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Charter schools surprised by new CPS academic 'warning' list

Chicago Public Schools caught charter schools off guard, when they announced the creation of an academic “warning” list for six of the city’s publicly-funded, privately-run schools.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced she's putting six schools on the list—ACE Tech Charter High School, ASPIRA-Early College Charter High School, Catalyst-Howland campus, Chicago International Charter School-Basil campus, Galapagos Charter School, and North Lawndale College Prep-Collins campus.

But charter school leaders blasted the district for failing to communicate the change until hours before Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Beth Purvis runs Chicago International Charter Schools and got a phone call at 10:00 p.m. Tuesday night from Jack Elsey, the district's Chief Innovation and Incubation Officer. Elsey told her that CICS-Basil would be on the list going public Wednesday morning.

Michael Lane, CEO of Galapagos Charter, said in a statement that he found out at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday and John Horan, CEO of North Lawndale College Prep charter schools, said he got a call at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Purvis said she has no problem being held accountable, but took issue with being notified less than 12 hours before the Board meeting.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools also issued a statement calling the move “shoddy authorizing.”

The INCS statement called out CPS for constantly changing its policies and practices, saying, “it is impossible for charter schools to meet a moving target of accountability, or effectively participate in a constantly shifting process. Four CPS administrations in five years have continuously moved the goal posts.” 

It’s a complaint leveled repeatedly  by the Chicago Teachers Union and other community activists in recent years. 

The new academic “warning” list comes at the same time Chicago Public Schools plans to close two charter schools over the next few years and dozens of neighborhood elementary schools. Currently, 129 of CPS-run elementary schools are eligible for closure.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the “warning” designation means district officials will review charter school performance every year, rather than ever few years when charter contracts are up for renewal.

“If charter school operators fail to meet their commitments, then we, I believe, have an obligation to demand more for them and to take the steps necessary to closing their campuses,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Before the Board meeting Wednesday, a group of West Side parents and community activists spoke against school closings in general. When asked about charters closing, Dwayne Truss said there should be no closings, period.

"For us to sit up there and say close somebody's school and we're trying to keep our school open," Truss said. "We've known since 2004 the pain and agony families go through when they have to go through such a process so we say no closings."

Byrd-Bennett said the “warning” designation is being given to charters that have not met the performance metrics in their contracts at least two of the last three years. 

But charter operators aren’t clear what the designation means for their schools. According to state law, charters operate under contracts with local school districts, but are free from most district policy. Those contracts are reviewed on a regular basis, but not necessarily yearly.

CPS has closed charters in the past for both academic performance and financial mismanagement, but it has done so only as part of the renewal process every three or five years.

Last year, CICS had its contract renewed for another five years and that’s what makes the academic “warning” list confusing, said Purvis.

“I’m trying to understand whether I’m being held accountable to our renewal document from last year or to some new set of standards,” Purvis said.

Horan, of North Lawndale College Prep, which also had its charter renewed last year, said CPS already runs a rigorous renewal process and it seems unnecessary to throw “this last-minute curveball.”

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said district officials have only notified the charters currently on the list, but they “will be engaging the broader charter community in the matter as we move forward.”

Schools currently on the “warning” list have until September to improve. If they don't, Byrd-Bennett said CPS would begin the process to revoke the charter or close the individual campuses down. She added that the “warning” list would be revised every September.

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