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'It's About Choices,' Supporters of Charter Growth on Southwest Side Say

By Joe Ward | September 28, 2015 5:31am
 Supporters of charter school expansion into the Southwest Side include Ald. Edward Burke, middle.
Supporters of charter school expansion into the Southwest Side include Ald. Edward Burke, middle.
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Noble Network

CHICAGO — When her oldest son showed second thoughts about going to his neighborhood high school, Vicky Enciso did her best to provide him with options.

Catholic schools would be ideal for the Brighton Park family, she said. After all, Enciso's husband is a deacon in the church. But because of financial reasons, such offerings were not in the cards.

That's when Enciso said she heard about the Noble network of charter schools, mostly on the North Side, that could offer her son a more college preparatory environment. It would require hours on the bus and train each week, but both Enciso and her son thought the effort might be worth it.

"As a parent, we have to look for choices for our kids," Enciso said. "So when I found Noble had a system different from public schools, we had to try it out."

The Enciso family is just one of thousands of Southwest Side families that send their kids to Noble schools throughout Chicago. The charter system, to better accommodate these families, has announced plans to build its first high school on the Southwest Side.

Noble has announced its intention to build a high school on a vacant lot near 47th Street and California Avenue. The plan — which began with three possible new schools but has been whittled down to one — has drawn vocal opposition from some in the community, including a rally last week at Gage Park High School.

Opponents say charter schools to starve existing schools of precious resources. Noble's current plan comes at an especially pivotal time when Gage Park High School is making strides in academics, student engagement and safety, Gage Park Principal Brian Metcalf said.

But Noble and its supporters said there is a silent, sizeable group within the area that is very much in favor of the plan and charter schools as a whole.

For starters, 2,400 Noble students come from the Southwest Side each day, according to Matt McCabe, Noble's director of government affairs.

It would be advantageous to both Noble and the Southwest Side families to have a charter open in the area, McCabe said. 

"We see a huge demand for a Noble school on the Southwest Side," McCabe said. "That's why we're getting support from local officials, local businesses and parents."

McCabe said the proposal for a Southwest Side charter has garnered over 1,000 signatures in support. Supporters include local elected officials like Ald. Edward Burke (14th), McCabe said.

Other Southwest Side officials, including Rep. Michael Madigan, have announced opposition to the plan.

Noble has also crunched the numbers and determined that overcrowding at public high schools on the Southwest Side is already a problem and will only get worse, McCabe said.

The public high schools surrounding Noble's planned location are at 113 percent capacity, McCabe said. Further, there are 14,000 high school students in the area and more than 20,000 students in grades sixth through eighth grades he said.

"These schools are already overcrowded," he said. "We think we can be part of the solution."

Chicago Public Officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Charters provide an alternative to public schools for kids who want a safer and more challenging academic environment, Enciso said. And that's exactly what her three sons that have all gone to Noble schools have found, she said.

"They were very college oriented," she said. "They had something I never had, something my nieces and nephews never had."

Enciso said her two sons who graduated from Noble have gone on to college with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. Though both sons and parents might have complained about the commitment needed to send kids on multiple buses and trains each day, she said the sacrifice was worth it.

But Enciso said she doesn't see why families on the Southwest Side need to make such a sacrifice. With a daughter in eighth grade, Enciso said she should have the ability to send her child to a charter in their neighborhood.

"Why should we have to bus our kids for hours just for the choice?" she said.

The Chicago Board of Education will vote Oct. 28 on whether to allow Noble to establish a school on the Southwest Side. If given the green light, McCabe said the school could be ready for fall 2016. Enrollment would be capped at 1,100, he said.

The deciding board meeting is likely to include passionate support and opposition to the plan.

Parents at a rally against the plan have already started a letter writing campaign, to board members and school officials, although Noble said the supporters have far outnumbered the opposition at community meetings.

But Enciso said that despite all the fighting and mudslinging, the opening of a charter school near her is about one thing: giving disadvantaged families and students a choice.

"They think they're supporting the community," she said of opponents to the plan. "But really they're just taking away our options."

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