. Halsted St., was the product of months of deliberation by the Neighborhood Advisory Council, a volunteer group charged with reviewing prospective charter proposals and soliciting community feedback in areas targeted by CPS for new charters.

The McKinley Park Neighborhood Advisory Council is made up of four people.

Two of them, Jennie Biggs and Martin Perez, are on the board of the Raise Your Hand education advocacy group, which has been outspoken against charters. Another is teachers union staff coordinator Jackson Potter, and the other is Abel Ochoa, who works with the University of Chicago's Collegiate Scholars Program, which helps prepare CPS students for college.

Following CPS guidelines, the school's design team briefly left the room as the neighborhood group outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the plan based on four criteria: parent and community engagement, academic capacity, operational capacity and economic soundness.

Biggs said the proposal "lacked depth and detail" and the meetings between the two groups produced "non-answers," while Potter said the group didn't garner enough support from Bridgeport area neighbors or civic groups, including Aldermen George Cardenas (12th) and James Balcer (11th), neither of whom have backed the charter.

"It was poor evidence of community partnerships," Potter said.

Be the Change is looking to open in the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Throughout the meeting, the prospective school's leaders tried to distance themselves from other charter groups like UNO and Concept Charter Schools, saying they're a bootstrap group of volunteers working with a shoestring budget, with no political or financial clout.

"We don't have big funders ... we have individual donors," Be the Change co-founder Sonia Wang said.

Questioned by the audience, Be the Change's leaders, which include at least two former teachers union members, said they wouldn't interfere if the school's teachers decide to unionize.

"If [teachers] wanted to start talking about that, then we are receptive to that," Rawlins said.

Bridgeport bar owner and publisher Ed Marzsewski sits on the board of the prospective school.

As the meeting wore on and the anti-charter sentiment continued to build, he and others invited residents to check out the group's website and left the door open for more discussion than a two-hour forum filled with a mostly hostile crowd could allow.

According to a CPS timeline, the councils will give their recommendations to the district on Monday and the school board will vote to authorize or shoot down the proposals at a Jan. 22 meeting.