ANDERSONVILLE — A prominent Midwest charter school operator slammed Chicago Public Schools officials for rejecting its proposal to open a high school, calling it "a strategic mistake" for CPS to invite charter operators to propose new schools in the aftermath of closing 50 neighborhood schools.
"The passions have grown to making it an us-against-them-kind-of-mentality, and I think it’s unfortunate," said Michael Bakalis, founder and CEO of American Quality Schools, which operates Passages Charter School in Andersonville.
The Board of Education rejected Passages' proposal Wednesday to offer high school classes alongside its curriculum for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade at 1643 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Bakalis said he “wasn't surprised” the Chicago Board of Education rejected the plan; Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) and City Hall heavyweight Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) both voiced opposition to the proposal, and the Chicago Teachers Union came out very strongly against it, he said.
But Bakalis said the community reaction was in response to “what the Board of Education had done in closing 50 schools" this year, and not about the type of education his charter could have offered the community, and CPS made the "strategic mistake" of calling for more charter proposals right after the record number of closings.
Bakalis is a former state superintendent of education, former state comptroller and former deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education during the Carter Administration, and he was the Democratic nominee in the 1978 gubernatorial race won by Republican incumbent James R. Thompson.
Bakalis, 75, also has served as the dean of Loyola University’s School of Education and president of Triton College.
Passages' plan was so reviled that a public meeting was called by local officials to rally against it.
Osterman called the plan "a distraction" that would siphon away students and take "money away from Senn," a high school that has seen academic progress in recent years.
Osterman, in an email to constituents Thursday about the rejection, said, "I do not believe the addition of a charter school in our community would create better educational options for families, and I will continue to oppose them in the 48th Ward."
CPS, however, never mentioned community outrage, union opposition or political roadblocks when it revealed Thursday why it rejected Passages' proposal.
“While their proposal included evidence that members of the founding team [at Passages] have successful professional experience working in schools and public education,” they operate an elementary school model and don’t have "a demonstrated track record of driving academic success at the high school level," CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett wrote in an email.
Also, Passages didn’t outline "a strong governance plan to provide effective oversight of the school," and was unclear about the costs associated with the expansion, Barrett said.
Responding to concerns that the Passages expansion would hurt area schools, Bakalis said, "Yeah, there are other high schools around, but the idea of charters is to give people a choice and options, and this was a very different model for a high school."
He said it would have started small, enrolling just 60 students in its first year, eventually growing to 240 students after four years.
Bakalis pointed to a recent report by the Carnegie Corporation think tank that urges alternative models for high schools, because, he said, "the current ones are not doing the job."
"The high school, in my opinion, is the most outdated institution we have in this country," Bakalis said.
He acknowledged that his company primarily manages elementary schools, but said he wasn’t sold on that point of criticism from CPS either.
"The elementary school is doing very well, so you would think they would say, 'OK, lets give it a shot.' It’s not like you're going to have a high school with 1,000 kids," he said.
Regarding CPS' concerns about governance, he said Asian Human Services, which operates Passages charter school, was the better source for answers and that the critique was aimed at the organization’s board of directors.
Asian Human Services did not return calls for comment.
"I think they've got a fine board. But if that’s what CPS said they must have a reason for it, but I don't know what the reason is," he said, mentioning that Principal Nicole Feinberg has recently won awards for her performance.
The school district had ample time and opportunity to ask questions about the financial plan leading up to this point, "and they said nothing at all," he said, insisting that the financial plan was solid despite CPS indicating it was too vague.
The school sits within the boundaries of the West Andersonville Neighbors Together block club, which represents hundreds of area residents and was one of the plan's detractors.
Club representative Cameron Krieger said her organization was pleased that the board rejected the charter plan, and was "going to remain opposed to the expansion of a charter” by Passages, even if its plan resurfaces.
She initially expressed satisfaction with the school district for listening to the community, but backtracked some when informed that CPS hadn’t mentioned community concerns in criticizing the plan.
Still, she said, "We're pleased with the result, regardless of the basis, we just hope that they take community opinion into account going forward."