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CPS: No additional for-profit alternative schools for dropouts

Chicago Public Schools will not open any new for-profit alternative schools this year.

The move comes after a historic expansion of schools for dropouts, part of an aggressive push to increase graduation rates. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the district nearly doubled the number of schools for dropouts over the last three years.

A WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago/Better Government Association investigation earlier this year found many of the new for-profit alternative school providers were giving teenagers a new way to earn their high school diploma in a fraction of the time, by offering half-day sessions and online courses that allowed students to earn credits quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

The new schools -- deemed Alternative Learning Opportunities Programs, or ALOP -- primarily serve low-income black and Latino teenagers. They also grant graduates a diploma from either the last school they attended or the neighborhood school where they live. Students could also participate in sports and attend dances at traditional schools.

Two new companies -- Acceleration Academies and Catapult Learning -- applied to run 11 new schools serving more than 2,000 students.

Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett listed Catapult Learning as one of her former employers on her resume. There is an ongoing investigation into Byrd-Bennett’s connections to a no-bid contract awarded to another former employer, SUPES Academy.

It was recently announced that part of the SUPES model was acquired by the Chicago-based National Superintendents Academy, which is run by Atlantic Research Partners. Atlantic and Acceleration Academies executive teams include many of the same people.    

Mark Graves, chief operating officer for Acceleration Academies, told WBEZ that CPS’s head of alternative schools called him in mid-July to tell him CPS wouldn’t be opening any new schools.

“I was told that we would not be considered for ALOP funding because our program receiving ALOP funding would pull dollars from existing ALOP programs,” Graves said. “They thought that wouldn’t be a smart move politically for them.”

District spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement that the move does not represent a departure away from helping dropouts.

“Because we continue to work on our budget challenges with Springfield, we will not be funding any new Alternative Learning Opportunities Programs in 2016,” Bittner wrote. “We will continue to serve these students through our existing portfolio of options schools and programs.”

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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