New charter schools slated for a School Board vote

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Four new charter school proposals are being considered by the CPS Office
of New Schools, including an elementary school that would emphasize
strengthening families and a college prep charter with a legal focus. Four new charter school proposals are being considered by the CPS Office of New Schools, including an elementary school that would emphasize strengthening families and a college prep charter with a legal focus.

The Office of New Schools held community forms across the city in October to gather public opinion on the schools. The School Board is expected to vote on the proposals at the December board meeting.

Christopher House, a non-profit social service agency, wants to open a charter school in Belmont-Cragin that would provide social services and education for parents and enroll children beginning in preschool.

Christopher House Executive Director Lori Baas says the organization has talked with CPS about the possibility of having an early lottery for the school, at age 2 or as early as birth, “so that we can really build on the great early childhood education that we’re going to be offering those children.”

In addition, the school would provide families with social work services, food pantries, and academic workshops.

“We want an integrated family approach, including [English as a Second Language] classes and adult literacy classes so parents can help kids do their homework,” Baas says.

Christopher House selected Belmont-Cragin because the agency already serves low-income working families in the community. Baas adds that the new charter would help to alleviate overcrowding in the neighborhood schools.

If the charter is approved, the school will open in Sept 2012 with kindergarten and 1st-grade students. 

In West Town, the proposed Legal Prep Charter High School would offer a college-prep curriculum that incorporates legal affairs, as well as monthly meetings for students with a mentor who works in the legal field. School officials had initially planned to open the charter in South Shore—a community that has been at the top of the list of neighborhoods most in need of better schools—but couldn’t find a suitable building and settled on West Town instead.

Students will be required to earn admission to college before they receive their high school diploma.

“The idea is not that we’re going to create a bunch of little lawyers,” says Sam Finkelstein, the CEO and founder of Legal Prep Charter Academies. “We’re going to use legal topics to engage students and teach skills to prepare them for higher education. We want our students to be successful in college and be professionals.”

Students at Legal Prep can expect a longer school day, with classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday through Thursday; Friday will be an early release day so that teachers can work on lesson plan.  The school year would start earlier and include an orientation week at the end of August.

West Town is already home to charter schools run by the Noble Network and ASPIRA, but Finkelstein says Legal Prep will offer a unique education to a high-need community of students. The school plans to market widely if it is approved, bringing in students from neighboring communities for its first class of 200 freshmen.

The Walton Family Foundation, started by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is among the donors supporting both proposed charters.

Finkelstein says local law schools including Northwestern, John Marshall, DePaul and Loyola are also providing support to Legal Prep. 

A third proposal is for The Montessori School of Englewood, which would open next year as the sixth Montessori school in CPS. Rita Nolan, executive director of the Montessori Network, says she and her colleagues began working to expand the Montessori program at Stagg Elementary in Englewood when their proposal for a school in Avondale was denied last year. Stagg now has three Montessori classrooms for preschool and kindergarten students. 

But the budding program at Stagg doesn’t fully meet the needs of parents and students in the community, says Nolan, who estimates that 125 students are on a waiting list.  The new school would help to fill that need while promoting parental involvement.

The tie between school, home and parents “is at the basis of everything we do, so it’s really important to get parents into the school and involve them in their child’s education,” says Nolan, who has also applied for a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Other charter proposals under consideration are: a new Gage Park High School operated by the United Neighborhood Organization; a 7th and 8th – grade expansion of Erie Elementary Charter School in Humboldt Park; and a 6th through 8th-grade expansion of Noble Street Charter’s Gary Comer College Prep in Greater Grand Crossing.