New Schools for Chicago broadens parent outreach

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A year after announcing ambitious expansion plans, New Schools for Chicago – formerly known as the Renaissance Schools Fund – has hired new staff members and is embarking on a public campaign to promote new schools.

“It’s the continuation of our work to expand high-quality schools in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods,” says Phyllis Lockett, the group’s president and CEO. “We have a goal of opening another 50 schools in the next five years, and we hope to raise about $60 million to help support that effort.”

By 2020, the group aims to have 30 percent of Chicago’s students – about 115,000 – enrolled in its new schools. Its current portfolio will serve over 40,000 students. However, new schools – most of them charters – have faced opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union as well as some community organizations that see them as competition with unionized neighborhood schools.

One prong of the group’s efforts is a program called Increase Your Odds, which launched at the New Schools Expo. Families who take part will get automatic reminders about school application deadlines and, if they don’t win the enrollment lottery, will also get suggestions about other schools that have room for more students.

“There are some charter schools, particularly new campuses of charters, that may not have reached their full enrollment,” Lockett says, particularly because not all admitted students may choose to attend a school. “Once the dust settles, there may be spots available.”

The goal is to increase access to new schools among parents who might find it challenging to navigate the school choice process. A 2008 Catalyst Chicago analysis found that almost 23 percent of African-American students who travel outside their neighborhood for high school still end up in the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Parents can sign up online or call New Schools for Chicago’s hotline, 773-4-SCHOOLS, to get advice and support through the school choice process from New Schools for Chicago staff members and trained parent volunteers. At the Expo, over 100 volunteers were on hand to work with parents, and so far, at least 300 parents have signed up to receive help.

The group says there are more than 19,000 students on charter school waiting lists “although there are quality charter schools with seats available.”

Another one of its programs is Parents for New Schools, which aims to provide parents with tools to become education advocates and leaders.

Jenner Elementary parent Treyonea Towns says there is a shortage of outreach to parents about school choice.

Jenner “is one of the schools that was at risk for closing,” says Towns. “I and other parents feel that they should have had more information about opportunities for what to do with the children. With all the concerns about school closings and schools not making the cut academically, it should be more widespread.”

And, she adds, New Schools for Chicago’s outreach could ease some of the discomfort parents feel about charter schools.

“When there’s a charter school and you’re not welcome to attend because you didn’t fill out an application, that’s a very uneasy feeling,” Towns says. “There’s not a lot of communication about supporting parents to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Although its organizing and parent outreach staff is expanding, that’s not a new emphasis for the organization, Lockett notes. The group has already held a number of parent trainings, but she’s not sure how many parents have taken part.

To back its efforts, New Schools for Chicago will also launch a public campaign to support school choice. The group recently hired an advocacy project manager as well as an organizer, who will “work to build and demonstrate demand for district-wide improvement driven by the creation of high-quality public schools” by training parents on advocacy and the characteristics of good schools.

Lockett says the group’s near-term plans won’t be affected by state charter school caps. Currently, there are more than 20 charters left, and those that do exist can replicate. “But beyond that, it will start to be an issue,” Lockett says.

She notes that CPS has adopted practices like a longer school day and interim assessments, such as the Scantron and NWEA tests, in order to follow charters’ example.

However, Lockett says, “Opening schools is a challenge.”

“A lot of parents really need support in understanding the current status of their schools, and understanding the options they have available,” she says. “It’s not very easy for parents to navigate the variety of options that have moved into the public school market – especially charters.”