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Acero Charter Schools, which has 15 campuses, is one of 35 Chicago charter school campuses approved to remain open at Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting. Most received renewals for less than five years, which used to be the norm.

Marc Monaghan

35 Chicago charter schools approved to stay open, but with CPS closely watching over them

The Chicago Board of Education renewed contracts for 35 charter and contract schools on Wednesday, issuing shorter term lengths than in the past and new conditions for continued approval as part of an ongoing effort to demand greater accountability from the city’s 120 charter school campuses.

A majority of these schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, received two-year and three-year contract renewals based on their academic, financial and operational performance. Illinois state law allows high-performing charter schools to apply for up to 10-year renewal terms.

Chicago Public Schools, which oversees and funds charter schools in the city, has historically issued five-year contract renewals. But this year, 22 schools are getting shorter contracts for the first time. That includes some of the city’s longest-standing charters, like the University of Chicago Charter School’s three campuses and Acero Schools, which operates 15 campuses.

Acero was first authorized in 1998 to operate in Chicago for five years. Its contract has been renewed four times since then, each for a five-year period. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Acero was given a three-year renewal.

Campuses were given less than five years if they did not meet standards in all three areas — academic, financial and operational, which includes how well it meets the needs of students in special education and students learning English.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy said shorter contracts amount to bad policy. He calls the renewal process “burdensome and time-consuming” and said the decision should be based principally on the academic growth of students.

“The unfortunate reality is that this current board doesn’t view charter schools as partners in education, but rather as contract schools they need to manage,” Broy said. “And that’s not good for students, or families or the communities we serve.”

This comes amid long-standing demands for greater accountability for charter schools, both around their performance and their finances. Several other schools saw their contract lengths first drop between 2017 and 2021. The district’s Office of Innovation and Incubation reviews renewal proposals and makes a recommendation to the board based on the school’s performance and other criteria. This year, officials said they’re conducting more robust site visits to ensure compliance.

Horizon Science Academy’s Southwest Chicago campus, which is overseen by CPS, was renewed Wednesday for two years with conditions. Last month the Illinois State Board of Education, which oversees two other Horizon Science campuses in Chicago, renewed both campuses for five years. One of those, the Belmont campus, was also approved to nearly double its enrollment cap from 580 to about 1,125 students. It also plans to open a new satellite facility for high schoolers.

Several charter school leaders asked for longer contract renewals during the public comment period of Wednesday’s board meeting.

“I’m really just asking if you can consider giving us three years … to get it where you want it to be,” said Jemia Cunningham-Elder, CEO of North Lawndale College Prep. The school was granted a two-year renewal with conditions.

“With more time, you’ll see the growth you’re looking for,” she said.

During the meeting, Board President Miguel del Valle said he is open to considering 10-year contract renewals for schools that are exceeding all performance standards set by CPS.

But board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland raised concerns about accountability, saying she would not support contracts that last longer than five years.

“They get our public dollars to be privately managed. Renewal is really our only opportunity as it stands for accountability,” she said.

The Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy Charter was the only school to receive a one-year contract, putting it in danger of being shut down. The majority-Latino school designed to give disengaged students a second chance serves 92 students on the city’s Southwest Side. It has to meet certain performance benchmarks by June 2024 to avoid having its charter revoked.

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.

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