Charters, closings questioned by board members

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CPS board members approved Wednesday the expansion of several charter networks but, in an unusual occurrence for an appointed board that usually accepts all of the administration’s recommendations, the proposals did not all earn unanimous votes.

Carlos Azcoitia, a former principal who has been on the board since November, voted against the establishment of a KIPP Charter School in Englewood. He also voted against renewing and expanding KIPP’s ACT campus and Chicago Virtual Charter School. Board member Mahalia Hines, also a one-time principal, joined Azcoitia in voting against the Chicago Virtual Charter School item.

Considering that the board is in the midst of deciding whether to close 54 schools, Azcoitia said he did not think it was the right time to add seats at schools. He did vote in favor of some of the charter school grade expansions because they are existing schools or adding high school grades. CPS is only planning to close elementary schools this year.

“Before we open new schools, I think first we need to know the impact on our communities of school closings,” said Azcoitia after the meeting. “I just did not think this was the right time.”

Among the charter networks set to expand are Noble Street, Aspira, and UNO’s Rogers Park campus, which is adding a high school.

Azcoitia and other board members also questioned and raised concerns about the schools that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has recommended for closure. The vote on the closures will take place at their next meeting on May 22.

Board members are trying to visit every closing and receiving school. “We learn something on each of these visits,” Board President David Vitale said.

Vice President Jesse Ruiz added that his school visits have resulted in several questions and he is hoping CPS officials take time to address them. Azcoitia said he wants the board to be briefed on each individual school action with information on academics, safety and facilities, as well as what was learned at community meetings and by hearing officers.

Hines made the strongest statement. She said she had driven many of the routes from closing schools to schools that students will be sent to, and that she was not convinced they were safe. She was particularly concerned about the trip between Melody and Delano.

“It is not a route that I would send my child and there is no way I am voting for anything that I would not send my child [to do],” she said.

Hines also said she was worried about the fact that CPS officials did not account for special education students in their utilization formula. Underutilization is the key factor in deciding what schools are to be closed.

Hines visited Trumbull Elementary School, which has 116 special education students this year. Trumbull parents have said that their utilization rate would be higher if CPS had taken into account the special education students, who are supposed to have smaller class sizes.

“How are we going to address the needs of special education students?” Hines asked.

Special Education Director Markay Winston said her team was taking steps to make sure receiving schools have the  services needed, but Hines indicated that the questions are about more than services.

Board members made their comments after public participation, during which speakers once again insisted that their school stay open. One of them was Asean Johnson, a 3rd-grader at Garvey Elementary School.

He said that Byrd-Bennett and Vitale visited his school recently. Addressing Byrd-Bennett directly, he said, “Why would you take Marcus Garvey away from us? You loved how quiet it was and how we were all at work. You tried to surprise us, but we were ready. “

Another strong statement was made by Jalainea Leslie, a mother whose children attend Parkman.  She said there’s no way she will send her child to Sherwood Elementary School, some six blocks away.

Recently, she said, someone got shot near Sherwood.

“I want to protect my kids,” Leslie said. “57th Street is too far. I know you have a heart. This is not a right thing because they won’t make it there.”  

Before the board meeting, dueling rallies showed the deep divide that exists on the charter school and school closings issue.

Students from several high schools marched chanting: “Rahm Emanuel has got to go” Many of the students were juniors who were supposed to take the second part of the Prairie State exam on Wednesday, but boycotted it. They said they wanted to show their displeasure at using test scores in decisions to close schools and to evaluate teachers.

Brian Stirgus, a student at Robeson High, said he was at the rally to speak up on behalf of his elementary school, Banneker. Banneker is slated for closure and its students will be sent to Mays.

“These school closings are racist,” he said. “We refuse to sit back and let you destroy our neighborhoods.”

In the background, Chicago Parents United, a new pro-charter parent group, also chanted. The parents, whose children mostly attend UNO, Noble Street and Chicago International charters, said they wanted CPS officials to hear their voices and for charter schools to get equal funding.