Charter School Debate Heats Up in South Chicago
Some in the community believe the new charter school would do a better job of teaching area children. Others fear it's the first step in pushing neighborhood kids out. Behind that debate is sensitivity around whether this new school is a harbinger of gentrification in this hard scrabble part of the city.
In a small, drafty and darkened room inside a store-front community center, a group known as Friends of J.N. Thorp gathers.
They're discussing ways to convince the Chicago School Board not to open a charter school inside Thorp Elementary School on Buffalo Avenue in South Chicago.
MERCADO: I have a grand daughter that's there. That's the last one that's in that school until she graduates from 8th grade.
Mary Mercado worries that the charter school could eventually lead to the closing of Thorp as an elementary for all in the neighborhood to attend. If approved, LEARN charter schools will open inside Thorp School by next fall.
A CPS spokesman says parents like Mercado have no reason to worry. Thorp and LEARN will share the building on Buffalo Avenue as a permanent co-share and Thorp will not be phased out.
But Mercado doesn't trust the school district's plan. She's concerned about having to pay for transportation if her daughter gets rerouted.
MERCADO: What am I going to do with her if they put her in another school? I cannot afford to put her in another school.
South Chicago is a gritty, mostly low income neighborhood. The historically depressed community is the area you see below while driving on the Chicago Skyway.
Known here simply as the “East Side,” South Chicago residents often feel isolated from the rest of the city. The area continues to recover from the closing of steel mills decades ago.
The U.S. Census Bureau says the median income for the 96,000 living in the area is about $35,000.
There's been steady improvement this decade with new businesses and housing initiatives. Some South Chicagoans like Mercado worry a charter school could attract higher-income residents, pushing folks like her out.
MERCADO: It's all money. They're trying to get ride of the Hispanics, the riff-raff and the blacks and whoever is not making a certain amount of income. So, they get rid of all of us, they could take over the whole neighborhood.
Mercado and other Friends of J.N. Thorp organized a march this week to try and stop the charter school from moving into Thorp in fall 2010. The group, headquartered in a small office on Commercial Avenue, is becoming more active in the community. It led a similar protest march a few months ago when the city introduced parking meters on Commercial Avenue, South Chicago's main drag.
Just a couple doors down from Centro Comunitario Juan Diego, where the group meets, is the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce, headed by longtime South Chicago resident Neil Bosanko.
The chamber's been instrumental in securing the area as a tax increment financing district, which provides money to homeowners to allow them to make improvements to their homes.
Bosanko's also excited about the prospects of reclaiming land left vacant from the long shuttered South Works plant of U.S. Steel.
BOSANKO: I know that the Southeast side is on the map now because of South Works and the amount of vacant space here.
Bosanko's also part of the local community Transition Advisory Council, or TAC, that provides input to Chicago schools on the charter school issue for Thorp and other schools targeted in South Chicago.
Bosanko says there have been ongoing public meetings about bringing a charter school to the area for the past three years, but …
BOSANKO: I don't think the community is too aware at this point. And, if they are aware, they have a misconception of what that means. Many feel that it means the demise and the shutting down of Thorp which of course it does not.
Bosanko says he's no big fan of Chicago schools' push for charter schools.
BOSANKO: I resent Renaissance 2010. I resent magnet schools in general because I think it pimps the traditional schools. And I feel that those need as much attention as the Whitney Youngs, as the Renaissance schools, or charter schools or magnet schools.
That being said, Bosanko says charter schools offer parents an alternative.
BOSANKO: You are not going to keep good, solid families here and you're not going to bring good residents here if your schools fail. Because schools, churches, housing, crime are all factors people make decisions on where to live and raise their family.
There is already another new school in South Chicago. It's called Epic Academy and it opened in September. Epic is a contract school that has applied for charter school status.
Ted Fetters is on the school's board. Fetters says the new schools have enrollment boundaries and draw children from the neighborhood.
FETTERS: We're not pulling people from the North Side or West Side or downtown. We're taking kids from the community and we're taking them equally. It's really about having another choice in your own community where you can get a high quality education.
One of the local hang outs for youth in this neighborhood is Centro Comunitario Juan Diego. About a half dozen kids are sitting down with computers in front of them. They're playing games and surfing the web.
Helping them is youth leader, Robert Garcia. Garcia has heard the assurances from local leaders that neighborhood kids will be welcomed at the charter. He just isn't sure he believes it.
GARCIA: The same people that are fighting to bring these charter schools are the same people who are behind a lot of the redevelopment in our community.
And he says if local kids are eventually forced to attend another school outside of their neighborhood because access into the new charter school is denied, it could spell trouble, just like it has in other parts of the city.
GARCIA: It's a very volatile situation and I'm afraid that someone is going to get hurt because of it.
The Board of Education was expected to approve Thorp as the new site for LEARN Charter School this week. But the unexpected death of board president Michael Scott caused the board to postpone the vote.
Meanwhile, the principal at Thorp Elementary, Tony Fisher, says his hope, like those of the parents, is that the interests of Thorp students are not minimized and that they have access to the best possible resources, the same resources that will be available to kids in the new charter school.