School Board’s charter school feels its oats

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On May 27, students and staff from alternative schools offering GED programs turned out in force for a School Reform Board meeting. The board was planning to drop the GED programs from an umbrella charter school it had created to serve dropouts, but the GED programs weren’t leaving quietly.

Some 75 strong, the students and staff chanted slogans, wove a conga line down the aisles and interrupted the proceedings with yelling and foot stomping.

During her allotted time at the microphone, Gail Clark, a student at the Jane Addams Resource Corporation’s GED school, started to cry. Wiping away tears, she said Jane Addams was the last chance for her and others who couldn’t make it in a large neighborhood school.

GED advocates were applying pressure behind the scenes, too, twisting the arms of aldermen to get them to lobby for their programs.

By late August, the School Board and its Youth Connection Charter School had reached a compromise that allowed most GED programs to stay in the charter and continue receiving financial support from the board. At press time, negotiations were continuing over other issues, including the number of students the charter could serve through its various subcontractors.

Like a rebellious adolescent, the charter was fighting for independence from mom and dad.

Unlike the city’s 14 other charter schools, Youth Connection started as a gleam in the School Board’s eye. In 1995, the board, for the first time, provided money to expand the services of private, non-profit alternative schools serving dropouts. Within months, the administration was exploring ways to get extra revenue for the effort.

In March 1996, Chicago turned to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) for advice. “The City of Chicago comes and says, ‘This is the type of program we want to do. How do you fund it? And by the way, we’ve already started it,'” chuckles Sheila Radford-Hill, division administrator of alternative learning partnerships for ISBE.

Speedy delivery

The two boards chewed over several options for eight months; Chicago finally decided that the fastest way to proceed was to create an umbrella charter school. Reform Board staff quickly wrote a charter application, and the board awarded short-term grants to tide the alternative schools over until they became part of the charter. Staff submitted the application to the Reform Board on July 21, 1997, and the board held the required public hearing the same day, giving final approval on July 23.

State law prohibits an existing non-public school from becoming a charter school, but it allows charters to subcontract with any “public or for-profit or non-profit private entity” for provision of services. That’s what Youth Connection does.

Two retired CPS administrators, Richard Stephenson, who briefly served as interim superintendent, and Robert Saddler, became president and vice president, respectively, of the seven-member Youth Connection board.

“This wasn’t a normal charter from the beginning,” notes Bill Leavy, executive director of Greater West Town Community Development Corporation. Because the School Board created it and named the charter’s own board members, the school system might have expected an obedient child, he suggests. “But lo and behold, that isn’t what they got.”

The charter’s subcontractors began the 1997-98 school year much as they had in the past, but the charter itself was adrift in uncharted waters. “There were questions in the first few months as to whether this board would fly at all,” recalls Fabricio Balcazar, a Youth Connection board member who is a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. “Because the schools were subcontractors, the whole issue was complicated.”

For more than half its first year, the charter operated without an executive director. Board member Barbara Buell, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, stepped down after a couple months because of concerns about liability. “My feeling about boards of directors is they are policy makers, overseers. They don’t do the hands-on.”

“If a typical proposal for a charter school weighs between five and eight pounds, this one probably weighed seven ounces,” says Buell, offering an analogy. “How would policies work? Who would be responsible for them? All of that was work we were being asked to do.”

Which watchdog?

While the Youth Connection board was getting on its feet, central office was struggling with oversight. Initially, two offices were involved, the charter schools office and the Office of Specialized Services, which had managed the alternative school contracts the past two years. Eventually supervision reverted to specialized services alone. “It was just too confusing,” says Greg Richmond of the charter schools office.

Last March, the charter board hired Sheila Venson, formerly a consultant with the Alternative Schools Network, as executive director. Charter board members and alternative school directors alike hailed her arrival as a step toward more effective operation of the charter and better communication between the charter board and the programs.

“Sheila, who has 20 to 25 years of experience, is really helping,” says Pa Joof, principal of Prologue Alternative High School, a charter subcontractor.

Venson had her work cut out for her. In addition to taking on the backlog of start-up tasks, she soon faced a crisis.

