New Pilsen charter sparks protest

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A recent School Board decision to green light a new charter school operated by United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) has inflamed existing tensions in the Pilsen community.

Community activists in Pilsen learned of the deal in late March, about a month after the district approved it and three months after UNO officially requested that the board expand its charter to accommodate two more schools, one in Pilsen and one in Avondale. Currently, UNO runs two charter elementary schools: Octavio Paz in North Lawndale and Rufino Tamayo in Brighton Park.

Because its charter was granted before 2003, state law allows UNO to simply file a request to amend its original agreement and hold a public hearing, bypassing a more involved process for community input that is required for new school operators under Renaissance 2010.

“We did everything the law required,” says Jose Alvarez, director of new school operations, noting that the hearing was advertised in daily newspapers a few days in advance. Alvarez says 34 people showed up for the district’s public hearing in February.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy community activists. More than 150 turned out for a protest meeting held at Orozco Elementary a month later. “We are very concerned about the lack of public input on such a major project,” local school council Chair Elvia Rodriguez of Pilsen Elementary testified at the March School Board meeting.

Opponents of UNO’s Pilsen charter school say enrollment is declining in many Pilsen elementary schools and the community needs a comprehensive education plan. At press time, they were preparing to meet with Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

“My goal is to have Arne realize that what they are doing at this point is not what is needed in the community,” says Orozco Elementary Principal Corelia Barraza. If the district had conducted a needs assessment and talked to school leaders, they would learn that Pilsen needs an early childhood development center and an alternative high school more than it needs yet another elementary school, she explains.

Of the 10 elementary schools in Pilsen, four have experienced enrollment declines in the last five years and only one is officially overcrowded. (See chart.)

Neighborhood political divisions are playing a role in the conflict. Prior to his becoming alderman of the 25th Ward, which includes Pilsen, Daniel Solis was co-founder and executive director of UNO. Solis wrote a letter of support for UNO’s new Pilsen charter. Behind opposition of the charter are two community groups—The Pilsen Alliance and Pilsen Neighbors Community Council—that have been at odds with Solis on other projects, such as condominium developments.

Meanwhile, the controversy is forcing CPS to re-examine how to make sure community voices are substantially included when older charter holders open new schools. “We have to get better at it,” says Alvarez, who attended the meeting at Orozco. “We’re going to work with the community,” he promises.

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