Charters delay opening while new alternative schools forge ahead

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CPS is forging headfirst into the opening of new alternative schools, while a few of the charter schools that were supposed to open in September got more time to get ready.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, CPS members approved the opening of seven alternative schools for dropouts and expanded four of those already in existence.  The new and expanded alternative schools – most of which are operated by for-profit companies – are expected to serve an additional 2,400 dropouts or students at risk of not graduating.

One of them, Camelot-Woodlawn, will be housed in Fiske Elementary School’s old building, despite a promise from CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that closed schools will not be occupied by charter schools. Fiske closed last year and has been recently used by the non-profit Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community to house community programs.

Camelot is technically a contract school, but there’s little difference between a charter and a contract school. Another Camelot School is already operating in the old Guggenheim Elementary, which was closed in 2012. Camelot is looking to open up an additional alternative school this fall, but is still looking for a location.

Byrd-Bennett said there are an estimated 56,000 school-aged youth in Chicago who are not enrolled in school, and has pushed to increase the number of alternative schools – which have been rebranded as “option” schools.

“A one-size approach is not only ineffective but it’s counterproductive,” she said. “Transitioning from a patchwork of alternative schools to a coordinated, comprehensive option school strategy is the only way to reengage our lost children and to get them back on the path to success.”

During the past school year, about 12,000 students attended one of the city’s 40 alternative schools for at least part of the year. Board members did not ask any questions about the major expansion of alternative schools.

While advocates for dropouts applaud more seats to re-enroll students, some are worried about who the contracts are going to. Alternative Schools Network Executive Director Jack Wuest says that he is concerned that long-time operators of these schools—Youth Connection Charter School and Prologue–were passed over for new unproven outfits.  YCCS is a charter operator that runs 20 campuses, most of them at community organizations that had alternative schools before charters came into existence.

Wuest notes that each of these new schools are given about $160,000 in startup money, which YCCS and Prologue will not get.

“We need to be careful to look at these new operators’ track record and program design to make sure they can be effective,” he says.

Charter openings moved back

Meanwhile, of the 11 regular charters approved for opening in the fall 2014, at least five will not. The board granted requests from the operators to push back the start dates of four to fall 2015. In addition, the developers of Orange Charter, which was supposed to be an arts-focused elementary school, already said they are not going forward with plans.

Two planned United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) schools, the Aspira Business and Finance High School and a LEARN campus, all approved in 2013, will not be ready for September. Neither the leadership of Aspira or UNO responded to questions about why they were delaying the opening.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says that UNO is in the process of restructuring the organization. UNO’s founder and executive director Juan Rangel resigned last year after months of questions about the charter operator’s use of a $98 million state school construction grant.

Learn Charter President and Executive Director Greg White says he and the board decided that they should take a break from opening more new schools. “We opened seven schools in the last six years,” he says. “Our thought is to get better, not bigger.”

The charter schools still slated to open this fall are two Concept schools, two Noble Street schools, a Foundations School and Great Lakes Academy. Great Lakes Academy is moving into the building that once housed Las Casas Occupational High School, which was closed in 2009.  

Quality rating policy

Meanwhile, one of Chicago’s top-performing charter schools won’t be renewed this month as scheduled because its administrators refuse to sign on to the district’s new quality rating policy. Byrd-Bennett said she would continue to withhold an item to renew Alain Locke Charter Elementary School’s charter from the board until it agreed to the policy.

“We remain in contract negotiations with the school at the present time and I do not want to advance this item forward until they agree to the school quality rating policy just as several other charter schools have already done so,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Moving forward, schools that do not sign on to the school quality rating policy will not be advanced to the board for consideration.”

The quality rating policy was updated last fall and puts a premium on student attendance and achievement growth of minority, special education and English Language Learner students. 

No representatives from Alain Locke, a Level One school that opened more than a decade ago, spoke during the meeting, nor did they return calls on Wednesday. But Stacy McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the INCS, told the board that Locke is “100 percent behind the notion of strong accountability for all charter schools” without explaining why the school was unwilling to sign onto the policy.

“It’s an important balancing act to balance both strict accountability and consistence as well as charter autonomy,” McAuliffe said.

Teach for America questioned

Also on Wednesday, the Board of Education voted to extend its contract with Teach for America to recruit and support new teachers to work in CPS through its alternative certification program. The district will pay TFA $1.3 million to refer and support up to 570 first- and second-year teachers next school year.

CPS also contracts with Golden Apple and The New Teacher Project to recruit teachers to work in the district. The decision to extend the TFA contract for one additional year was made in order to align all three contracts and issue a new request for proposals next year for teacher recruitment, said CPS Chief Talent Officer Alicia Winckler.

Responding to board members’ questions, Winckler said that TFA fellows represent 6 percent of new hires in the district, and that more than 40 percent are minorities. Just over half of TFA fellows remain as teachers in CPS for longer than three years, she added. 

As usual during Board of Education meetings, dozens of parents and community activists turned out to blast CPS for a variety of issues, ranging from the decision earlier this year to “turn around” three schools to plans to build a selective enrollment high school named after the president in the city’s northeast side.

Parents of students at Walter Gresham Elementary School, which is slated to undergo a “turnaround” next year, told board members they’d filed a complaint over the matter with the NAACP Chicago Southside branch.

Attorney Rose Joshua, the branch president, said she’ll spend the next 15 days investigating their concerns about the decision to turn around the school and asked board members to help her obtain financial information from CPS quickly – and without having to wait for the snail-paced responses that typify the CPS Freedom of Information Act process. Board members ignored her request.

Board members also ignored a community activist who asked the board why the proposed Barack Obama College Prep High School won’t be located in the South Side, where the president once worked as a community activist. After that, another activist, Rosemary Vega took the opportunity to scream at Board President David Vitale for “falling asleep” during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Vega also criticized CPS for using a potentially offensive question on tests given to seventh-graders about illegal immigration.  Later in the meeting, Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz said he, too, was “personally offended” by the question and called it a “huge failure from the top down that we would allow this ignorant language to be put forward.”