Spreading best practices takes more than awards

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The Illinois Network of Charter Schools has announced the winners of the 2009 Charter Up award, and one winner, Civitas Schools, got a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Civitas, which operates three campuses for Chicago International Charter, has been at the center of controversy recently since its teachers banded together to launch a union drive. The move drew national attention to their working conditions and the issue of teacher turnover in charters. Ironically, the goal of Charter Up! aligns with the original charter vision crafted by one of the giants in union history: the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker. Shanker wanted to set up a small group of autonomous schools to test innovative educational programs that could be adopted by traditional schools.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools has announced the winners of the 2009 Charter Up! award, and one winner, Civitas Schools, got a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Civitas, which operates three campuses for Chicago International Charter, has been at the center of controversy recently since its teachers banded together to launch a union drive. The move drew national attention to their working conditions and the issue of teacher turnover in charters.

Ironically, the goal of Charter Up! aligns with the original charter vision crafted by one of the giants in union history: the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker. Shanker wanted to set up a small group of autonomous schools to test innovative educational programs that could be adopted by traditional schools.

INCS uses Charter Up! to try and spread the word about novel charter programs. But so far, it’s unclear to what degree that’s happened.

Steve Zemelman of INCS admits that spreading best practices takes more than just handing out awards. To that end, INCS is looking to strike lasting partnerships between traditional schools and Charter Up! winners wherever possible.

This year, for example, McAuliffe Elementary in Logan Square teamed up with Prairie Crossing, a suburban charter in Grayslake, to develop health and wellness campaigns. Prairie Crossing won a Charter Up! award two years ago for its Farm to Table program, which brings students, parents, teachers and community members together for meals using locally-grown organic food. McAuliffe, for its part, has piqued the interest of charters with its Wellness Council, a group of Logan Square Neighborhood Association members and nurses from the University of Illinois at Chicago who work on student health issues.

Another Chicago charter, Catalyst Elementary, has teamed up with Goodlow Magnet on a family history and genealogy project. A third partnership is also in the works.

Zemelman is under no illusions about the difficulty of getting busy educators to learn from one another, especially given the political friction that can exist between charters and traditional schools. But he says INCS is committed to the effort and has invited principals from across CPS to attend the June 2 Charter Up! event. The organization has also created brochures and videos to describe the winning programs.

Civitas won for its community leadership program. Linda Andrejek, the director of family and community partnerships at Civitas, says the school connects students’ work in leadership and character development classes with a variety of after-school volunteer programs. Students also work as volunteers at a local hospital, till community gardens, and participated in a rally against childhood cancer.

Andrejek says she’s not sure if schools will have the time to truly learn best practices from one another. “To try to implement a new program takes time,” she notes. “Sometimes schools stick with what they have established.”

Other winners this year are the Chicago Math & Science Academy, Noble Network of Charter Schools, Namaste Charter and Youth Connection Charter. For more information, visit the INCS website.