Neighborhood Fights to Keep Charter School Out

August 27, 2009

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A building that housed an award-winning neighborhood school in Chicago is now home to a charter school. That's thanks to a Board of Education vote Wednesday night. School officials say the deal is for one year only. But the way it came together is stoking neighborhood mistrust of the district. We report from our West Side bureau.

De La Cruz Academy was a middle school in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood--and a good one, judging by an academic achievement award in February from the State of Illinois.

But Chicago Public Schools pointed to declining enrollment and closed De La Cruz in June. The district insists the plan was to demolish the building and sell the land.

But the closing created an opportunity.

RANGEL: Octavio Paz, our flagship school, finds itself without a home, just a few weeks before school opening.

Juan Rangel is chief executive officer of UNO, short for the United Neighborhood Organization. UNO works closely with Mayor Richard Daley and runs charter schools on seven campuses in the city.

A $98 million state grant this year will help the group build more but, Rangel says, not fast enough for Octavio Paz. UNO has been housing part of that school in an old Catholic facility near Pilsen.

RANGEL: The building around us has been collapsing. Masonry has been falling on the sidewalks. A canopy had to be erected around the church. It's a situation that actually has been about a year and a half in the making.

Chicago Public Schools says Rangel didn't approach the district for help until late July. This month, the district called UNO's plight an emergency and announced it wouldn't tear down De La Cruz after all. The new plan? House Octavio Paz in the building for one year, virtually rent-free.

And that's angering supporters of Pilsen's neighborhood schools. They point to an UNO charter school that arrived in Pilsen a few years ago. They say it siphons off students and resources and worry a second UNO school will do the same.

They wonder if that's been the plan all along. Former De La Cruz staff members thought it was strange when they saw the district start to fix up their building, even after they'd been told it was going to be phased out. Special-education teacher Kristine Mayle remembers it like this:

MAYLE: We had a brand new phone system installed. They had to rewire big chunks of the building. Our principal tried to refuse the service and say, ‘We don't need it because we're shutting down in June.' A month or two before we were going to close, we received an invoice for brand new ballasts throughout the building.

Mayle says the most painful improvement came on her last day of school.

MAYLE: On our way out in tears, workers were on their way in to fix our leaky basement, which had been leaking for years.

We reached several district officials about why they would improve a building they were going to demolish. None had an answer for us.

Josh Edelman acknowledges that closing a school can be painful for a neighborhood. He heads the district's New Schools Office.

EDELMAN: I understand how it looks and how it seems. The reality is it's a unique situation. It's a temporary situation. And it's one that we know is asking a lot of the community. At the same time, UNO has been a great partner, just as many traditional schools and other charter schools and contract and performance schools have been on behalf of kids. And when someone is serving kids well, we want to support them.

FRAGA: We don't trust this is short-term, one-year.

Teresa Fraga of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council says housing UNO at De La Cruz throws a wrench into a five-year neighborhood plan.

FRAGA: Pilsen does not need another school. Pilsen is not overcrowded. We don't need others to come in and plan for us. And we don't want anyone to come and disrupt our plans.

At Wednesday night's school board meeting, activists said the district is bending over backwards for UNO kids to have a decent building but doing little for the former De La Cruz students. Most are heading to Whittier, a neighborhood school with a list of needed repairs. Gema Gaete of the Pilsen Alliance had this exchange with board chair Michael Scott.

GAETE: I'm talking about capital-improvement budget. You say there's no money for our school.
SCOTT: I didn't say that.
GAETE: But all the money that you have in your budget is for turnaround schools while you keep on starving neighborhood schools.
SCOTT: I did not say that.

Despite the protest, the board approved the plan to house UNO's charter school in the former De La Cruz building. UNO is vowing to have its own facility for the school by September of next year.

WBEZ's Linda Lutton contributed reporting to this story.