ROGERS PARK — A Michigan-based charter elementary school is considering Rogers Park for a new location next year.
KEYS Nineveh Academy Charter School submitted a letter of intent for a K-5 school in the Far North Side neighborhood for the 2018 school year.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said the school had hoped to move into a single-family home owned by the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East at 7201 N. Ashland Blvd. The home is just east of the church.
This would be a new location for the school, not a relocation of its current campus, the school said.
President and founder Nathan Kalasho said the school hinges on a "community-based education model" that emphasizes Mesopotamian (Sumerian/Assyrian/Babylonian) studies, cultural preservation, language courses and history — while also providing refugee and health care services for students and their families.
It first opened in 2015.
The makeup of Rogers Park's community members was an attractive factor, Kalasho said.
Rogers Park "is home to thousands of Assyrians who have faced continuous persecution and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East, including being recognized by the Obama administration as victims of genocide last year," Kalasho said in a statement. "As an indigenous community, it is imperative for members of the diaspora, as well as non Assyrians, to preserve a language and culture which is facing extinction, while also successfully integrating into 21st century America."
Moore said he met with representatives of the school several months ago but talks were "very preliminary."
"I told them at the time that I would keep an open mind," Moore said. "I'm interested in hearing more about their proposal and about their school, and about their track record, and all that kind of relevant information."
However, the school could face an uphill battle.
Charter schools have been controversial in Rogers Park for several years; the neighborhood already has five traditional neighborhood schools and two other charters.
In the past two years state lawmakers have rallied alongside parents and community groups opposing more charter schools in the neighborhood, including Noble Network of Charter Schools and Truman Middle College, an alternative high school that is part of the Youth Connection Charter School network.
Both of those schools were at different times considering the vacant St. Jerome building across from New Field Elementary, but both failed to come to fruition.
Last year residents rallied for a "charter freeze" in the neighborhood which would bar new charters from opening in the future.
A non-binding referendum asked if there should be a freeze on charters in the 49th Ward last fall. More than 62 percent of respondants said "Yes."
Moore said at the time that the issue of charters in the neighborhood was relatively "dead" and a formal freeze on them would be "moot," adding there was "no room for a charter school in the neighborhood."
On Wednesday, Moore said he believed there was "always room for a quality education" in Rogers Park.
"I do not view this as a zero-sum game" where a charter opening always means that neighborhood schools are hurt, the alderman said.
Moore also said he didn't believe in "the knee-jerk" notion that "all charters are evil."
Dwindling enrollment in the neighborhood's existing schools has also been an issue in the last year.
Moore proposed closing Eugene Field Elementary and folding its remaining students in with Kilmer Elementary to make way for Decatur Classical School, a top-rated selective-enrollment school in neighboring West Ridge, to move into the former Field building.
One of the primary reasons behind the proposal was a 13 percent decline in the number of school-aged children in the neighborhood and low enrollment at Eugene Field Elementary, Moore said.
Kalasho said he was "aware of the hesitation" in the neighborhood with charters, but would welcome "all students from the neighborhood" and planned to facilitate "a great deal of outreach to get the community involved."
"KEYS Nineveh Academy will be a smaller school with low enrollment that is meant to serve as a pillar for the community, not detract from it," Kalasho said. "As for what we would say to parents: I would ask the parents to put themselves in the shoes of the parents of our current students, most of whom are recently arrived immigrants fleeing ISIS genocide in the Middle East and only want to begin their assimilation with some semblance of familiarity for their children."
Many of his students are "severely traumatized" by the experiences they've lived through — including losing parents — and have limited English language skills and unique needs when it comes to schooling.
"We only ask that people keep an open mind. Hear us out, hear from our students, from our community, from the victims," the school head told DNAinfo.
Moore said it's too early to know if the school's addition would negatively affect existing schools.
"Until I have all the facts I can't comment on whether or not this would have an impact or not have an impact on our schools," Moore said. "All I can say is I think the more quality educational options you have in a community, the more attractive that community is for families. ... It can't be a bad thing in my opinion."