When Chicago closes low-performing schools, the district often faces fierce resistance from parents, who fight to save their children’s teachers and their neighborhood's institution. Now, for the first time in Chicago, a group of parents is publicly asking CPS to shut down their school—and reopen it as a charter school.
Lynn Evans spends a lot of time at her children’s school, Wendell Smith Elementary in Pullman.
EVANS: I’m here—let me see. Out of a five-day week, like four days—sometimes every single day. I’m helping out, I chaperone, if they need more chaperones, if they need more parents, I’ll pull some parents in to help out.
Today, Evans is sitting in a little 10-pew, cinderblock church across the street from the school, with a handful of other parents and community residents. It’s a strategy meeting on how to turn Smith into a charter.
Evans is the chair of Smith’s local school council. But she says she still hasn’t been able to fix what’s wrong: only half the 8th graders are graduating this week. Computers don’t work. Wendell Smith’s school report card is full of red marks.
EVANS: And this has been going on for years now. And, nothing’s being done about it. We’re constantly fighting and saying something. It’s like beating your head up against the brick wall.
Evans and the other parents are at the center of a national phenomenon known as the parent trigger. California has a law allowing parents in failing schools to “trigger” major overhauls, including converting a school to a privately run, publicly funded charter. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he supports a parent trigger here.
Smith parents, though, aren’t waiting. They’ve already picked out a group to run Wendell Smith.
ambi from L.E.A.R.N.: Lions, lions, what do you eat? So he’s writing about the lions we saw last week at the zoo.
After touring charter schools across the city, Smith parents liked L.E.A.R.N. Charter School, which runs four campuses and has a federal grant to expand.
Parent Marcus Gary said a visit to L.E.A.R.N. reminded him of his Catholic education.
GARY: My environment was conducive to learning. There wasn’t any wandering—you know, students just aimlessly wandering. There weren’t teachers or faculty dodging their responsibility.
Gary says the hallways at L.E.A.R.N. were quiet. Kids were learning Spanish.
The tours Gary went on were organized by the Renaissance Schools Fund—now called New Schools for Chicago. The pro-charter group is tied closely to Chicago’s business and civic elite. Adrienne Garner, a New Schools staffer, says the case of Wendell Smith could fundamentally change how school closings in Chicago work.
GARNER: It’s never been the case where the actual community has demanded—let alone a sitting LSC chair. Maybe this could be a pilot for this to come from the community, from the bottom up rather than the top down.
NATHAN: Because Chicago has dramatic and often emphatic politics, it doesn’t surprise me that a group of parents would say we have tried and tried and tried and tried and tried to get some changes in the kind of school we want, and ultimately we don’t feel we’ve been able to do that, so we want to try this approach.
Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change in Minnesota. He notes that Chicago parents went on a hunger strike to get a high school built here, and he says this kind of parent involvement can mean better schools for kids, though it’s not a guarantee.
Nathan says the board of education needs a policy for dealing with parent requests to overhaul their schools.
Parents trying to convert Smith to a charter say they expect resistance—from their principal, teachers, even from CPS. And it’s still unclear how many parents will jump on board.
LUTTON: What would you think if they closed down Wendell Smith and made it a charter school?
BOOZER: Okay, what’s basically a charter school?
Parent Calvin Boozer told me he’s satisfied with Smith, because his first grade son is doing well there.
Those hoping to convert Smith to a charter say they know they’ve got homework. They’ll try to teach parents like Boozer what a charter school is, then convince him he wants one.