Take 5: Safe Passage expansion, closed, vacant buildings and more on Concept

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A meeting of parents and community members about a shooting in North Lawndale spurred CPS officials to finally divulge some information about how they plan to expand the Safe Passage program. In presenting the 2014-15 budget in July, officials said they would expand Safe Passage by $1 million to $10 million, but they did not say where the new routes would be. The Sun-Times now reports that a big part of the expansion will go to schools that received a lot of students from closed schools even though they were not officially designated as so-called welcoming schools. Four of the new schools getting new routes are, indeed, in North Lawndale. They are Penn, Crown, Mason and Lawndale. The other two are Langford in West Englewood and Metcalfe in West Pullman.

The Safe Passage program pays community organizations and churches to hire workers to stand along blocks where children walk to and from school to make sure they are safe. The program was started in 2009 by former CPS CEO Ron Huberman as part of his big safety initiative called Culture of Calm. For the first few year, the routes were only to and from high schools. The Safe Passage program was expanded last year to watch over students as they went from closed schools to new ones. There were no major incidents along the routes last year, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials credit the program.

About 60 percent of students from closed schools went to welcoming schools, which recieved extra resources. Parents in North Lawndale spurned welcoming schools more than parents in other communities, especially in the case of Paderewski, whose students were directed to two predominantly Latino schools in Little Village but chose predominantly black schools in North Lawndale instead.

2. About those closed schools… Fox News has a story about the condition of the schools closed last year. One of the big concerns when the closings were announced was that they would leave more eyesores in neighborhoods that already had too many. Also, neighbors worried that they would attract trouble. It seems like these fears are coming  true. King Elementary has become a hang out, Armstrong has broken windows, the playground at Henson is littered with a decaying mattress, and Paderewski was tagged with graffiti. Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell says CPS has a roving group of engineers and custodians checking on the closed buildings.

Meanwhile, The Chicago Tribune weighs in with a story on CPS efforts to unload the schools. At least 57 buildings sit vacant–36 from 2013 closings and 21 of 29 that were put on the market in 2012. The article notes that CPS has asked aldermen to hold meetings to take the pulse of the community, but scheduling those meetings can be difficult. So far, community members have resisted bringing charter or alternative schools into vacant buildings.

DNAinfo has a story about Peabody in gentrifyng West Town.  There are more than 20 bidders for the school, including a tech firm and a developer interested in putting condos in it. However, the community would like to see the building taken over by the Northwestern Settlement House, a 120-year-old social service organization.

3. Also on school closings… The Chicago Students Union, a group that emerged last year in response to the mass school closings, is holding a press conference and protest march on Monday. The students are demanding an elected school board. They are also are working with ChicagoVotes to get students registered to vote.

Students from Whitney Young, Payton and Prosser are among the leaders of the group. In their press release, they say they met with CPS board member Jesse Ruiz to tell him that Prosser students were using 20-year-old books, though $100,000 was left in discretionary funds. They also met with CPS’ official Student Advisory Board to propose a system for students to communicate their concerns to district officials.

Catalyst will be live tweeting the press conference and march. Follow us at @CatalystChicago

4. More on Concept Charter schools… The Chicago Sun Times has a story about the FBI’s investigation into Concept Charter Schools. That’s the charter network whose Chicago and other Midwestern locations were raided earlier this year by the FBI. Concept runs three schools in Chicago and is set to open another two this year. A location change hearing for one of the schools will be held Tuesday evening.

When Concept was raided, its officials said the feds were investigating the federal e-rate program, which helps schools pay for Internet access and computers. The program requires competitive bidding, but, according to records, Concept funneled almost $1 million to three businesses run by men who had previous relationships with Concept. For example, Core Group Inc. got $550,000. Core Group Inc. in Mt. Prospect was started by a founding board member of Concept.

Concept Schools is run by Turkish immigrants and connected to the Turkish Gulen movement. An artcile in the Atlantic argues that the problems with the 120-some charter schools connected to the Turkish Gulen movement in the United States stem from the transparency problems with charter schools in general. (Many have run into issues around how they award contracts and use the public money.)

The Concept schools also have been sharply criticized for spending money to pay the immigration costs to bring Turkish teachers to teach at their schools. The article notes that some of this criticism smacks of xenophobia. The Turkish Gulen movement has been praised for providing schools around the world that focus on academics and not religious ideology–a rare institution in places like Pakistan. Quoting Diane Ravitch, a prominent educaiton researcher who is critical of chartes, the article notes that the charter school movement has fought to keep its books and dealings under cover. “In other words, it isn’t the Gülen movement that makes Gülen charter schools so secretive. It’s the charter school movement itself,” it says.  

5. By now… Most people have taken in the Chicago Tribune poll the gave Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismal ratings on his school performance. It showed that two-thirds of respondents side with the Chicago Teachers Union in how to improve schools and disapprove of Emanuel’s handling of CPS. What’s more, most respondents–poor or rich, black or white–are not keen on the idea of neighborhood schools being stripped of money, while charter schools get more.

The poll is interesting because respondents have a such a negative reaction to Emanuel doing exactly what he said he would do. Read an education questionnaire Emanuel filled out when he was still a candidate. He says he would lengthen the school day and, in response to a question about whether he would close schools, he says that he would take “drastic measures… to ensure our children are getting the education they deserve.” In so many words, he also says he would replicate charter schools that are working.