Chicago Plan Commission clears way for proposed charter high school

New Noble charter high school would sit across the corner from Prosser Career Academy, a CPS high school

October 18, 2013

By Patrick Smith

(WBEZ/Patrick Smith)
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (second on left) joined speakers against a new charter high school before Thursday's plan commission meeting.

A charter high school that would be paid for with a $20 million private donation got a green light from the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday.

The commission approved a change to the zoning of a vacant lumberyard on the city’s Northwest Side to allow for the school, which would be run by the Noble Network of Charter Schools. The project still has several layers of approval to get through - from Chicago Public Schools and other city boards - before construction could begin.

The high school is one of the first proposals resulting from an August request for proposals for new charters issued by the district.

As the plan commission began deliberations on zoning changes for the school site Thursday, the city council chambers were packed with about 130 people, but 60 of them were Prosser Career Academy students, the CPS high school across the street from the proposed site. The students were at the plan commission meeting as part of a class, and they had to go back to school before the planned charter came up for a vote. 

When it did, the audience was down to 65, and split between 40 opponents of the charter and 20 supporters.

Prosser parents, teachers and students told the commissioners that they’ve built something good at Prosser - and that they believe a new charter school will ruin their school by taking away the best students and precious resources.

Charter supporters countered that they’ve seen the impact a Noble education has had on their own kids - and they want that for the Northwest Side.

At times the two sides bickered loudly with each other across the room. And both groups presented the commission with petitions that they said had more than 1,000 signatures from community members who support their respective stands.

Prosser parents said they worry that having two high schools so close to one another could lead to fights between high school students going to and from school.

Ald. Emma Mitts said she’s not sure those concerns are legitimate.

“I don’t necessarily think that [will] be the case,” Mitts said.

The planned high school would sit in Mitts’ 37th ward.

“I’m supporting it because this is what my community wants me to do. ... I didn’t just go in and say I’m going to bring a charter school in and not work with the community about it,” she said.

Until recently, Mitts was a member of  Prosser’s Local School Council, but she resigned abruptly Oct. 8 before a meeting to talk about the proposed charter.

Mitts said she left the council because Prosser will no longer be in her ward when the boundaries change in 2015, so she needs to focus her time on schools that will.

But Prosser teacher and LSC member Kassandra Tsitsopoulos said she believes Mitts quit because she knows the community doesn’t agree with her on the charter.

Tsitsopoulos has taught at Prosser for eight years.

Noble Network is a well-regarded non-profit organization that runs 14 charter high schools in Chicago. It says construction of the new high school would be paid for by a donation from Illinois Tool Works.

“Instead of investing in a wing of the Art Institute, they’re gonna build a … public school,” said Noble Chief Development Officer Rhonda Kochlefl.

Mitts said that investment is part of what drew her to the project.

“The selling point is that we’re getting a $20 million school without any expense to taxpayers,” Mitts said.

The proposed school would have 29 classrooms and an adjacent 300-seat football stadium, according to a plan commission staff report on the proposal.

While construction of the new school would be paid for with private money, school operations would be funded by CPS. And opponents say that funding would be better spent on already existing schools.

“That money could come to your local CPS school, and that’s the most important thing. I could do a lot of things if I had a lot more resources, but if the resources are being taken from one school to go to somewhere else then that’s not okay,” said Tsitsopoulos, who teaches World Studies and psychology.

Tsitsopoulos said the planned school is another example of CPS taking money from public schools to give to charters.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato of the nearby 36th Ward said he too opposes the school.

“I’m a proponent of community schools and solidifying community schools before we’re building charter schools. So they’re building a charter school across from a community school and that’s not good,” Sposato said.

Noble leaders said they knew the choice to build across from an existing school would bring controversy. But they said after looking at 61 potential locations, the old lumberyard was the best fit, even after considering the potential conflict.

The new high school was one of three schools proposed by Noble  in response to the Request for Proposals put out by CPS in August - although a Noble spokeswoman said it is the only one with a chosen location.

"There was no question that we would choose an easier path if there was one," said Noble Chief Operating Officer Mike Madden.

Madden said if students are choosing between Prosser and Noble, it will make both schools better.

The request for proposals came just months after CPS closed 50 public schools, and it drew harsh criticism from the teachers’ union and others.

The district's call for proposals singled out the Northwest and Southwest sides of the city as “communities that need
additional [high schools] to help alleviate overcrowding.”

Prosser is overcrowded, according to CPS standards. The school’s enrollment this year is about 1,500 - 300 hundred more than the ideal capacity pegged by the district.

But Tsitsopoulos said that by allowing a new charter so close to Prosser, the district is all but ensuring that the school’s enrollment will fall below that ideal level.

A WBEZ report found that as the city has opened new charter high schools, enrollment at the district’s neighborhood high schools has plummeted.

“I’m sure if I was a high schooler I would see a shiny, brand new building across the street … ‘am I going to go to Prosser that needs remodeling and an update or am I going to go to the shiny one across the street,” she said.

That is Sposato’s concern too.

“You’re building a charter school right across the street from a public school,” Sposato said. “I think that could mean the destruction of a great school.”

Tsitsopoulos says right now her school is overcrowded by choice - to give more kids a chance to attend the career academy. Prosser has testing and grade standards for admission, and students from anywhere across the city can attend. Prosser offers Career and Technology Education and the rigorous International Baccalaureate Programme.

Enrollment in a Noble network school is determined by a lottery of applicants.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him on twitter @pksmid.