As questions arise, more charters planned for Chicago

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CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has said that charter schools will not escape tough scrutiny of their performance–including the threat of closure–and that School Board members would consider taking action against one or two charters at the December board meeting.

Such action is complicated, though, since charter schools have five-year contracts with CPS that are not easily revoked. Officials are still working on the details, and CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says that information about the proposed actions will be available soon.

But on the board’s agenda already are proposals to add 12 more charters, most of them new campuses of existing large charter networks: Noble Street, UNO and LEARN

The move is likely to cause backlash from charter critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, which is already planning more action, including a candlelight vigil, against school closings.

Charter performance has been in the spotlight recently since the release by the Illinois State Board of Education of the first-ever campus-level charter school report cards–the same report cards that have been issued for years for traditional schools and that include student test score data. CPS has long published campus-level test score data, but the information was not widely distributed in a parent-friendly format.

Expansion plans

Under the district’s plan, Noble Street, which already operates 10 high schools, will open four campuses over the next two years. The United Neighborhood Organization will expand its 11-school network by three. LEARN, a network of five schools that received $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network in 2010, also will add three campuses. Catalyst, which has two small schools already, will open one more. (The Catalyst charter is not affiliated with Catalyst Chicago.)

The sole newcomer is Christopher House, a long-time social service agency that plans to open a kindergarten-through-high school charter in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. Plans include a family resource center with classes for parents and family support services.

In recent years, the district has focused on giving existing charter school networks additional campuses, rather than opening the gates for small, new charter school operators. 

“These are top-notch, high performing campuses,” says Jennifer Cline, director of communication for New Schools for Chicago, which works in partnership with CPS on authorizing charter schools. 

Yet, she adds, “we do have concerns about charter schools growing too fast. We look very, very carefully at these school plans.”

The nuances of student performance

Noble Street is the one of the only charter school operators that has been successful with high schools. If the additional four campuses are approved, Noble Street could have more than 10,000 students by 2013, or 10 percent of all high school students in CPS. 

Students at the Noble Street schools score above the city average on the ACT college entrance exam, and Noble Street schools are among the only non-selective high schools where students post average ACT scores above 20, the minimum needed to get into a less-selective college.

However, because Noble Street requires an essay as part of the application–though the school says it is not used to choose students–some critics argue that the charter is, essentially, selective. Noble Street also has a strict discipline policy, including fines for infractions, that ends up pushing some students out.

UNO and Catalyst also have some nuance to their performance. One of Catalyst’s two campuses performs above average, but the other campus scores below average and has a Performance Level 3 rating with the district–a rating that would make it eligible for closure as a traditional school. 

At UNO, the Paz campus also has a Performance Level 3 rating.

Carroll says most of UNO’s and Catalyst’s schools “outperform the district” and the operators “have the ability to provide better options in high-need communities for students, starting immediately.”

UNO’s CEO Juan Rangel says that Paz’s performance plummeted under one school leader and that he pulled that leader when he realized the problems. He also notes that the school had to move and stopped its busing program, which led to some change in the student population.

Now, with a new director and an extended school year and day, Rangel says Paz will improve. “We feel as if we have turned a corner,” he says.  

Not easy to revoke a charter

Yet Rangel adds that he does believe CPS should pull the plug on a school if it is too low-performing for too long.

Closing a charter school that is still under contract is not easy.  Typically, charters have five-year contracts. If the contract is due for renewal, then the Board of Education can vote not to renew it.

Otherwise, the school district must provide a clear reason for revoking the charter and work with the charter school on addressing those deficiencies, Carroll says. Only if those deficiencies aren’t addressed can the district move to revoke.

Only once since CPS began approving charter schools has the district revoked a charter and in that case, it was after the director was arrested for embezzlement. In the past three years, a few charter schools have closed on their own after their boards of directors decided they were either financially unable to continue, not doing well enough academically or both.

Cline says the fact that few charter schools have had to be shut down is testament to the fact that the district has a tough authorizing process.

Brizard has not specifically said he is going to begin the process of revoking the two charters, which have not yet been identified. He might just put pressure on their operators to make changes. 

Recently, Brizard announced that Chicago International Charter School’s Basil campus was being “turned around” and would undergo a management change to try and improve. Chicago International hires outside management companies to run their schools.  

But Basil will continue to be managed by Victory Education Partners, which recently was given another CICS school

Kate Floyd, director of communications for Chicago International, says that Victory has a good track record the charter’s schools. The Basil campus got a new director this year and teachers will have to reapply for their jobs at the end of this year.

Though Chicago International was already planning to make changes before CPS leaders forced the issue, Floyd says the organization appreciates the help the district has provided.

Cline notes that she isn’t surprised many charter schools make changes on their own. “One of the things we see being different with charter schools is that they tend to self-correct before they need to be shut down,” she says.  

Under the district’s expansion plan, the number of CPS students attending charter schools would increase from 11 percent now to 13 percent in 2013.