CPS approves new schools, but charters face tough questions

January 23, 2013

CPS officials approved several new charter and alternative schools at Wednesday’s board meeting, and also announced new plans to engage with Community Action Councils.

But the charter schools that were approved might face an uncertain future. Both Foundations College Prep, which will open in Roseland, and Orange Charter, which has not picked a neighborhood yet, were pulled from the December meeting agenda, had their openings delayed by a year, and were given additional conditions they must meet before they are given final approval to open.

“They are to identify the communities in need, and also the communities that support these schools,” Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said. “One of them [Orange Charter] had six communities they were considering, and we recommended that they narrow their scope.”

Board member Andrea Zopp was particularly concerned about Orange Charter’s application. “If they find a site and it is a site I don’t agree with, that’s not in need, do I get to vote again? …Orange doesn’t even have a principal yet.” She continued: “My problem is, our guidelines require us to have people with a proven track record, which Orange does not have except for one person on the board.”

Board member Mahalia Hines also questioned the idea of conditionally approving a charter school. “We are not approving schools that are ready to go.” Board President David Vitale noted that CPS has historically approved charter schools in that way. “But does that mean it’s right?” Hines asked.

Earlier in the meeting, board member Andrea Zopp questioned Foundations College Prep principal Sarah Hunko Baker about the school’s plans. “Have you spoken to either of the aldermen there?” Zopp asked. “We are currently finalizing our support from aldermen,” Baker said.  Zopp asked about the board, and Baker admitted that the school’s board “is an area of growth for us.”

The conditions now imposed on the schools set the agenda for what they must accomplish in order to receive final approval.

Foundations must open only with the middle grades, adding one grade per year until it is a 6th- through 12th-grade school. Baker will be required to “participate in a mentorship/training program with a focus on developing high school leaders” and the school’s board “must expand to include member(s) with demonstrated development/fundraising capacity.”

Orange Charter must find a principal candidate who has worked successfully with a similar population of students to those the school will serve. Its budget “must be revised with more realistic fundraising goals” or identified funding sources. It must also choose a community, and be able to demonstrate that the community needs the school and supports it.

Also given a green light on Wednesday were alternative programs that will serve a mixture of dropouts, students who transfer out of their schools because they aren’t on track to graduate, and those who have been expelled.

But the schools’ 950 new seats may be just a drop in the bucket. Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, says there are currently 15,000 to 20,000 young high school dropouts in Chicago.

*Edison Learning – Magic Johnson Academy, which will have two locations; each will serve 150 students in grades 7 through 12.

*A new Banner Academy program, serving 225 students. Banner currently runs alternative programs at Banner South and Banner West.

*A new Pathways in Education site serving 300 students, plus 100 more students for the program’s existing site that currently serves 200 students.

In addition, the Options Lab School – currently a Youth Connections Charter School campus serving 175 dropouts – will reopen as a 200-student contract school, the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy. It will still continue to serve dropouts, but Executive Director Monica Haslip says it also plans to enroll younger students – including incoming freshmen who need a small school environment but aren’t yet off track. She describes the school as “a college prep arts and technology training program.”

Several of the other schools will offer a combination of online and classroom instruction.

The two Magic Johnson Academy locations will be based on a model used by 14 Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy schools around the country, which are a joint venture by the for-profit companies Magic Johnson Enterprises and EdisonLearning.

The 10 schools that were open during the 2011-12 school year – the first year they were in operation – were all in Ohio, says Michael Serpe, a spokesman for EdisonLearning. For students who entered as seniors that year, the schools had a graduation rate of over 70 percent.

Students in the programs spend half their time in on-site online classes, and half in traditional classes. Typically, students can choose whether to attend school from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. or from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. each day, depending on work and child care schedules. Students also receive job training and job placements at Fortune 500 companies, Andre Johnson of Magic Johnson Enterprises said during the public participation segment of the meeting.

Pathways in Education also operates with a combination of online and classroom instruction. Bill Toomey, the program’s deputy superintendent, says he hopes the additional seats will help alleviate the waiting list.

“We don’t have enough slots for the students that need us,” he says. “Our current site is at 87th and Kedzie on the Southwest Side. We are looking at Englewood, we are looking at Roseland and the Austin area” for the second location.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett also announced at the meeting that she will personally respond to all proposals made by the district’s Community Action Councils. She also pledged that the district will send representatives to the councils’ monthly meetings.

The community action councils were created by former schools CEO Ron Huberman, but some felt their recommendations were ignored in the last round of school actions.

“We have so longed to partner with the Board,” said 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham, who is the chair of the Austin Community Action Council.

In reiterating her response to the Commission on School Utilization’s interim report, Byrd-Bennett said she has grown much more confident in the last month that CPS has the capacity to close schools.

Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz noted that the district plans to offer all students from shuttered schools a space in a “welcoming school” that is higher performing.

But officials noted that in some cases, higher-performing schools might be far from students’ neighborhoods.

“When parents have taken advantage of going to a higher-performing school in the past, the culture shock has been such for the parent and the child, that it has not been a pleasant experience,” board member Mahalia Hines cautioned.