Under the charter’s application, students could earn either a high school diploma or a GED. However, in April CPS administrators served notice that subcontractors offering only a GED would no longer be funded. The reason, they said, was that GED students could not be counted for state aid.

Immediately, the alternative schools swung into action. “These are agencies that are politically connected,” says Balcazar. “These are longstanding pillars of their communities, and you don’t just push them around.” He laughs. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Defending his ground at City Hall, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas sent aldermen a letter reminding them that CPS services to dropouts were “not mandated.” He also underscored a new partnership with City Colleges of Chicago to begin offering GED classes in 12 public high schools. The partnership would serve more students at less cost, and the savings would be redirected to early childhood and after-school programs, he said.

Within a week, the Rev. Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, wrote a letter to Reform Board President Gery Chico on behalf of two charter subcontractors, the Greater West Town Community Development Project and Association House of Chicago. She argued that neither the Charter School Act nor the board’s agreement with Youth Connection gives the board the authority to unilaterally decrease funding to the charter.

Within another week, Michael Hernandez, ISBE’s general counsel, issued an opinion that the Reform Board could not claim students in GED programs for general state aid because, he reasoned, they are not K-12 students. O’Hagin then wrote Hernandez, arguing that both the curriculum and supportive services the charter’s GED programs provide are comparable to those provided by the charter’s diploma-granting programs.

On July 30, Hernandez amended his initial opinion: Students in Youth Connection programs offering a GED could be claimed for general state aid, “regardless of the credential that they receive at the end of their education,” provided they attend five hours of class per day in the same courses taken by students working toward a diploma.

Hernandez also agreed with O’Hagin that “the Charter Schools Law does not authorize a chartering district to unilaterally decrease the funding for a charter school required by a charter school contract.”

However, by then the Youth Connection board and Reform Board had worked out their own compromise. The seven GED programs in the charter whose instructional schedules already met the state board’s definition of a school agreed to apply for state recognition so that they could offer credits and a diploma.

Jobs for Youth and the Safer Foundation, programs that prepare students to take the GED in less than one instructional year, left the charter.

“I think we can live with that temporarily,” says Bill Leavy, of Greater West Town. “We want them to fund GED preparation programs because they are explicitly in the charter. If we have to do a little administrative wiggle to make that happen, that’s OK.”

The wiggle involves calibrating the GED curriculum with state learning goals and giving high school course credit to GED students, he explains.

“We insist that the GED option not be closed off,” Leavy says. “GED outcomes are the most time-effective, most cost-effective option for some students. The most disadvantaged kids with the fewest credits are the ones who lose out when you withdraw the GED option.”

“This is a transition move,” agreed Venson. “The charter will set its own academic and performance standards.”

Still bargaining

At the same time the GED issue was heating up, the Youth Connection board was assessing the capacity of its subcontractors and preparing a budget for 1998-99.

All the subcontractors are delighted that the Reform Board is funding them, and every program director CATALYST interviewed agreed that the money has helped them serve more students, while reducing the administrative headache of seeking grants. But they would like to serve still more.

Youth Connection’s charter sets an enrollment floor of 500 and a ceiling of 1,700. In its first year, 1,019 students were served. At its May 29 meeting, the Youth Connection board resolved to apply for an enrollment of 1,400 students for the 1998-99 school year.

As Catalyst goes to press in late September, the request is still under discussion. “We haven’t said ‘no’ to anything,” says Renee Grant-Mitchell, deputy director of the Office of Specialized Services. But she says there are questions about the capacity of some subcontractors. “I know some programs don’t have the space. … We don’t just set up programs and watch them float.”

The school system based Youth Connection’s first quarterly payment on last year’s figures.

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, is impatient with the School Board’s handling of the new charter. “When we were under the independent contracting arrangement, it was like being an adolescent. When it became a charter school, it became an adult. You don’t hand an adult an allowance for so many slots, so much per slot. No other charter school is forced to negotiate its budget. Either the charter school is independent or it isn’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant on this one.”

Wuest has no official role in the Youth Connection charter, but he has worked with many of its subcontractors for years.

“The level of independence is emerging,” says board chair Stephenson. “We’re still establishing some things. What I’m interested in doing is being effective and making sure kids get what they need.”