School board members approve new charter school contracts, Near West Side magnet school

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After being caught off guard at the December board meeting where members
held off on voting on charter school contracts, charter operators and
supporters brought out more than 1000 parents and teachers to January’s
meeting. By 9 a.m. Wednesday, the boisterous crowd circled CPS’
headquarters wearing bright yellow scarves, carrying red balloons and
chanting, “We want a choice” and other slogans.

After being caught off guard at the December board meeting where members held off on voting on charter school contracts, charter operators and supporters brought out more than 1000 parents and teachers to January’s meeting. By 9 a.m. Wednesday, the boisterous crowd circled CPS’ headquarters wearing bright yellow scarves, carrying red balloons and chanting, “We want a choice” and other slogans.

The well-heeled charter school advocates even had a poll to point to. Commissioned by the Renaissance Schools Fund, which provides grants to charter schools, the poll found that more than 70 percent of residents supported and wanted options.

By contrast, those urging board members to vote against the contracts were a hodge-podge of parents and community members, each fighting for their own specific neighborhood school. Virgil Crawford came out to call for Austin to get a neighborhood high school. “We say enough is enough,” he said. “Our children don’t have a school to attend. We don’t want a charter school we want a comprehensive school to attend.”

A group of parents from Cameron Elementary School in West Humboldt Park also spoke against charter schools, but mostly out of frustration that their neighborhood school is in disrepair. “The problem is not a lack of parent involvement,” said Lisa Andino, LSC chairperson, who spoke at a press conference before the meeting and during the meeting.

“The problem is not bad teachers. The problem is that we have only one science table for the entire school. We don’t have a library. We don’t have updated computer software. The money should be invested in our school.”

This time, board members were not deterred by these parents nor by the Chicago Teachers Union leaders who called for charter schools to be subject to more accountability and transparency. They voted unanimously to approve the seven charter school contracts—some of which add new schools and others that expand grades. The seven were pared down from 10 contracts that were originally on the December agenda and only Legal Prep Charter School in West Town will be run by a new operator.

But the debate in the meeting was not only between charter schools vs. traditional neighborhood schools. Board members also approved a new magnet school for the Near West Side, called STEM, and a new South Shore High School, which will include tracks in International Baccalaureate and in career and technical education.

These items also generated some discussion. Two parents and concerned community members, David Askew and Angela Bryant, called the approval of STEM an unjust move. Askew brought a map of where magnet schools are located across the city and pointed out that several magnet school deserts exist. The Near West Side, on the other hand, already has three magnet schools.

Because magnet schools set aside 40 percent of their seats to students living within 1.5 miles, students in the well-to-do gentrifying area have a much greater chance of winning a spot in a magnet school than a student living in a neighborhood that has none.

“How can you justify it?” said Askew, who brought a petition signed by 1,000 residents. “Those poor black children in Austin have nothing.”

School Board President Mary Lowry asked CPS CEO Terry Mazany to have a conversation with Askew and explain his plan to make sure resources are equitably distributed. Also, before voting for STEM, Lowry asked CPS officials to clarify admissions criteria for the new charter school.

General Counsel Pat Rocks told her that the other 60 percent of seats will be divided up among students from different socio-economic backgrounds, as is the policy at all magnet schools. “I would say that we expect the student population to be diverse.”

The South Shore High School issue pitted community members against parents and, in the end, the community groups won.  The community groups wanted a new building built for South Shore High School to start fresh with 9th graders and to have some selectivity. The current South Shore high schools are low-performing.

But parents of students at the four current small South Shore high schools wanted their children to get a chance to attend school in the new building.

That isn’t going to happen, under the item approved by the board on Wednesday.

Stephanie West, chairwoman of the LSC at the South Shore School of the Arts, spoke at a press conference before the meeting about how the experience of the children at her school ties into the debate on charter schools.  For the past year, the students have been in a facility built in the 1940s watching the new shiny building rise up, thinking they will have a chance to attend it. Only now, they are being told new specially-selected students will get to go.

“The bottomline is that neighborhood schools should be supported,” she said.  “Our parents and students want a new educational home. We waited a very long time for this new beginning.”