Concept Charter plans tied to mega-church

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On the brutally cold evening of January 8, Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. was in attendance at a CPS charter school hearing to support a Concept Charter School proposed for Chatham on the South Side.

Hermene Hartman, publisher of `Nidgo Magazine, wrote a blog post urging the approval of the school and the president of Seaway Bank penned a letter.

The support for the school—planned to be an elementary and high school–stands in contrast to the opposition of many aldermen and community residents to charter schools,  especially in communities where schools are underutilized and have been shut down as part of 2013’s massive closures. CPS is considering proposals that would result in 21 charter schools.

When the agenda for next week’s Wednesday board meeting is released, it will be clear whether Concept is among the schools CPS leaders recommend for approval.  Concept Schools, which already operates the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park on the North Side, was initially turned down last year by CPS for two other schools, one in Lincoln Square and another in McKinley Park. Concept appealed to the state’s charter school commission, which gave the green light.

Evangelical Christian backing

Support for the Concept Charter School plan is intertwined with support for the mega-church and connected development. If the charter school is approved, it could raise questions about whether there are political motivations.

Salim Ucan, executive director of Concept Schools says CPS officials are meeting with charter school operators this week to inform them of who will get the nod. Ucan emphasizes the community support for the Chatham proposal, including 1,500 signatures on petitions. 

But many of those who support the charter school do so because of its partner, The Legacy Project, a massive development being spearheaded by Rev. Charles Jenkins, a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In addition to the school, the development will house a health care, community and retail space, as well as a mega-church. The land for the massive project at the former headquarters of the Soft Sheen beauty products company near 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway was purchased and then donated by the evangelical Christian business Hobby Lobby, a chain of retail stores selling arts and crafts materials. 

Jenkins is a member of Emanuel’s inner circle, and helped the mayor win black votes in the last election, according to news reports. Jenkins, who took over the legendary Rev. Clay Evans’ Missionary Fellowship Baptist Church in Bronzeville, served on Emanuel’s transition team and delivered the prayer at his inauguration in Millennium Park.  Jenkins declined to be interviewed at this time, though he said through his assistant that in a few weeks he would be available. 

Jenkins has been quoted as saying that the space will take $26 million to develop but it is unclear how much money he has raised so far. Taxes have not been filed for the Fellowship Educational and Economic Development Corporation, the non-profit that Jenkins formed to manage the project—and that stands to reap substantial financial benefit if the Concept proposal moves forward.

Almost $1 million in rent

If CPS approves the charter school, it is a good deal for both parties. Concept school gets support it otherwise might not have garnered.

Concept Schools is set to lease the space for the school from The Legacy Project and according to the Concept proposal, by 2018, when the school has reached its full enrollment of 735 students, it will be paying $961,595 in rent. Though Chatham is a middle-class community, rent of nearly $1 million per year is a hefty sum for space on the South Side.

The cost averages out to about $1,300 per student, more than 17 percent of the per-pupil amount that CPS currently provides to charter schools.

Nationally, charter schools spend an average of about 13 percent of their budgets on facilities, according to a 2012 survey by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In Chicago, among charters that are paying for their space in non-CPS buildings, the average is 7 percent, according to the Illinois State Board of Education annual charter school survey, which Catalyst Chicago obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. (Charter schools in CPS buildings pay the district $1 a year for rent, but do not get a facilities stipend.)

Ucan readily admits that old Catholic schools and similar buildings are often less expensive than a new building, as the Concept/Legacy building would be. One of the other operators proposing a charter school, Great Lakes Academy, is negotiating for an old church school building and plans to spend $144,000 per year on rent.

But Ucan says that for 70,000 square feet of new space, it is market-rate.

“It is reasonable,” he says. “It is within our budget.”

Spending 20 percent of the budget on facilities is not out of line, says William Haft, vice president at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. If a charter school proposed spending a third of its budget on a facility, he says it would raise a red flag.

Building community relationships

Haft says deals with churches could be seen as a way to curry favor. But they could also be seen as positive moves to foster strong community engagement.

“There is a long history of the charter school sector leasing space from churches or religious organizations and it is win-win for everyone,” he says. However, usually charter schools rent vacant old church school buildings (of which there are many), not brand-new buildings.

Still, Haft says that authorizers need to make sure that charter school transactions are done at “arms length” and are in line with how much it would cost to rent or buy space in a particular area. 

Ucan says he found out about The Legacy Project a year ago and realized that Concept Schools and Rev. Jenkins shared similar values. “We both believe that education is a lifelong journey and a foundation,” he says. Ucan says the charter operator’s real estate broker introduced him to the Legacy Project as they scanned neighborhoods for new locations last year.

Ucan and his board made the decision to pursue the school in Chatham before CPS put out their request-for-proposals for this year, which identified communities with overcrowded schools as priority areas. According to 2013-2014 utilization figures recently posted on CPS’ website, 14 of 22 neighborhood schools in the Chatham area are underutilized. Last year, CPS closed Morgan Elementary School, less than a mile and a half away, for underutilization.

Harlan High School, which serves the area, has 256 fewer students this year compared to last year, dropping it into the underutilized category.

The sales pitch Ucan makes for the charter school is not that the space is needed to relieve overcrowding, but rather that what the community needs are quality options. Its Chicago Math and Science Academy is a Level 1 school, the highest rating on CPS’ academic ranking. But when CPS turned down Concept last year, evaluators noted that CMSA was not out-performing nearby schools. At the time, CMSA was a Level 2 school, the mid-level rating. Questions were also raised about the charter’s finances and its ability to pay competitive salaries to find good teachers.

At the moment, Chatham has only two Level 1 schools—the highest CPS rating—in the area. Forty percent, including Harlan, the sole neighborhood high school, are Level 3, the lowest rating.

While Ucan says there’s a need for a better school in the area, he notes that had he known that CPS was going to focus on neighborhoods with overcrowded schools, he might have chosen a different location.