Renaissance schools for overcrowding relief?

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As Chicago Public Schools continues to push its Renaissance 2010 initiative, the district is scrambling to find homes for the new schools. In at least two cases, the district placed Renaissance schools in facilities built to relieve overcrowding.

One case involves the second charter school to be operated by Aspira of Illinois, a nonprofit agency. CPS decided to house the new charter in a brand-new school intended to relieve overcrowding at Haugan Elementary in Albany Park.

Essentially, the board turned over what would have been a district-run school to a charter operator. Aspira’s charter will be the first to have assigned neighborhood boundaries, and will serve all middle-school students in its area.

While the new school will still serve its intended purpose—funneling middle-school students out of the elementary school to relieve overcrowding—the decision still drew fire from the Chicago Teachers Union, which ran a critical story in the April issue of its monthly magazine. Now, 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade Haugan teachers, who expected to move to the new school and continue to work together, are job-hunting for the fall, since charters are banned by law from hiring union teachers.

Meanwhile, the new Tarkington Elementary in Chicago Lawn will open next fall as a 900-student, K-7 performance school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. As Catalyst went to press, CPS was still trying to iron out how to set attendance boundaries and provide equitable overcrowding relief for nearby McKay and Hurley.

McKay has argued for the boundaries to be drawn so that each school would contribute 450 students. But under that scenario, McKay’s overcrowding problem would improve more dramatically than Hurley’s, says CPS. The district wants to draw the boundaries to provide a similar level of overcrowding relief for both schools.

In addition, the Academy wants CPS to impose an enrollment cap for the new school. James Dispensa, director of school demographics and planning, says he is sympathetic to the Academy’s desire to avoid becoming overcrowded. But providing an enrollment cap that other schools don’t have would not be fair, he points out.

“It’s very logical, until you extend the idea to the rest of the city,” he says.

Space-sharing at McNair

Meanwhile, a decision two years ago to house the KIPP Ascend Charter at overcrowded McNair Elementary in Austin initially proved difficult for both schools.

When KIPP first opened, its lease with a parochial school fell through two weeks before school was to start. McNair’s former principal, Gloria Archbold, welcomed the new school “with open arms,” recalls KIPP Principal Jim O’Connor.

Though negotiating the space was hard at first, he says, “Once we got everything on paper, I think it’s gone totally well.”

KIPP was housed in eight classrooms on the third floor of McNair, even though it is one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, with class sizes that often exceeded the union contract.

KIPP is adding new grade levels, and last year, the charter was unsure how it would manage another year at McNair. “Now, there’s no more space,” O’Connor says.

Today, KIPP is looking for a separate facility and must relocate by July 1.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.