Albany Park: ASPIRA overcoming a bumpy start

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ASPIRA-Haugan Middle School

photo by John Booz

ASPIRA-Haugan Middle School

Millie Segura planned to send her son to ASPIRA Early College High School, but changed her mind after the charter operator was slow to inform her of its own change in plans.

The high school is temporarily sharing a building with another ASPIRA-operated school, Haugan Middle School, in a new $17 million facility in the heart of Albany Park. Early College’s permanent home will be a renovated floor inside Northeastern Illinois University’s satellite campus near Pulaski and Belmont, but it won’t open until January, four months later than parents expected.

The temporary arrangements are controversial, and underscore the mixed feelings in the community toward ASPIRA.

Some parents don’t like mixing middle school and high school students. Some don’t like a charter operating in a new Chicago Public Schools building. But Segura and other disgruntled parents are most upset that the change in plans for Early College was sprung on them at the 11th hour—evidence of the charter’s disorganization and pattern of “broken promises,” they say.

Supporters, however, say ASPIRA is reaching out to Albany Park families and improving communication. Haugan recently formed a parent-teacher organization, for example, and launched a series of educational programs for adults.

Mary Escobar, president of Haugan’s parent-teacher organization since its November 2006 inception, says parents—mostly Mexican immigrants who are reluctant to criticize the school—now have an avenue to voice dissent and demand change.

Community groups such as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council also see improvements. English and computer-training courses are being offered to parents. Haugan’s parent coordinator has brought in police and child development experts to talk to parents about gangs and parenting strategies. And test scores have inched up, with at least 60 percent of students passing tests in math, science and reading last May.

Haugan’s two principals (one runs the math-science academy, the other the technology academy) credit those gains to small classes and teaching strategies that emphasize project-based learning, putting students to work on collective showcase assignments that tie in to their regular classroom lessons. For one project, students built a large papier-mâché Statue of Liberty that now adorns the school’s foyer; the project was done in conjunction with their classroom lessons on United States history and social studies.

A stormy history

The bright spots, however, have been overshadowed by ASPIRA’s bumpy start.

Teachers, parents and community leaders were stunned when the Board of Education announced it had chosen ASPIRA, not Chicago Public Schools, to run the school that would be housed in the neighborhood’s new $18 million showcase building. Those same community members had fought for the new building to relieve overcrowding at nearby Haugan Elementary, a CPS-run school.

Upper-grade teachers at the original school, which now ends at 5th grade and feeds into ASPIRA, thought their proposal for a regular middle school was a lock. Most of the teachers from the old Haugan believed that pressure from Mayor Richard M. Daley and Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) steered the deal to the politically connected ASPIRA, says Mary Orr, a kindergarten teacher at the elementary school who was active in crafting the teachers’ plans for the new school.

The school struggled with logistical problems early on, running late on efforts to open the school library as well as a program to give incoming students their own computer. Recently, a teacher allegedly lashed out at students with a racial slur and drew heaps of bad publicity.

School leaders are trying to put all of that behind them. ASPIRA is in the midst of creating an education path that stretches seamlessly from Haugan Middle’s 6th grade, through 12th grade at the new Early College High School, and then into higher education; high school courses are to align with offerings at Northeastern. Through its partnership with the university, ASPIRA hopes to offer Early College students a chance to earn college credit while still in high school.

Notably, the articulation effort starts in grade 6. The charter has yet to reach out to Haugan Elementary on its alignment plan.