Charter schools propose big expansion

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UPDATED–Noble Street Charter Schools is asking Chicago Public Schools to give them the green light to open three campuses over the two years and is laying out plans to allow them to open eight more schools over the next five years and allow their enrollment to grow to 18,000 students. Eventually, the charter school network would serve a fifth of all high school students in CPS.

This is one of nine proposals—which would result in 21 schools if all were approved—that was hotly debated at a meeting Monday evening. CPS officials say they will hold another community hearing in January and then will decide which proposals to recommend that the board approve at its meeting later that month.

Because CPS’ board already approved 10 charter school openings for fall 2014, including two UNO campuses, one LEARN and three alternative schools, as many as 31 charter schools could opening within the next two years.

CPS officials say that they don’t expect all those schools with approvals will actually open.

Noble Street, which already runs 14 campuses, only specifies a location for the one of three that would open in Fall 2014. That location has come under criticism because it is across the street from Prosser High School. Students and staff at Prosser worry that the Noble Street will drain students from Prosser, which is considered a good high school. It is rated Level 2—CPS’ mid-level rating.

Noble Street leaders boast that they operate several of the highest performing non-selective high schools in the city. But critics point out that students must apply and win a lottery to enroll and that the schools have a strict discipline policy that ends up preventing some students from enrolling and forces others out.

The other school that is proposing rapid expansion is Connected Futures. This alternative school operator would like to open five campuses, each with about 185 students, over the next five years. Though Connected Futures is new to Chicago, other alternative networks have come into the city in recent years.     

The embattled UNO Charter School Network had originally submitted a proposal for this round, according to CPS, but eventually withdrew it, as did two other charter school operators.

This year, CPS was looking for proposals to open charter schools in areas that have overcrowded schools. However, only four charter school operators with proposals on the table are looking at locations in priority areas. They are Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy Charter School and Concept Schools in Chicago Lawn; Be the Change in McKinley Park and Noble Street in Belmont-Cragin.

Of the nine proposals being considered, four are from operators that already run charter schools. Intrinsic just opened its first campus at a  temporary location downtown this year that is preparing to move to Hermosa. The second location is to be on the Northwest Side of the city, though the exact spot has yet to be determined. Intrisic is a high school that melds traditional learning with technology.

Concept Schools is proposing two high schools schools—one in Chatham and one in South Chicago. They currently operate Chicago Math and Science Academy, under the purview of CPS. They also were the first operator in Chicago to have schools denied by CPS and later approved by the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

It was never clear why CPS’ board denied Concept schools last year, although charter proposals were under a microscope as the district set about closing nearly 50 schools. Concept Schools runs 30 schools across the Midwest and they focus on math and science.

Asian Human Services is proposing expanding its elementary school to include a high school. It would also be in Edgewater. The area has a large immigrant community and the school specializes in helping new immigrants assimilate.

New operators make a move

The other proposals are from new operators, including a cadre of teachers and an after-school provider who wants to do more for neighborhood children in Austin.

One of the more innovative ideas is from Deborah Umrani, who is proposing a school called Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy. Umrani directed UIC’s Early Outreach Program until she was dismissed due to budget cuts in February 2011, a move that triggered outrage from parents. The Early Outreach Program offered college preparation classes at UIC for minority students from underrepresented groups.

She hopes to garner funding from foundations, private donors and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives to support the school’s many features, such as busing for students, a science summer camp, a lengthy school day that stretches from 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m., class sizes that are capped at 20, and classes in visual arts, cultural arts and theater for all students.

Umrani hopes the school will open in fall 2014 with 450 students in preschool through 5th grades, and add one grade a year until it is serves 800 students in preschool through 8th grade.

The school’s math curriculum is licensed from the government of Singapore and will use problem-based learning to teach both the hard skills and the attitudes students need to be successful, Umrani says. Also, all students will learn both Spanish and Chinese.

All classes, even those for the youngest students, will be departmentalized so students can learn math and science from teachers who are confident in those subjects.

Also, families will be offered parenting classes, English lessons and leadership training.

Umrani says that 18th Ward Alderman Lona Lane supports the school, which plans to have an early childhood campus at 79th and Western, and a 2nd through 8th grade campus at 87th and Kedzie.

The school is named, Umrani said, after two families – the Curtises, and the Sharifs – who are her “unsung heroes” and who were never able to fulfill their educational aspirations, but who encouraged others to do so.

The other proposals are:

  • Be the Change is an elementary school proposed for Bridgeport. It is being designed by a cadre of teachers, many of which came through the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. They say in their proposal that they want to go into Bridgeport because it is a diverse area.
  • Chicago Education Partnership is proposing to open an elementary school in the Austin community. According to a newsletter posted on their website, 12,000 students leave the community for schools and community members are hoping the school will stabilize the community. The founders say in their proposal that they have been working with neighborhood children through the By The Hand Club For Kids. The By The Hand Club for Kids runs after school programs and was started by the Moody Church.
  • Great Lakes Academy is looking to go into the Southeast side and its founder Katherine Myers has already been holding information sessions around the area. Myers who was a Building Excellent Schools Fellow says in the proposal that she intends on pulling best practices from the most effective schools serving poor children. Building Excellent Schools trains charter school operators.