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Charter expansion could include turnarounds, new operators

Big changes are coming to Chicago public schools, and it’s more than just recess and a longer school day.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he wants to transform the public schools, and one of his key strategies is adding more privately run charter schools.

That includes expanding existing charter groups and bringing in new ones from outside Chicago.

California-based Rocketship Education and Basis Schools out of Arizona say they’ve already applied to set up schools here. A district spokeswoman said the public hearings for new charter applicants will happen in November, rather than early October as previously planned.

The United Neighborhood Organization currently runs 13 schools in Chicago and hopes to expand to 20 next year. UNO’s CEO Juan Rangel says having more charter groups come to the city is a good thing.

“As a charter operator, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with them,” Rangel said. “I think, the more the merrier.”

Rocketship Education runs seven schools in San Jose, California that serve kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. They use a blended curriculum that has students spending a certain amount of time on computers, working on basic skills. Last year, Rocketship announced plans to open schools in Milwaukee, expanding outside of California for the first time. The first Milwaukee school is slated to open next fall.

Basis operates eight schools in Arizona and recently opened a school in Washington,  D.C. The schools serve kids in fifth through twelfth grades. All students are required to take a certain number of Advanced Placement courses before they graduate. The low-income population in Basis’ Arizona schools is significantly smaller  than what they’d likely face in Chicago.

Charters may also start taking over existing schools, rather than opening new ones. For the past several years, CPS and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL, a private school management group, have "turned around" low-performing schools by firing all the school staff and basically starting over without displacing students.

District spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in a statement that the idea of having charters do turnarounds is only “conceptual” at this time. Rangel said many of the details would need to be worked out, but one thing he did know was that if UNO started doing turnarounds, the teachers would not be part of the Chicago Teachers Union, like they are at AUSL-run schools, even if they were holdovers from the previous staff.

It remains unclear how many charter schools CPS plans to have next year. Currently, there are 118.

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