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Four charter schools push back against sudden closings

Chicago wants to shut down four public charter schools in what could be the fastest school closing decision the city has ever seen.

All four schools have been open less than a decade — one school is just about to graduate its first senior class. The schools are all on the city’s South Side and serve mostly black and low-income children.

The school board passed a new policy 15 days ago, outlining which charter schools it deemed poor performing. A week later, district officials announced a list of four schools it wants to close at the end of this school year: Amandla, Bronzeville Lighthouse Academy, Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools – Barbara Sizemore, and Chicago International Charter Schools – Larry Hawkins.

State law allows districts to revoke a charter contract if the school doesn’t meet performance standards set out in the contract. CPS has put charter schools on a warning list in the past. But the schools all say they were blindsided by the decisions and at how quickly the district is moving.

“CPS has never moved this fast on anything,” said Lamarr Miller, chairman of the board of Bronzeville Lighthouse Academy. “I think it’s very political.”

The school district insists the closures are about quality.

The first — and last — graduating class

A decade ago, a small group of teachers working at Robeson High School, then considered one of the city’s “dropout factories,”  started imagining a different kind of school.

Convinced they could do better, they opened a new high school right across the football field. They named it Amandla and started enrolling fifth graders.

“We wanted to ensure that the students that we prepared for college were truly prepared to remain at college and be successful,” said Sarah Brennan, one of Amandla’s co-founders and now its Chief Operating Officer.  

It was part of Renaissance 2010, an ambitious plan to open 100 new schools in five years launched by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he ran CPS.

Now, eight years later, Amandla is poised to graduate its very first class of seniors.

“We haven’t even seen our model to fruition,” Brennan said “This year is kind of it for us, like, what’s going to happen to this group of kids?”

Principal Alyssa Nickow is stunned CPS could close their school based on a school rating that does not even include graduation numbers.

“We don’t have a four-year graduation rate. We don’t have college persistence. We won’t have that for a couple of years,” Nickow said. Both are metrics the city uses to determine how well a high school is performing.

Nickow admits they’ve struggled recently. The district put them on an academic warning list last year, and although the school improved on the general school rating policy, that’s not what CPS used to justify these four closures.

Secret scorecards, no public hearings

Of the four charters up for closure, three were put on notice last year and had to develop remediation plans. All three said they improved, moving up from the district’s lowest rating.

“One day last week, we were celebrating the fact that we did move from a level three school to a level two  and the day after we celebrated, we got a letter saying that the board was planning to take action against the school,” said Rodney Hull, principal of Chicago International Charter School’s Larry Hawkins, also on the closing list.

Ironically, it was not that long ago CPS begged Chicago International Charter School to open the Larry Hawkins school after the beating death of student Derrion Albert raised questions about why the neighborhood had no open-enrollment high school.

“I thought (the closing announcement) was a mistake,” Hull said.

But there was no mistake. Whatever improvement took place at Hawkins and Amandla last year, it was not enough.

A CPS spokesman sent WBEZ a scorecard for each of the four schools to justify closures. The documents show how three of the schools — Amandla, CICS-Hawkins, and Betty Shabazz - Sizemore — failed to meet certain goals in their remediation plans. The one for Bronzeville Lighthouse restated the school’s low test scores and attendance.

But when WBEZ shared the scorecards with each school, they said they had never seen them before. The district confirmed it did not share these secret scorecards with the schools. CPS said the charters have access to all the same data that’s on their scorecards and should have been monitoring their own progress.

Charters are not subject to a state law that would require at least three public hearings before a decision is made. The school board is scheduled to vote on three of the four proposed charter closings at its  meeting next week. The vote on CICS-Hawkins will be taken in December based on the terms of that charter’s contract.

‘Closures are part of the game’

After closing 50 schools in a single year, CPS officials vowed they wouldn’t close any more until 2018. But district officials say charters are not included in that moratorium.

Jeff Henig, a political science professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, studies school districts like Chicago that subscribe to a school reform model known as the “portfolio district.”

“Like a stock portfolio, the district, on a regular basis, reviews which schools, which stocks are performing and sells off the low performers and purchases new performers,” Henig says.

He said one of the appeals of charter schools is that they are usually easier to close down if they don’t perform well. “Closures are part of the game,” he said.

The new CPS administration has come under fire for opening two new charter schools at a time of huge deficits and declining enrollment. Now, they’re sending a tougher message: telling charters they need to get better or “pack their bags.”

But Henig said it’s problematic if administrators end up closing schools that may be doing a lot of good beyond what’s quantifiable on paper. He also said the district should consider whether there are better schools for students to go to.

David Ireland, CEO of Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools, said both are issues for the network’s Sizemore campus. He said CPS hasn’t walked through the school since 2013 and is not considering the unique AfroCentric curriculum the school offers to families in Englewood.

“It seems as though they’re taking away choices and making these cookie-cutter kinds of options for children,” Ireland said.

The fourth school, Bronzeville Lighthouse, was never on a remediation plan, but is up for renewal this year. CPS said the school has slipped the last few years and therefore won’t be renewed.

Lamarr Miller, the board chair at Bronzeville Lighthouse, said the district cancelled a visit to the school just one day before announcing the closings.

“If it was a situation where I did not see hope in our charter, I would not defend it,” Miller said. “The downfall is that you’re going to potentially shut down a charter that’s supposedly chronically failing, but then you’re going to send them to another school that’s failing even worse?”

District officials said they will work with families to find better schools for the almost 1,000 students that could be affected by the closures.

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

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