Educators take first steps toward opening Chicago’s first public boarding school

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Leah Marshall feared the worst when one of her students, Jermaine, became homeless his senior year. As a teacher on the South Side, Marshall had seen even the best and brightest of students fail classes or drop out when faced with difficulties outside of school.

Jermaine, however, would not join their ranks. Marshall opened up her classroom to Jermaine during the after-school hours, giving him a quiet place to complete his homework and study.

“He had an adult who was there to listen, and he had a space in which he could decompress,” Marshall says.

Jermaine is now enrolled in a community college in downstate Illinois. His story inspired Marshall toward an ambitious goal: To open the city’s first public residential school for underprivileged students.

Leah Marshall feared the worst when one of her students, Jermaine, became homeless his senior year. As a teacher on the South Side, Marshall had seen even the best and brightest of students fail classes or drop out when faced with difficulties outside of school.

Jermaine, however, would not join their ranks. Marshall opened up her classroom to Jermaine during the after-school hours, giving him a quiet place to complete his homework and study.

“He had an adult who was there to listen, and he had a space in which he could decompress,” Marshall says.

Jermaine is now enrolled in a community college in downstate Illinois. His story inspired Marshall toward an ambitious goal: To open the city’s first public residential school for underprivileged students. The idea of a public boarding school was bandied about in spring of 2008 by then-CEO Arne Duncan, who came to the conclusion that some children need 24-hour support to succeed in school.

“There’s a certain point, where Dad is in jail or has disappeared and Mom is on crack [and] where there isn’t a stable grandmother,” Duncan explained in an interview. “That child is being raised by the streets. In that environment, there’s not much room for algebra or American literature.”

Administrators for Duncan toured boarding schools in other cities and put out a call for proposals. But less than a year later, Duncan was chosen as U.S. Secretary of Education, and the idea fell dormant.

Marshall, however, is forging ahead. She quit teaching last year to focus exclusively on launching Earn Academy as a new charter school, with a target opening date of August 2012.

That timeframe depends in large part on finances. Charters can expect to receive about $7,500 per pupil from CPS, but Earn Academy will need far more than that—an estimated $38,000 for each child—to operate. Since a coed school would require additional staff on-site, Marshall decided that Earn would initially serve only young men, like Jermaine. Although the formal admissions process has not yet been set, organizers expect to recruit students through schools and community groups in low-income neighborhoods

The project took a step forward recently when Marshall and volunteer development officer Jenaeth Markaj obtained non-profit status for Earn Academy. The two also met with administrators from the Office of New Schools, which gave them a road map of the steps toward obtaining a charter.

A major goal for the school would be college preparation, Marshall says, noting that her former high school had low expectations—and limited adult support—for students.

“There was one [college] counselor for every 400 students, and that’s at a school where about 90 percent of the students are the first in their families to go to college,” she says.

Extra support is also paramount because many students enter high school three and four years below grade level, she adds. “Once you’re that far behind, your life options are limited.” Earn Academy would provide academic, social and emotional support for students, as well as exposure to the business world.

As juniors, students would have internships in an area of their career interest, an idea that takes its cue from a program at private Cristo Rey High School. (While Cristo Rey students use their compensation towards tuition costs, at Earn, Marshall hopes to arrange for employers to donate to the school in lieu of paying students.)

Outside skeptics

Marshall and Markaj, who has experience in both education and development, are now recruiting a board of directors and putting together marketing materials to approach potential donors. Sponsorships and partnerships are in the works, but skepticism because of the high cost and scope of the project has been a challenge to overcome, especially given the economic climate, says Markaj.

“The response we got initially was ‘Do you know what a huge endeavor this is? It’s been tried before in Chicago, and it’s going to be really expensive,’ ” says Markaj. “We had to get others committed to our vision.”

Josh Edelman, former director of the Office of New Schools, worked with Marshall to develop her proposal. Sustainable funding that does not rely heavily on private cash was one of his chief concerns.

“A big piece of the application process was shaped purposefully to push applicants like Leah Marshall to demonstrate where funding will come from,” says Edelman. “We’d be concerned that otherwise, the school would be dictated by reliance on individuals.”

Edelman, now a top official with the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, worked with the SEED Foundation in D.C. before joining CPS. SEED operates two public boarding schools that have served as a model for Earn Academy.

The success of SEED’s schools can be attributed to how well-networked they are, says Edelman.

The SEED Foundation collaborated with legislators at the district, state and federal level in order to launch the schools. The team also worked with Congress (which has oversight over D.C.) to push the district to free up money beyond the regular funding formula.

A small budget gap requires private funding, which comes from private donors and foundations.

Proving the feasibility of a public boarding school like Earn Academy might be more difficult in the current economic climate, but it is a goal worth pursuing, say supporters of this 24-hour model.