CPS approves seven new charter schools

January 22, 2014

WBEZ/Bill Healy
File: Chicago Public Schools' Board meeting room.

Chicago’s Board of Education voted Wednesday afternoon to approve seven new charter schools.

The controversial move comes less than a year after board members voted to close 50 traditional public schools for low enrollment.

Board members followed district officials’ recommendations, made public for the first time at the meeting Wednesday, and approved charters for the following schools:

  • Great Lakes Academy Charter School (location TBD in South Shore, serving grades 1-2 in 2014, eventually serving 576 students grades K-8). Approved 5-1, with board member Carlos Azcoitia voting no.
  • Noble Street Charter School- ITW David Speer Campus (To be permanently located at 5321 W. Grand Ave. in Belmont-Cragin, serving grade 9 in 2014 and eventually serving 900 students in grades 9-12. This will be the 15th Noble Street campus in Chicago). Approved 6-0.

Jack Elsey, CPS chief of innovation and incubation, said before the vote that the district wanted  “conditional approval” for five of the seven campuses. The board followed those recommendations and gave "conditional approval" to five schools. That means, the board will vote again to determine if the conditions have been met.

For instance, Instrinsic Schools will have to post high academic marks at its first campus, which just opened in September 2013. Elsey said Intrinsic’s first campus must obtain a Tier 1 or Tier 2 rating, the highest of five tiers, this year in order to open a second campus. 

The idea of "conditional approval" is cloudy. In previous years, conditions were established in the writing of the charter's contract. In a departure from past practice, the board will vote again on these proposals and whether the conditions have been met before they are approved to open. Elsey said another vote will likely be held in May. The following schools recieved conditional approval yesterday: 

  • Chicago Education Partnership (“By the Hand”) (K-6 campus to be located at 400 N. Leamington in Austin, grades 7-8 to be located at 415 N. Laramie in Austin. Opening in 2015, serving grades K-1. Eventually serving 810 students in grades K-8). Approved 5-1, with board member Carlos Azcoitia voting no. Conditions: Chicago Education Partnership has to re-submit a portion of the initial application--dealing primarily with academics--in the next round of approvals.
  • Concept Schools--Horizon Science Academy- Chatham Charter School (8522 S. Lafayette in Chatham, serving grades K-8 in 2014, eventually serving 725 students K-12. This will be Concept Schools’ third campus in Chicago). Approved 6-0. Conditions: Concept must find principals for both campuses and submit clear facility plans.
  • Concept Schools--Horizon Science Academy- Chicago Lawn Charter School (5401 S. Western in Gage Park, serving grades K-8 in 2014, eventually serving 725 students K-12. This will be Concept Schools’ fourth campus in Chicago). Approved 5-1, with board member Carlos Azcoitia voting no. 
  • Intrinsic Charter School 2 (temporarily located at 4540 W. Belmont in the Kilbourn Park neighborhood), eventually moving to a location TBD on the Northwest Side, opening fall 2015 with grade 9, eventually serving 959 students grades 7-12. This will be Intrinsic’s second charter school in Chicago). Approved 6-0. Conditions: Intrinsic's first campus must post high test scores this year. The school must also find a building and outline how it will evaluate school leaders.
  • Noble Street Charter School- Noble Exeter Academy Campus (To be temporarily located at 17 N. State St. in the Loop, serving grade 9 in 2014 and eventually serving 900 students in grades 9-12. This will be the 16th Noble Street campus in Chicago. The network will be authorized to educate 13,875 students). Approved 4-2, with board members Carlos Azcoitia and Andrea Zopp voting no. Conditions: Noble must submit more information about parent and community engagement and its curriculum, and must find a building and a principal.

The school board considered a total of 17 proposals for new charter school campuses Wednesday. Five of them, the Connected Futures Academies, would have exclusively served dropouts.

