Sabis booted from charter; Edison, Bakalis brought in

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In the wake of the first major shakeup at a Chicago charter school, the Chicago International Charter Schools reopened in August with new management, new educational programs, new principals and some new teachers. The school has three campuses that serve some 2,000 children on the South and North sides.

Last December, the non-profit organization that holds the school’s charter notified Sabis Educational Services, the for-profit company it had hired two years ago to run the school, that it would be terminating its contract for cause. Sabis has since filed suit, charging the Chicago Charter School Foundation (CCSF) with breech of contract.

In the meantime, CCSF lined up Edison Educational Management Organization, the country’s largest for-profit school management firm, to take over its South Side campus. Its North Side campuses are now being run by a new non-profit corporation organized by former state schools Supt. Michael Bakalis; his corporation is called American Quality Schools.

Bakalis says American Quality grew out of discussions he had had with Jim Murphy, chairman of the CCSF board, “about what he envisions for schools. We began talking about starting up American Quality Schools to take over the management of the charters as early as January.”

While both Edison and American Quality Schools agreed to give last year’s faculty members the first shot at jobs for this year, the faculty will be a “good mix” of old and new staff, according to Candice Browdy, executive director of CCSF.

CCSF refused to comment on its decision to drop Sabis, whose contract was to extend through 2007. However, Greg Richmond, who is in charge of charter schools for the Chicago Public Schools, reports that CCSF “was not happy with the job Sabis was doing for two years. So it terminated the contract with good reason. Chicago Charter School Foundation should have the ultimate say on the direction its schools will go.”

Several parents contacted by Catalyst also support the move. “The school was very unorganized,” says Renee Jackson, whose daughter Stephanie is a 6th-grader at the South Side campus, called Longwood. “I was very displeased with the learning environment. I don’t think the teaching was well structured at all.”

(Chicago International—Longwood, 1309 W. 95th, is housed on the campus of Longwood Academy, a Catholic school that closed July 1, but is not otherwise related to it.)

Several parents also complained about the upkeep of the buildings, contending the schools were dirty and that Sabis was slow to respond to problems.

Jackson says she was considering withdrawing Stephanie but decided to give Edison a try after reading and hearing about it. “I’m looking for a much better educational growth experience this year for my daughter,” she says.

Curriculum overhaul

Under Edison management, Chicago International—Longwood is using the Saxon Math Program to teach math and “Success for All” to teach reading.

Saxon, which emphasizes basic computational skills, represents a dramatic change for Edison, which uses the University of Chicago Everyday Math Program in its other elementary schools. Everyday Math stresses mathematical thinking and problem solving. Nationally, the two programs often have been cast as enemy camps in an ideological war over the best way to teach math. Edison is using Saxon at the request of CCSF.

“It was time to try something new,” says Sandra Elliot, an Edison vice president who is in charge of getting the Longwood school running. “This experiment will give us something to compare Everyday Math to.”

“Success For All” is a structured a reading program in use in 700 schools nationwide. In such an elementary school, for 90 minutes each day, the students are spread among all the certified teachers in the schools (which might include the principal), thus providing during that time the smallest class sizes possible.

Joseph Brown, the new principal of Longwood, says Edison will emphasize art, music, PE and Spanish more than Sabis did. “We want to move the students along in the curriculum and greatly reduce repetition,” he says. Brown is a former Iowa state senator who has been a principal at three Minnesota schools.

Last year, Edison was in charge of 51 charter schools throughout the country.

Bakalis says that Chicago International’s other two campuses—Bucktown, a K-8 school serving 550 at 2235 N. Hamilton, and Prairie, a K-6 school serving 300 at 11530 S. Prairie—will be “dramatically different schools.”

For one, they will assign students to teams of teachers; each team will have a lead teacher who will assist his or her colleagues and evaluate them.

The two campuses also will use a nationally known curriculum, Core Knowledge. Adopted by more than 800 schools nationwide, Core Knowledge prescribes what content should be learned in various disciplines; it is based on the book “Cultural Literacy,” by University of Virginia Prof. E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Bakalis says Core Knowledge will be implemented with an emphasis on “problem solving, inquiry, dialogue teaching, coaching—and limited lecturing.”

Browdy says that despite the upheaval at the schools, about 90 percent of last year’s students are returning this year.

In the middle of last school year, the board of another charter school voted, under School Board pressure, to close its 16-month-old school. The Chicago Prep Charter School tied for lowest reading scores in the city on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), but also faced problems beyond academics. Founded by an official from Mayor Daley’s Office on Substance Abuse Policy, the school was designed to serve teens with drug and alcohol problems; however, according to Greg Richmond, marijuana smoke often wafted from school washrooms.

In July, the board also withdrew a charter it had granted the Golden Apple Foundation, which decided not to launch the school. Under state law, Chicago may grant 15 charters; currently, 13 are in use. The board is expected to vote on applicants for the remaining two at its December meeting.