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Charter School Operators Make Their Case for New Schools to CPS Officials

By Casey Cora | December 17, 2013 7:00am
 Katherine Myers, founder of the Great Lakes Academy Charter School, said community feedback in the South Shore neighborhood showed a strong support for the school.
Katherine Myers, founder of the Great Lakes Academy Charter School, said community feedback in the South Shore neighborhood showed a strong support for the school.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

DOWNTOWN — A crop of charter school operators brought statistics and supporters to CPS headquarters Monday night to state their case for opening new schools.

They came from all over the city touting alternatives to overcrowded or empty neighborhood public schools, saying a greenlight from Chicago Public Schools would pave the way for new opportunities and academic success.

"CPS is graduating kids that can barely read. I can't hire them," said Toyce Mizzelle, a board member for Be the Change Charter School looking to open in Bridgeport and a corporate executive who said education bailed him out of a life of West Side poverty. He said the school "is not the answer" to CPS troubles, but that "it's looking to be a model."

The meeting followed last week's delayed online release of the charter school proposals, which offered the public its first peek at plans for the potential new schools from nine operators. The proposals can be viewed here. 

CPS already has approved 10 new charter schools for 2014, but all of them may not open because their operators have yet to secure buildings. The Sun-Times has the list.

Critics of the new schools argued the creation of new schools would steal resources and siphon students away from neighborhood schools, affecting CPS' new per-pupil funding formula, in which it doles out money to schools based on enrollment figures.

Kassandra Tsitsopoulos, a teacher at Prosser Career Academy in Belmont Cragin, said it was "completely demoralizing" that CPS was cutting $1.2 million from the high school's budget while considering the Noble Network's bid to open a school just blocks away.

"Putting two high schools across the street from each other is asking for trouble ... the overwhelming consensus is that this is a bad idea," she said.

Noble's proposed ITW Speer Academy would focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and serve 900 students. It's planned for 5357 W. Grand Ave.

Another charter operator, Intrinsic Schools, is looking to open a second facility somewhere on the Northwest Side. In its application, Intrinsic Schools leaders said they were flooded with applications for their first school in Portage Park: 650 applications for 185 seats.

Passages Charter School in Andersonville wants to add a small high school — topping out at 240 students — to the Edgewater area that would be called Asian Human Services College Preparatory.

Though the school would technically be in Ald. Pat O'Connor's 40th Ward, the plan has been opposed by Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) and Senn High School Principal Susan Lofton, who's largely credited with improving her high school's academic performance.

On the West Side, a group called Chicago Education Partnership, backed by a litany of local clergy and Aldermen Emma Mitts (37th) and Jason Ervin (28th), hopes to open a school in Austin and partner with the after-school By The Hand Club for Kids. The school would enroll upward of 810 students by 2023.

On the South Side, supporters of the Great Lakes Career Academy showed up clad in "South Shore is a Priority Community" T-shirts, a jab at the CPS' request for new school proposals, which overlooked parts of the Southeast Side. 

Butch Trusty, the education program director for the Joyce Foundation, said the group's community outreach efforts revealed a strong need for a new school.

"I believe it's unfair that 50 percent of families need to travel outside of the neighborhood to get the education they need and deserve," he said.

Concept Charter Schools is looking to expand its footprint in Chicago by opening two high schools, one in Chatham and the other in South Chicago.

The Des Plaines company operates 30 schools in the Midwest, with three in the city, including the Chicago Math and Science Academy and two newer schools: Horizon Belmont in the Austin neighborhood and the Horizon Science Academy in McKinley Park, which opened earlier this fall after what critics called a maneuver around CPS and City Hall. 

Parents like Roderick and Patricia Taylor, of Chatham, said driving from 87th Street and King Drive to McKinley Park to get their kids to Concept's STEM-focused Horizon Science Academy in McKinley Park, "is definitely worth it."

"If you don't care for charters, you don't have to apply. For my kids, it's been a breakthrough," Roderick Taylor said.

According to reporting by Catalyst Chicago, schools proposed by Deborah Umrani, the ousted leader of the UIC's Early Outreach Program, would teach kids in Spanish and Chinese, offer long school days and cap class size at 20. Umrani is looking to open the schools, called the Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy, at 79th Street and Western Avenue, and a larger campus at 87th Street and Kedzie Avenue.

Also on Monday, the design team behind Be the Change Charter School again laid out its vision for a new school in the Bridgeport area that would eventually serve up to 500 students from kindergaten through eighth grade. It's hoping to open in the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

That group's leaders have been trying to raise money and interest in the school, which would center its curriculum on "interdisciplinary learning." The school's connections to the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program — its founders are grads — would be a "permanent pipeline" of qualified teachers.

The group's plans were the subject of a contentious meeting last week held by the four-person Neighborhood Advisory Council, the all-volunteer groups charged with reviewing charter proposals and offering a recommendation to the Chicago Board of Education.

Of the nine prospective charters looking to open, just five were scrutinized by the volunteer groups, and some who did participate, like Kate Goetz, called the process "deeply flawed" and a "waste of time and resources."

It's unclear how many people participated in the councils overall, as a CPS spokesman said "that's not something we keep track of or can provide right now."

There are two more public meetings scheduled on the charter proposals: A Jan. 7 meeting where the hopeful schools' design teams will get to make presentations, and the neighborhood councils will offer their recommendations, and the School Board's Jan. 22 meeting, where members are expected to vote on the charter proposals.