Board renews 3 charters, 2 others in trouble

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The Chicago Board of Education renewed full-term contracts for three of the system’s five original charter schools. Two others are in trouble.

The board voted Jan. 23 to offer a two-year renewal to Academy of Communication and Technology (ACT) in Garfield Park to further monitor the school’s uneven performance on standardized tests. The extension requires ACT to meet certain academic goals by 2004, which if met, will allow the school to remain open.

Meanwhile, school officials are considering closing Nuestra America Charter in West Humboldt Park, says Greg Richmond, who oversees CPS charter schools. A history of low test scores and leadership squabbles has created an uncertain future for the school.

The three charters whose contracts were renewed are Triumphant in Back of the Yards, Perspectives in South Loop, and Chicago International Charter, which operates four sites.

However, the Illinois school superintendent must check the renewals for compliance with the state charter school law before the contracts are official. Once CPS officials forward the paperwork, the state will make a decision, says Janet Allison, the state charter school liaison.

Holding charter schools accountable and closing those that fail is unique to the movement in Chicago. Elsewhere, charter schools are lightly regulated and rarely closed.

“If we’re not closing [charter] schools that are not working well, we’ll look just like other public schools,” Richmond says.

Charter advocates agree. “It’s about performance,” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE). “If a school doesn’t have a leg to stand on, the system has to [close it] or else it sends a message … that we’re not serious about accountability.”

So far, the board has shut down only one charter school. In 1999, it closed Chicago Prep High School, a school for teens recovering from substance abuse, for mismanagement. The mid-year closing displaced 50 students, whom board officials then placed in other high schools.

The decision to renew a charter school’s contract is based on recommendations of a five-member panel, which includes Richmond, two other CPS administrators, a former principal and a Roosevelt University professor. The panel reviews a charter’s test scores, attendance rates and financial operations. Panelists also visit schools and interview parents and teachers.

If a school gets low ratings, other factors are considered, he adds.

For example, ACT and Triumphant both received low ratings due to poor test scores. However, Triumphant targets at-risk students—many of whom are in special education—which accounts for the slow improvement in test scores, Richmond says.

A new reading program at ACT that had shown positive test results persuaded the panel to give the school a partial renewal, Richmond adds.

The accountability system for charters is markedly different from that applied to regular CPS schools. Under CPS rules, ACT, Nuestra America and Triumphant would be on probation for low reading scores. With 10 percent of its students reading at or above grade level, Nuestra America would rank among the worst-performing CPS schools.

Instead, charter schools have more freedom from state and local regulations, and do not have to follow union work rules even though they receive public funding like other public schools.

Below are thumbnail sketches of the background and current status of each charter school.

Academy of Communication and Technology (ACT)

The two-year extension should help ACT recover from a rocky start stemming from delays in raising enough money to renovate its old school building. ACT Co-director Sarah Howard says the focus on fundraising forced early curriculum planning onto the back burner.

With only two years to prove itself, the pressure is on ACT, Howard says. “We learned that they’re very serious about using test scores.”

The board set strict academic benchmarks that ACT, which serves 200 6th- through 12th-graders, must meet by 2004: twenty-five percent of students must meet or exceed norms in reading and math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and for the Illinois Student Achievement Test; students overall must gain a year or more on their ITBS scores; and the school must achieve 75 percent freshmen retention.

Richmond says panel members were wary of ACT’s fluctuating test scores, declining annual grade gains and low freshmen retention. The panel will reconsider ACT’s renewal in a couple of years.

Nuestra America

Nuestra America, which means “our America” in Spanish, has been beset with leadership battles and poor test scores since it was founded five years ago by ACORN, a Pilsen-based community organizing group.

The infighting culminated in the fall of 2000, when then-director William Campillo changed the school name to Nuestra America to reflect its Latino student body and bilingual mission, and named new board members to replace ACORN officials. ACORN officially severed its ties with the school later that year, Richmond says.

Last year, the board asked Campillo to resign after an alleged shoving incident with a student. After that, several teachers left the school and morale deteriorated, says a former Nuestra teacher.

At the Jan. 23 board meeting, parents and teachers testified and persuaded CEO Arne Duncan to visit the school. The school has 200 9th through 12th-graders.

Interim Director Robert Kausal, who was appointed by the board last summer, says he is talking with Octavio Paz and other charter schools about partnering to keep Nuestra open. “Give us a year,” he says, holding out hope for a turn around.

The board plans to make a decision whether to close the school in a month or two.

Chicago International Charter School

With a total of four campuses and 2,400 students, Chicago International is the city’s largest charter. And it has plans to get bigger.

With a privately financed $15 million bond, Chicago International plans to open two more sites in September, says founder and Chairman James Murphy. The new elementary schools will open in Albany Park and West Englewood. Another high school, possibly in Burnside, could be opened soon after, he says, estimating that total enrollment could reach 5,000.

Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit firm that operates 140 schools across the country, manages the charter’s 1,140-student Longwood high school campus on the South Side. The other three elementary campuses are run by American Quality Schools, a non-profit founded by former State Superintendent Michael Bakalis. They are Bucktown, with 541 K-6 students; St. Edmund’s, with 130 K-8 students; and Prairie, with 319 K-7 students.

Triumphant Charter School

Triumphant takes low-scoring students in grades 6th through 8th grades and raises expectations for their behavior and academic performance. The formula works, says founder and Director Helen Hawkins, who limits enrollment to 185 students.

The number of students at or above grade level in reading on the ITBS rose from 14 percent in 1998 to 22 percent in 2001; math scores jumped from 8.5 percent to 19 percent.

Students are called “scholars” and teachers set their sights on college early on. Some of Triumphant’s graduates—about 20 this year—enroll at Olive Harvey Middle College, an alternative high school where Hawkins teaches and students can be exposed to higher education.

When a student scores below grade level, Triumphant’s teachers encourage them. “I tell them regardless of the test scores, ‘you can achieve…work hard.’ Our mission is to keep kids from dropping out of school.”

Perspectives Charter School

Steady test scores and an ambitious character development curriculum are the hallmarks of Perspectives Charter.

Since it opened, the school has been true to its mission: to create a family environment with high expectations for students, and to offer teachers a lot of training in a safe setting, says Co-director Diana Shulla-Cose, who used to run a small school at Dyett. Perspectives serves 150 students in 6th through 12th-grades, and plans to expand enrollment to 300 in the next five years.

Students go on fields trips to colleges or museums several times a month and often interview professionals for school projects. The school spends about $1,000 per teacher on professional development every year, she says.

But in June, Perspectives will lose its lease for the facility at 1532 S. Michigan Ave. that it has occupied since it opened. Plans are in the works to convert a nearby warehouse into Perspectives new home, Shulla-Cose says.