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Local school council votes for a charter school takeover

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Parents at a low-performing public school on Chicago’s Far South Side say they’re fed up with the their kids’ failing school and Tuesday night, they voted for a takeover.

Two dozen parents and neighborhood residents sat in the Wendell Smith school library, quietly waiting for the revolutionary act they understood was coming. With no flourish or preamble, local school council chairwoman Lynn Evans stood up and read a resolution…

EVANS: Whereas Wendell Smith Elementary School has been on probation for seven consecutive years, and whereas…

It ended like this:

EVANS: …Be it further resolved that the Wendell Smith Local School Council calls upon the Chicago Board and district leadership to change this school to a charter now.

There was a roll call vote and then, this pronouncement:

LSC MEMBER: OK, It was seven yes and three nos.
EVANS: To change to a charter school.

All the parent and community members on the LSC voted in favor of making Smith a charter school—which is a privately run, publicly funded school. Such schools usually have no teachers union, and no big Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy.

The council’s two teacher representatives and the principal voted no.

It’s the first time any local school council has ever taken such an action.

ARMOUR: This school, while it has never been one of the better schools in Chicago, this is the worst that I’ve ever seen it.

Parent Karla Armour, a Wendell Smith graduate herself, was just named to the council Tuesday night. She says casting her vote felt meaningful. Ironically, the council will cease to exist if a charter is brought in to run the school. That doesn’t bother Armour though, whose kid is in kindergarten—in a class of 45.

ARMOUR: Being part of a council—that’s not important. What’s important is that I’ll be part of a much better school environment. Right now I see the defeat in my five-year-old’s eyes when he comes home and his teachers couldn’t really get to him.

LOCKET: It’s a great example of what many local school councils should do across this city.

Charter school champions are jazzed by this vote. Phyllis Locket is the director of New Schools for Chicago. That’s a well-heeled, politically connected, pro-charter group that’s been helping parents at Wendell Smith. For Locket, it’s also personal. Smith was her grammar school. This vote is a turning point, she says.

LOCKET: Usually when this has happened, it’s been the Chicago Public Schools making the decision and sometimes forcing the decision on the community. To see the community saying they want to do this, I think is pretty breakthrough.
Along with their demand for a charter school, Wendell Smith parents want a guarantee that their children will be allowed to continue there. Charters are open to kids from all over the city. Locket says a never-used provision of a state law could allow kids to stay.

Wendell Smith Principal Johnny Banks says Tuesday night’s vote really doesn’t do anything. It’s the Board of Education that makes decisions about charter schools, not an LSC. And he says this is not the way you fix a school—to do that, you have to do something about the world kids come from.

BANKS: If you’re gonna speak about Wendell Smith you need to speak about the community and how we can support the community to bring the schools in this area up.

Behind Banks, the library books are lined up neatly, but they’re not in order. Fiction is mixed in with nonfiction, nothing’s alphabetized.

During his campaign for mayor, Rahm Emanuel supported the notion of a so-called “parent trigger”—where parents could vote to shut down their school, or “charterize” it.

Chicago Public Schools isn’t saying yet how it will respond to the LSC vote at Wendell Smith.

But just Tuesday, speaking to civic leaders, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said he wants parents to demand more from their schools. He also talked about charter schools. He said about a third of them are great, a third are middle of the road, and a third are “lousy.”

Parents at Wendell Smith say they want the great kind.

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