Board set to fill half of charter slots

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The Board of Education is expected this month to approve operators for about half of the 13 additional charter schools it is authorized to open.

In April, the Illinois Legislature doubled Chicago’s charter school quota, raising it to 30. The School Board quickly approved two new charters, Chicago Children’s Choir Academy and KIPP Ascend Academy, leaving 13 to go.

Twenty-five community groups, non-profit organizations and educational institutions are in the running. But Greg Richmond, CPS chief officer of new school development, says only five to seven will be approved now.

Richmond and seven members of the board’s 20-person charter evaluation team reviewed each of the applications, measuring it against a variety of criteria, including a strong curriculum plan and community support. Following the review, interviews were granted to 16 applicants—the board isn’t saying which ones.

“Every year we’ve created charters, we’ve raised the bar,” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for a Quality Education, a business organization that works with Chicago charters. “CPS has gotten smarter about what works as far as charters are concerned.”

In addition to educational plans, the basic step of securing a workable building was essential, Richmond says.

“I can’t think of a scenario where we would grant a charter to someone without a building,” Richmond says. “It’s hard to evaluate other parts of an application without that core element in place.”

But as Ayers points out, finding a quality building is a challenge. While bigger charters have the ability to pay brokers to find acceptable sites for them, smaller community groups often have to settle for options like former parochial schools that are old and in disrepair.

Applicants also need to show that they have a realistic plan for budgeting and finance, Richmond says.

“The truth is that good charter schools have to raise a lot of money,” says Allison Jack, an educational consultant who worked on several of the applicants’ proposals. “But they shouldn’t be judged solely on the depth of their pockets.”

Jack says funds typically can be obtained more easily once a school has proven its worth, and that applicants “should be judged based on their potential to accumulate funds, not just on the funds they’ve already secured.”

Richmond agrees, but notes that it takes a healthy combination of vision and practicality to ensure a successful school. “It’s important to have lofty aspirations to inspire the board and community, but it’s just as important to have the practical, day-to-day considerations outlined,” he says.

The following examples indicate the variety of applicants.

YMCA

Several observers single out the YMCA as one of the strongest applicants; the organization is the largest YMCA affiliation in the country and has an annual budget of $90 million.

However, the YMCA has no educators on its staff. As a result, it has opted for an extra year of planning, with the goal of opening in fall 2005, says Pat Welborn, the organization’s interim director for charter schools.

Welborn says she doesn’t think the YMCA’s selection is “a slam dunk. The competition is going to be very serious.” The group’s proposal spells out a curriculum focused on arts integration and rigorous academics.

Namaste

The brainchild of two Teach for America educators who met in 1993 in Houston, Namaste is the Hindi greeting that means “my inner light salutes your inner light.” Based on the theory that a healthy body paves the way for a healthy mind, Namaste would aim to teach students about nutrition and physical fitness, as well as provide them with a rigorous academic curriculum.

“Poor nutrition and lack of physical exercise are major barriers for inner-city kids,” says Allison Slade, a dual language teacher at Oak Terrace Elementary in north suburban Highwood. “They lead to poor concentration in the classroom and poor health.”

Slade developed the concept with Katherine Graves, a master’s degree candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Namaste would provide breakfast and lunch to students, as well as an hour of physical education every day.

Entrepreneurship Center

Herb Gordon, a retired businessman who has been a consultant to CPS for the past 10 years, is the lead organizer for this academy, which would seek to prepare high school students for the work world.

Students would graduate with real work experiences and the ability to envision and run a small business, Gordon says. The curriculum would be based on both Illinois’ academic standards as well as the standards from the National Business Education Association. The curriculum would include three years of entrepreneurship courses.