Chicago Board of Education members renewed contracts for 33 privately-run, publicly-funded schools on Wednesday, but also pressed district officials about what they see as problems with some of these schools, including high student suspension rates and a lack of transparency.
This came after several hours of public testimony in which charter school students, parents, teachers and administrators testified about the value of their schools.
Eleven of the schools are charter or contract schools that serve kindergarten through high school students. The rest are small alternative schools that serve high school dropouts. Altogether, the 33 schools have more than 9,200 students.
All the renewals were unanimous, but board member Dwayne Truss abstained from voting on six of them. Most of his abstentions were for schools on the West Side where Truss spent many years as a community activist. He has been a vocal opponent of charter schools.
Many of the schools and their operators, including Plato Learning Academy and North Lawndale College Prep, did not get full five-year contracts and all will sign contracts with conditions. CPS official said the shorter contracts and conditions are because the operators are not fully meeting the accountability standards set up by the school district.
School officials from Moving Everest Charter School say CPS’ continued support is critical, especially in the Austin neighborhood where the school is located.
“Moving Everest has had the privilege of educating more than 500 students from Chicago’s West Side,” said Mike Rogers, founder and executive director of the school, “Every day our team works with students to give them not only the academic tools they need but tools to calm their minds, focus on their work and persist through difficult circumstances.” The school was renewed for five years with conditions.
Board members questioned why they were being asked to approve contracts when the schools were not fully meeting standards. They were told the operators were meeting enough of the standards to allow them to stay open.
Board members were especially alarmed at the revelation that four of these charter schools had high rates of suspending students in kindergarten to second grade.
“I see this as unacceptable,” Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said.
Truss said these schools were put in communities of color as a better alternative to the neighborhood school. But if they are suspending students at high rates, then instead of providing a higher quality education, they are contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, he said.
“I do not understand how violent a kindergartner could be,” he said.
Hal Woods, executive director of CPS’ office of innovation and incubation, said he agrees high suspension rates, especially of young children, are “indefensible.” He said when it came to the attention of his office, these charter schools were called to a meeting and told they had to adopt the school district’s policy that forbids suspending primary grade students unless it is an emergency.
Charter schools are allowed to have their own student code of conduct and many have an education model centered around strict discipline.
“This is taking some of their autonomy away,” Woods said. “But they agreed to adopt it immediately.”
Woods said this was one of the conditions of renewal for the four schools. Woods told the board his office was closely monitoring the academic and financial well-being of these schools and could decide to close them at any time.
Woods said many of the bilingual and special program in these schools aren’t meeting CPS’ standards. He said his office is working with those schools to improve.
For example, he said his office connected some schools struggling to find bilingual teachers with universities. The school district also can provide stipends for teachers who want to get these certifications.
Many traditional public schools are also not meeting CPS’ special education and bilingual standards.
Board members said they wanted to make sure contract conditions are public and that the school district is regularly checking to make sure the schools are meeting them.
Woods said officials are talking about creating a charter school web page where the public can see the contracts, conditions and ratings for each school and whether they are meeting other standards.
The board discussion came after people lined up to to talk about what their charter schools meant to them.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.