Charters sought to relieve overcrowding, but communities question strategy

August 14, 2013

Originally considered a strategy to provide better schools in neighborhoods without them, charter schools are now being viewed as a solution to overcrowding.

The district’s latest Request for Proposals for new charters lists nine target communities, among the 10 with the most overcrowded schools. Mostly on the Northwest and Southwest Side, with student populations that are predominantly Latino and white, the neighborhoods are: Ashburn, Belmont-Cragin, Chicago Lawn, McKinley Park, Midway, Little Village, Reed-Dunning and Sauganash.

A quarter of the schools in four of the neighborhoods are high-performing (based on the district’s rating scale), which makes them above-average compared to other areas in the city.

But just a few months after the district decided to close 49 neighborhood schools, tensions and skepticism about new schools runs high in the targeted communities—and could raise more challenges for the charter community as well.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, notes that while overcrowding is a problem in some communities, the district’s shift in strategy ignores a harsh educational reality in large areas of the city.

“This new approach limits our ability to serve those kids who don’t have enough access to better schools,” Broy says.

Finding facilities will also be a problem. “Certainly the new focus on the Northwest and Southwest Side is a practical problem because there are very few if any buildings in those areas,” Broy adds. “The lack of buildings will definitely constrain charter growth there.”

Previously-shuttered schools are a possibility, but the area has few of them and “a lot of those are already occupied or have been adapted for other uses,” Broy adds.

Democratic Committeeman Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) says distrust of charters is common in his community and parents have a lot of unanswered questions that center on money and public funding for charters, as well as how students are accepted—though charter students are admitted via lottery and do not require admissions tests—and any fees that might be charged. Lopez represents Chicago Lawn and McKinley Park.

“The community does not want a divergence of public resources that could otherwise be better spent in the existing infrastructure and existing public schools, being taken away to create more charter schools,” Lopez says.

If given the proper resources, many neighborhood schools would excel, he points out.

Ald. Timothy Cullerton (35th Ward) was one of 35 aldermen who signed a resolution against charter school expansion in February. He recognizes overcrowding as an issue in the Reed-Dunning neighborhood schools, but says that charter schools are not the answer.

“There are kids in classrooms that are converted washrooms and hallways and janitor’s closets and we need to invest in a traditional CPS K through 12 school,” he says. “That would be my preference.”

 Engaging communities

CPS officials say charter school applicants will take part in a formal parent and community engagement process, led by the district. Neighborhood Advisory Councils comprised of at least 51 percent parents from the community, as well as other residents and stakeholders, will be recruited in August and September.

The councils will review proposals and recommend schools they want in their communities. CPS hasn’t decided how many charters it will open this year, saying it depends on the number of high-quality applicants they receive, according to a spokesperson.

CPS has a number of charter networks with multiple campuses, but the district has not approached any existing operators about opening more schools. Current operators will have to present a “proven track record of success driving academic achievement and growth” as well as evidence that they have community support and the “financial and operational capacity” to replicate, a spokesperson said.

Proposals are due on September 30.

The RFP also highlights educational models that the district wants to see: schools that integrate fine arts into core subjects; dual-language models; schools with a humanities focus; and what the district calls a “Next Generation School,” which combines technology-based learning—something that more districts across the country are turning to—with lessons taught by teachers.

Parent Lindsey Bey says her son uses iPads in class at Hibbard Elementary School in Albany Park, along with guided reading programs targeted to each student’s reading level. However, technology alone is not enough, she says.

“Bottom-line is, while tech can be a useful tool, it doesn’t replace the teacher,” says Bey, who questions the district's charter approach.

“In general I find them unfair and unproven,” she says. “They don’t follow the same rules that CPS schools have to follow so they can suspend and reject children based on anything from attendance to behavioral issues to performance.”

“The schools become such a hub of our community, where we meet really diverse individuals,” she adds. “If you go to a charter school you’re getting kids all over the city so they’re not as invested into what’s happening a block away from that school, [but] in a neighborhood school, they are. That connection is how you become stronger as a community.”