Ren10 still missing the mark in some communities

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Chicago Public Schools is closing in on its goal of opening 100 new schools under Renaissance 2010, but almost half of the communities identified as most in need of high-performing schools have yet to get them.

After the fourth round of new schools approved recently under the district’s controversial program, 10 of the 25 “priority communities” identified in a 2004 report by the IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund) have yet to get the new schooling options they need.

The IFF, which provides below-market rate loans and real estate consulting for nonprofits in low-income communities, created the report in collaboration with CPS. Neighborhoods were ranked according to their need for better educational options, based on school performance and overcrowding. CPS has used the ranking as a roadmap for Renaissance.

Most of the still-unserved communities are predominantly black South Side neighborhoods. Some of the communities still may get one of the schools approved recently. CPS has yet to choose a site for five schools approved in this year’s round; they could go anywhere, district officials say.

“We scoured the city with the RFP [request for proposals] distribution,” says Jaime Guzman, director of external relations for Chicago’s New Schools Department. “But we’re still trying to figure out who has the capacity [to build successful schools] down there.”

To date, 54 new Renaissance schools are up and running. Another 24 are scheduled to open in 2008 and 2009. Although some of the new schools have shown promising results, it’s unclear as yet whether Renaissance 2010 will provide significantly better school options for a substantial number of students.

What communities want

In gathering new school proposals this year, CPS specifically requested ideas that would serve the 13 communities that had yet to be assigned a Renaissance school. Just three of the proposals fit the bill; the district says it received no proposals targeting the 10 other areas.

The three proposals are for Kwame Nkrumah Academy, a contract elementary school for Pullman; a new charter high school in Greater Grand Crossing operated by Noble Street Charter; and a new charter elementary in West Garfield Park operated by LEARN charter school.

Madeline Talbott, head organizer for Chicago ACORN, says she believes the district has focused on getting new schools into gentrifying neighborhoods and done little to ensure poorer communities get the schools they need.

“We’re organizers. We understand how to do this. We go in first and organize the invitation,” she says. “CPS does the same thing. If it was a community they cared about that needed a school, they would go in and organize it.”

CPS needs to talk with residents to get a better idea of what kind of schools they want, says Jay Travis, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, who also sees gentrification as the catalyst for new schools

“The process for establishing the schools doesn’t always feel community-based,” Travis says. “What voice do we really have in the schools that are coming into our neighborhoods?”

Some community leaders, however, don’t necessarily want the new schools the district may offer up.

“We need a [high]-performing school because kids have to travel great distances to get to better schools,” says Lestine Byars, executive director of the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore. “But we need quality people coming in rather than just another cookie-cutter [replicated charter] school.”

South Shore tops the list of needy communities. The community nearly got a Renaissance school in 2005 when Chicago International was cleared to open a charter elementary there. But the proposed building—an aging Catholic school—proved too costly for the charter to rent. Instead, it found another facility across Stony Island Avenue, and now serves the Avalon Park neighborhood.

Byars wasn’t bothered. South Shore needs selective-enrollment schools, not charters, she says, if it wants to keep the community’s top students enrolled at home.

That’s shortsighted, says Elizabeth Delaney Purvis, executive director for Chicago International. Selective enrollment schools serve only a sliver of the neighborhood’s best students, whereas charters open their doors to all, she says.

Even without Renaissance schools, meaningful reform is happening in communities such as South Shore, say district officials.

The area’s high school was converted to four small schools in 2002, but with mixed results. The district plans to erect three new buildings to house South Shore’s small high schools and two elementary schools as part of its $1 billion Modern Schools construction initiative.

Byars expects the building spree to create room for selective-enrollment schools, since old schools would become vacant and the new buildings might house more than one school.

But new space could open the door for charters, too.

“The only reason we’re not in more neighborhoods is that we can’t find facilities,” says Purvis, noting the difficulties Chicago International faces when searching for affordable buildings zoned for schools. “We want to be where there’s a need for a high-performing school.”

The group’s go-anywhere mentality has been unique among charter operators, though the latest round of new schools suggests that’s changing. Noble Street will branch out from the city’s West Side to Greater Grand Crossing on the South Side next year.

Most charters have deep ties to particular communities: United Neighborhood Organization runs five charters in heavily Latino areas on the Southwest and Northwest sides of town, and plans to open three more in Archer Heights next year.

The tendency for charters to clump together explains, in part, why some communities have yet to get Renaissance schools. Up against a state cap on new charters, the district has been meeting demand for charter schools by granting additional campuses to existing, and generally territorial, operators.

Availability of school buildings is another key factor, officials say. Several Renaissance schools have gone into the mid-south communities where public housing demolition has lead to a plethora of empty school buildings.

The district, short on cash for school construction, has favored new school operators with enough money to build or rent their own schools. This year, CPS has identified a group that has the money and wants to build in one of the far South Side priority communities.

Iva Carruthers, one of the principal designers behind the Nkrumah elementary planned for Pullman, says the school’s placement depended primarily on where Trinity United Church of Christ, a large, well-known church, was able to find land.

“[I]t’s not like we sat at a map and said, ‘Pullman needs a school,'” she says.

The school will anchor a 40-acre housing and business development project that has been 30 years in the making, says Carruthers. Nkrumah, named after Ghana’s first president, will offer a rigorous, Africa-centered curriculum designed to put students on a college-bound path, she says.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.