District officials recommended that the school board deny the following charter proposals. They were voted down unanimously:

  • Be the Change Charter School (Location TBD in McKinley Park, serving grades K-2 in 2014, eventually serving 475 students grades K-8)
  • Connected Futures Academies Options Charter Schools (five campuses, all TBD, each serving 165 re-enrolled drop-outs ages 15-21 in 2014).
  • Curtis Sharif STEM Academy Charter School 1 (location TBD but according to founder tentatively at 7939 S. Western in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood), serving grades K-5 in 2014, eventually serving 300 students grades K-8).
  • Curtis Sharif STEM Academy Charter School 2 (location TBD but according to founder, tentatively at 87th and Kedzie in the Ashburn neighborhood), serving grades K-5 in 2014, eventually serving 300 students grades K-8).
  • Curtis Sharif STEM Academy Charter School 3 (location TBD, serving grades K-5 in 2014, eventually serving 300 students grades K-8).
  • Curtis Sharif STEM Academy Charter School 4 (location TBD, serving grades K-5 in 2014, eventually serving 300 students grades K-8)

State law now allows any charter school denied by a local district to appeal to the Illinois State Charter School Commission. Since its creation, the commission has overturned CPS decisions on two schools run by the politically connected group called Concept Schools.

State appeals process adds new twist

Several aldermen spoke Wednesday and asked the board not to approve any new schools this year or delay approvals until they could analyze the potential impact on the district’s existing schools.

“I encourage you to delay your decision today and undertake a real study of academic performance of charters and evaluate them together with a real master facilities plan,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32rd).

But delaying a vote or denying all proposals this year could backfire on CPS.

The Illinois Charter School Commission can and already has overturned CPS decisions if it deems a charter proposal high quality.

Or as Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz put it Wednesday, “If we don’t, Springfield will.”

Elsey, the district official, said schools that are approved by the state commission operate “inside CPS boundaries, but outside of our control.”

“We lose the ability to hold these schools accountable and ensure they are delivering a high quality education to Chicago’s children,” he said.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the union and CPS should team up to eliminate the commission. In an uncharacteristic agreement with the union, Board President David Vitale agreed.

But Greg Richmond, chair of the Illinois Charter School Commission, said the appeals process is nothing new. Charter applicants have been able to appeal local decisions to the state since the charter school law was passed in 1996. The Illinois State Board of Education used to deal with appeals, but in 2011, the commission was created to handle appeals.

Since the commission was created, Richmond says, they've only overturned two local decisions. 

"Anyone looking at the numbers would say that this commission has not been overly generous," Richmond said.

Will new charters help alleviate overcrowding?

The most recent request for proposals for new charter schools asked that applicants look to open in areas that CPS officials deemed “priority areas.” These are neighborhoods where schools are overcrowded based on the district’s utilization standards.

One board member, Carlos Azcoitia, voted down four of the seven schools that were ultimately approved for that very reason.

“I wanted to target the schools that were overcrowded,” Azcoitia said. “Of course, we didn’t want to go into areas where we had closed schools.”

Andrea Zopp also said she “struggles significantly” with approving new schools in the wake of closing so many.

One school approved Wednesday that will be opening in a so-called “priority area” is the Noble Street-ITW David Speer Campus. CPS says the school will alleviate overcrowding at Taft High School.

Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), however, pointed out that Taft and the future Noble school would actually be miles apart.

“We’re building a high school six and a half miles away from a crowded high school,” Sposato said. “I don’t understand the thinking on that.”

Kerry Murphy, a parent of two children at Dever Elementary, said the community does not need more high schools. Its overcrowding issues are at the local grammar schools.

But CPS officials say demographic data indicate that many high school-aged students who live in the Belmont-Cragin area travel to Noble schools in other neighborhood.

More new schools on the horizon 

Not all seven of the schools approved Wednesday will open in September. Two are planning to open in September 2015 and the ones with "conditional approval" will have to jump through a few hoops before their schools become reality.

Nine others had been approved in previous years to open this fall, but Elsey says not all are on track to do so. For example, the UNO Charter School Network, which is dealing with an SEC investigation right now,  has two campuses that were approved in previous years, but are not yet open. CPS and UNO officials say they do not plan to open any new UNO schools this fall. 

Still, the expansion of privately run, publicly funded charter schools may not slow down anytime soon.

After the board meeting, Elsey told WBEZ the district will open its next Request for Proposals sometime this spring, likely in March or April. He said the district wants to shift the timeline so that the board will vote on new schools in the fall, rather than January. That will give schools more time to plan for a September opening.