Seven more alternative schools, 2,500 more seats for dropouts planned

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Less than a year after expanding the number of alternative schools run by outside groups, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proposed opening another seven campuses and increasing enrollment at four existing schools to serve a total of 2,500 more dropouts.

The proposal, which will go to the Board of Education on Wednesday, comes despite the fact the district doesn’t even know whether the schools are meeting accountability standards.

When asked why she was pushing to give contracts to new, untested groups, Byrd-Bennett said: “Kids don’t have time for us to wait […]. If the quality doesn’t exist, I’ll stop the contract.”

“It’s a very unique population with incredibly unique needs,” she added. “Very often our schools’ [staff] are not trained, are not equipped to deal with that specific population.”

News of the proposed expansion hit Sheila Venson like a punch in the gut. Venson is the executive director of Youth Connection Charter Schools (YCCS), an umbrella organization for non-profit community groups that run 20 alternative schools in the city. YCCS was formed 15 years ago, although many of the individual alternative schools have been around for decades longer.

“This was a deliberate attempt to cut us out and I don’t know why,” said Venson, whose organization submitted a proposal to CPS earlier this year to expand enrollment and add three campuses. “We’ve been waiting 15 years for it to happen and when it does happen we don’t get it. Here you have these new groups – and I don’t know anything about them – but they’ve only been around for a year or two and some of our schools have been around for 40.”

In response, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the district “has had and will continue to have ongoing conversations with YCCS about the work they do serving some of the city’s most at-risk youth. They remain the district’s largest partner in this work.”

Under the proposed recommendations, CPS wants to open three new Magic Johnson Bridgescape campuses, two new Pathways in Education in Illinois campuses, and one campus each for Camelot SAFE Schools and Ombudsman North. CPS also wants to increase the enrollment cap at Magic Johnson Bridgescape’s North Lawndale and Roseland schools, as well as the Ombudsman 3 and Banner West schools.

Except for Pathways and Banner, all of the operators are for-profit. The district gives operators millions of dollars, using the per-pupil funding model, to teach these students. CPS, however, did not provide specific figures on monies paid to alternative schools, which in recent years have been rebranded as “option” schools.

Opposition to the proposed expansion

A staggering 56,000 school-aged youth in Chicago who could be in school are not enrolled, according to CPS estimates. Byrd-Bennett said she has made reaching out to these “lost children” one of her top priorities. The district currently has 8,900 total seats in some 40 schools that serve these students. However, the schools say they actually served 12,246 this past school year – which is possible because many students come and go during the year.

Some critics raised questions about the proposed expansion, calling the plan a way to privatize public education. Although YCCS schools have been working with dropouts for years in Chicago, under Byrd-Bennett’s tenure the district has opened the gates to outside groups – both for profit and not-for-profit. 

Pauline Lipman, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who researches privatization of schools, said that students who drop out “have been failed by Chicago’s education.”

“And now CPS is treating them as commodities, to be sold off to these for-profit operators,” she added.

In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said it was “unfortunate that the district, with no real educational or facilities plans, cannot find a way to utilize well-educated, certified teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals to provide high-quality, publicly funded public education to these young people.”

Meanwhile, longtime advocates for dropouts also worry about the foray of for-profits into the alternative school market. One advocate who asked not to be identified said that students could struggle with online learning, which is part of the curriculum at some of these newer alternative schools. He also said that CPS needs to monitor how these organizations spend their money; specifically, how much is going into classrooms and how much into owners’ pockets.

About the schools

Jack Elsey, CPS’s chief innovation and incubation officer, said the district is tracking data on the performance of alternative contract schools, but that it’s too soon to tell how well they’re doing. Under the new performance policy, alternative schools are graded using a different set of metrics than traditional high schools.

CPS officials described attendance– which is tied to funding – at the alternative schools as “volatile.” Many students don’t show up to class until much later on in the semester. 

Alternative school operators are supposed to do their own outreach to find youth who could be in school. Last year, the district also opened outreach centers in Garfield Park, Roseland and Little Village, each staffed with six workers. Overall, the district’s outreach program has a $2.5 million budget.

“We’re trying to get all of these students back in school,” Elsey said. “We’re all learning how to do this better, how to better find kids and get them into school.”’

Staff at traditional schools also identify students who are not on track to graduate and counsel them about the option of enrolling in an alternative school, where they may benefit from different models of teaching. 

Students who drop out of traditional schools sometimes find their own way back to an alternative school. That’s what happened to Raynard Gillespie, who dropped out of Crane Tech as a freshman in 2011 after getting shot in the leg not far from the school. He worked a little and sat around for two years before his aunt convinced him to check out Camelot Excel Academy of Englewood.

“I love this school,” said Gillespie, who expects to graduate next year. “I’ve been places I’d never been to before. I get good grades. There’s a good staff, good directors. […] They have methods that actually work.”

Catalyst wrote about Camelot’s model last year. 

Kevin Sweetland, executive director of Excel Camelot of Englewood, credits the school’s structured model, smaller classes and smaller population for its ability to “provide individualized supports for students.”

 “In our Camelot accelerated programs. students also have the opportunity to earn up to 5 credits per semester, or 10 credits per school year,” he said in a written statement. “Students have an extended day. This allows students to either catch up and be able to graduate on time or graduate closer to their original graduating class.”

Catalyst Chicago Deputy Editor Sarah Karp contributed to this report.