New Schools for Chicago looks to turnaround failing charters

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In the wake last week’s major announcement on Chicago’s new schools CEO
and board, the privately-backed Renaissance Schools Fund put the word
out that it is changing its name and embarking on a new plan to open 50
more schools. In the wake last week’s major announcement on Chicago’s new schools CEO and board, the privately-backed Renaissance Schools Fund put the word out that it is changing its name and embarking on a new plan to open 50 more schools.

But the leaders of the group, now called New Schools for Chicago, also are talking about smaller yet equally interesting initiatives. They are developing plans to restructure at least a handful of low-achieving charters. And they are kicking off a public relations campaign, aimed at least partly at countering the Chicago Teachers Union’s negative message about charter schools.

In total, the group hopes to help establish 50 new charter campuses in the next five years.  Should they reach that goal, one in every five public schools in Chicago will be a charter.

New Schools of Chicago will also try to ensure school success by tying their support to various benchmarks for student achievement, plans for growth and proper fiscal management.

The plan to, in effect, finance the turnaround of lower-achieving charters represents a shift for a group that has championed charters as the key strategy for improving education.

“We’re going to be kind of tough on the performance standards and help anybody that needs help,” says Ty Fahner, the president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, who is helping the fundraising effort.  “But we’re not going to continue to make-believe that just because it’s a charter that makes it better.  That’s not the case.”

“We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work about charter schools and the city of Chicago during the first phase of our organization,” says Jennifer Cline, New Schools’ communications director.  “What we’ve found is that not every charter school is the same but the schools that are doing a good job are just knocking it out of the park.”

Fahner says the group has already identified five or six charters that are not up to par, though he declined to name specific schools. The group will push for accountability by reporting charter performance in ways that are easy for the public to understand, such as an interactive website. (See Catalyst Chicago’s map on charter performance.)

The details of the “public information campaign” are still sketchy. Cline says it may include charter advertising and outreach to local school councils, with the goal of informing parents about the different academic options for their children.

Cline and Fahner say part of the reason for this push is the criticism that the charter movement has drawn.  They feel that groups like the Chicago Teachers’ Union have at times stood in the way of charter expansion.

“If they want to demonstrate, we’ll out-demonstrate them,” says Fahner, whose wife and brother are teachers.

Cline says that those working in education in the city need to come together.

“There is a bit of this us-versus-them that the union continues to perpetuate,” she said.  “We would love to be able to work with all educators, with the focus on performing for the students.”

CTU spokesperson Liz Brown notes that the union’s criticism stems from “high teacher turnover, under-enrolling special needs and ELL students, lack of financial transparency and parent voice.”

Despite the tough economy, Fahner says that New Schools has already banked $12 million towards its efforts.  He hopes to reach $20 million by the end of the year. 

Beginning in 2004, the fund raised $50 million for new charters in Chicago under Renaissance 2010. With this new effort, New Schools hopes to put money toward the replication of charter models that they say are doing well, such as Noble Street, Chicago International, LEARN and UNO.  They also want to bring in other well-regarded from elsewhere in the country.