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In Battle Over Move of Noble Charter School, Opponents Win a Delay

By Ted Cox | May 27, 2015 10:44am
 CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey and CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz chat before Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey and CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz chat before Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

THE LOOP — Bowing to public pressure, Chicago Public Schools officials abruptly delayed a vote on the move of Noble Academy before the Board of Education's Wednesday meeting.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) cheered the announcement in a tweet Wednesday morning, calling it "great news!" He went on to tell the board directly that he is "not against Noble" and "not anti-charter," but that he was out to "protect" local high schools like Lake View and Amundsen.

North Side politicians, principals, parents and Local School Councils lined up to oppose the proposed move of the charter school from the Loop to Buena Park ahead of the board meeting.

The CPS administration supports the move of Noble Academy from 17 N. State St. to 640 W. Irving Park Road, and it appeared headed for passage by the board.

 Ald. James Cappleman argues against the relocation of Noble Academy along with Senn High School Principal Susan Lofton and Ald. Ameya Pawar.
Ald. James Cappleman argues against the relocation of Noble Academy along with Senn High School Principal Susan Lofton and Ald. Ameya Pawar.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"It's hard to be optimistic when you're dealing with them," Pawar said Tuesday.

Yet CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Wednesday the Board of Education "welcomes community input and values the perspectives provided by the many students, families, community members, educators and elected officials who provided feedback on the proposed changes for charter schools.

"Given the amount of community feedback, the board will not consider actions for Dulles, Prologue and Noble schools today and will take more time to review the proposals and recommendations," McCaffrey said.

"It's certainly a step in the right direction," said Coonley School parent Jeff Jenkins, who opposes the move. "We have every intention to keep the pressure on," he added, until the proposal is "pulled permanently."

"I'd like to think that was the board listening to community outrage and outcry," said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "I'm glad it's pulled today, and I hope it stays off." He told the board the move would threaten "a fragile ecosystem of neighborhood schools."

Yet Board of Education President David Vitale cautioned that the controversial issue is not yet settled.

"We do listen here at the board to community input," he said. "We've heard enough that we need to know more before we can take action."

Vitale encouraged the two sides to continue the debate, including during the board meeting.

Noble Academy Principal Pablo Sierra, a 1975 Lake View High School graduate, said the move to the building formerly occupied by Lycee Francais de Chicago would improve the school and increase school choice for city students. "I implore you" to approve the move, he told the board.

Noble has rallied support before, and did not surrender its efforts to complete the relocation.

"We are committed to ensuring our students, including those at the Noble Academy, have access to a high-quality education," said Constance Jones Brewer, chief external-affairs officer for the Noble Network of Charter Schools. "Currently, Noble Academy is in a temporary space which is not large enough to serve the incoming class. Today’s deferment doesn't change the fact that our students and their families deserve a permanent home, a campus in which they can learn and grow."

Yet other opponents didn't back down during the public-comment session.

Michael Cohen, vice chairman of the Local School Council at Amundsen High School, said the Noble move to the North Side would threaten the level of enrollment there.

"They're recruiting at our feeder schools," he said. "It will affect our budgets."

"Don't allow Noble to come and compete for local students," added Marc Kaplan, an LSC member from Uplift High School. "We don't have a level playing field," he said, adding, "All these local high schools have been stripped of resources."

Cohen told board members: "The aldermen throughout the area oppose this. They've heard our voices, and we hope you hear our voices too."

Last week, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said the addition of a charter school to the North Side area would "weaken our five great neighborhood high schools" and "suck the lifeblood" from them.

Some 13 politicians delivered letters of opposition to the Board of Education on Tuesday:

• Pawar

• Cappleman

• Ald. Harry Osterman (48th)

• Ald. Tom Tunney (44th)

• U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th)

• State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago)

• State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago)

• State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago)

• State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago)

• State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago)

• Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-Chicago)

• Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston)

• Cook County Clerk David Orr, a Rogers Park resident

Parents at 13 schools and Local School Councils also joined the opposition, either through letters or through formal resolutions: Amundsen, Lake View, Senn, Sullivan and Uplift high schools, as well as Coonley, Waters, Nettlehorst, Ravenswood, Bell, Blaine, Burley and McPherson elementary schools.

"Adding 900 seats to an area with no overcrowded high schools during a period of declining enrollment and a billion-dollar deficit is fiscally unsound and a major breach of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers," said Jenkins, a parent at Coonley School in North Center.

 Coonley School parent Jeff Jenkins says,
Coonley School parent Jeff Jenkins says, "We have every intention to keep the pressure on."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"Given the data and the clear community support, saying no to Noble in this instance is clearly the best choice and supports the neighborhood high schools. We hope that the mayor and the CPS board hear and support the efforts of his constituents and this coalition, which is made up of those with the most at stake."

Critics maintain that, because school budgets are based on their enrollments, any students who leave for charter schools cost their old schools money. They point to how Lake View High School, just a mile down Irving Park Road, is at 97 percent of capacity, Amundsen is at 92 percent and Senn is at 72 percent, while Sullivan is at 54 percent and Uplift at 37 percent. They cite academic progress made at all those schools and say any reduction in students at any of them would result in lowered budgets.

"The last thing you want to do right now is take the wind out of our sails, siphon off our funding, siphon off our kids," Jenkins said.

Sharkey charged that CPS had "lost control" of the charter process, with the result that it was "putting high-quality schools in crisis."

Sharkey added that clout played an undeniable role in the board's decision. "The North Side along the lake has a lot of political drag and power," he said. "What made the difference in this case is there was so much unanimity among elected officials and so much outcry among parents. And frankly these are elected officials and parents who have a lot of access to power. It's a well-connected, wealthy part of the city, and they're used to getting their way.

"We see that CPS is responsive to some people," Sharkey added. "I wish they were as responsive to all the different neighborhoods."

Also Wednesday, parents from Rudy Lozano Elementary School, 1501 N. Greenview Ave., argued against the relocation of the Rowe Elementary charter school to the building formerly occupied by Peabody Elementary, one of the 50 schools closed two years ago. They echoed claims that it would threaten enrollment and funding.

Sharkey added that would "break a promise" made by CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett two years ago not to move charters into abandoned CPS buildings.

Yet the board approved that move unanimously.

Pawar said he intended to "rebut this idea that school choice is the only way to think about reform," in part through a video he's posted online.

"It's not a union vs. nonunion issue, it's a neighborhood issue," Pawar added. "This is not about being against charters. ... This is about fulfilling what the community wants."

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