Fight over charter school signals philosophical differences in how schools are viewed

Noble supporters gathered for a small rally this week at the site where they hope the charter network’s 17th campus will be built. The school board votes on whether to approve the charter school today.
Noble supporters gathered for a small rally this week at the site where they hope the charter network’s 17th campus will be built. The school board votes on whether to approve the charter school today.
Noble supporters gathered for a small rally this week at the site where they hope the charter network’s 17th campus will be built. The school board votes on whether to approve the charter school today.
Noble supporters gathered for a small rally this week at the site where they hope the charter network’s 17th campus will be built. The school board votes on whether to approve the charter school today.

Fight over charter school signals philosophical differences in how schools are viewed

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The architectural renderings feature a gleaming, state-of-the-art school. The $25 million construction tab will be completely paid for by a private donor.

The school operator—the Noble Network of Charter Schools—is one of the city’s most successful charters, with its mostly Latino and black students posting high ACT scores and its graduates in colleges across the country.

The proposed site, at 47th and California, is a vacant industrial lot, begging for re-development. The surrounding community, largely Mexican, has flocked to Noble’s existing schools, drawn to the focus on discipline, character and college.

Most other schools on the Southwest Side are at capacity—by some measures even overcrowded.

And despite all that, the proposal to open a 17th Noble campus has stirred up months of intense controversy that has peaked this week, as Chicago’s board of education is slated to vote on the new Noble campus today.

“We are seeing charter schools coming in and obliterating every other school in its area,” said Marcos Ceniceros at one of many hearings that have drawn hundreds of people over the past months, in favor and opposed.

Opponents like Ceniceros, an organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, have compared Chicago’s high school landscape to the Hunger Games, with schools pitted against each other for students and resources—and death being the near-certain outcome for schools that don’t attract enough students.

Ceniceros is certain a new Noble school will siphon students, teachers, and programming from Kelly High School, five blocks away. Kelly has already lost a third of its students and $4 million in recent years as five new high schools have opened nearby.

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

A protest Monday with students and the Chicago Teachers Union used a “Day of the Dead” theme to dramatize the impact a new school would have on the community; protesters built coffins with schools’ names on them, and an altar to programs lost to budget cuts—including AP classes, athletics, and “teachers”—presumably for the union teachers who will lose their jobs as students shift to charter schools.

In a protest with a Day of the Dead theme, students and Chicago Teachers Union members carry coffins with the names of existing schools and money lost in recent budget cuts. The protesters say expanding charter schools will siphon money away from existing schools. (WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Not everyone sees shifts in the school landscape as a negative.

“Parents are actively choosing schools when they’re opting into a high-performing school, so this is actually a positive thing,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which came up with the “portfolio” model of school reform Chicago is following.

“Folks are being given more opportunities and options, and they’re making positive choices for their families.” Lake says that at CRPE, “we tend to focus more on the families than the institutions—what do they need and what options are they being given?”

That focus on individual students and families as opposed to the health of particular schools represents a deep philosophical departure from the way groups like Brighton Park Neighborhood Council see things. Executive director Patrick Brosnan says BPNC asks one question about any proposal before deciding to support or oppose: “Are (these plans) going to make our schools better and stronger? And this Noble proposal is clear, it would not make any of the schools that exist right now—it’s not going to make any of them any better.”

For a decade, Chicago has followed the school reform strategy it laid out in its Renaissance 2010 program: improve the entire system by adding new “high quality” schools. That program launched the expansion of Noble— from a single charter high school to 16 campuses today, with plans and federal funds to add eight more campuses in the next five years. Those plans are aimed at Noble grabbing 15 percent of the high school “market share.”

But the city’s school reform strategy, and Noble’s expansion plans, have clashed this year with dire fiscal, political, and educational realities to a degree unseen before.

The district’s finances are so dismal it’s warning that thousands of teachers may be laid off mid-year. Eighty-four percent of aldermen signed a moratorium on charters (Ald. Ed Burke did not sign: his ward includes the proposed Noble site the school board votes on today). And the city is facing a severe under-enrollment crisis at high schools—even high schools not yet shrinking out of existence have seen deep budget cuts.

The reality heightens the drama behind every additional high school opening.

And Noble’s success further complicates the situation. Neighborhood by neighborhood, Noble schools tend to attract a disproportionate share of higher performers, leaving other nearby schools with lower performers and needier students.

Never a reason to say “no” to a high-performing school

Debates over Noble charter network’s expansion have featured hours of testimony at public hearings from Noble parents and students who praise the school.

“Noble has had a big impact on his life since he’s been at Gary Comer,” parent Gregory Harris said of his son’s success at one of Noble’s South Side campuses. “The teachers are great…. They helped him so much…he scored a 30 on his ACT.” The crowd snapped and clapped in approval.

“I don’t know anything about taking money away from anybody, any community,” Harris said. “I know what Noble has done, and I’ve seen what it has done in a community that needed a school like Noble.”

Noble schools are so successful on the ACT exam, they are nipping at the heels and even surpassing the city’s selective-enrollment schools, which admit students based on grades and test scores. (Noble schools require an application for admission but no minimum grades or test scores.) Of the district’s 25 highest performing high schools (as measured by composite 2014 ACT scores, the most recent data available), eight are Noble schools.

Is there ever a circumstance in which a district should turn down a high-performing charter school that wants to expand?

For Robin Lake at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, that answer is essentially no.

“I have yet to come across a situation where a neighborhood has too many high-performing schools,” says Lake. “This is not our problem right now. Our big cities are in desperate need of new, high-performing schools and pathways for kids to escape poverty and crime and to get into college and productive careers.”

Lake says half-empty school buildings are a costly challenge for school districts—and she admits that closing high schools, which alums and neighborhoods feel deep ties to, has been particularly challenging. (In Chicago, protests have forced the school district to commit to re-opening at least two neighborhood high schools it had closed, Crane and Dyett).

Lake says other cities have tried to locate new charters or district-run schools in under-utilized buildings to revitalize them.

District must take overall impact on the broader system into account

Three miles from the new proposed Noble site, along the same major east-west street, Tilden Career Academy High School has just 311 students this year—in a school built for 2,000.

There, principal Maurice Swinney is concerned about his students—and how adding more schools to the system affects them.

“I do not want another charter school in the area,” says Swinney, who says the district needs to “cease and desist on charter schools for a moment” so remaining schools can “stabilize.” Swinney has been credited by many as leading a turnaround at Tilden—it’s now a demonstration school for the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success—but that has not reversed a downward enrollment spiral.

“By constantly allowing other schools to be built, we’re taking away other kids’ experiences,” says Swinney.

He says his students—an astounding 39.5 percent of whom are special education students—include many who came from charters but couldn’t hack the rules or were kicked out. Other principals at neighborhood high schools have noted the same pattern.

“If we create selective enrollments and charters schools and other places that I feel like don’t accept the most vulnerable children, I think the moral responsibility for any city is to support those that do—in a way that helps those schools flourish in terms of their academic, social, and behavioral outcomes,” says Swinney. “There has to be a larger city re-investment around the most vulnerable children.”

Montclair State University professor Katrina Bulkley has researched the portfolio model of school reform, which makes the school district responsible for managing a set of diverse, autonomous schools. Think of a stock portfolio manager: the idea here is for the district to open high-performing schools and close low-performing schools.

Bulkley says Chicago must carefully monitor what is happening to all students in the system.

“The portfolio idea is kind of a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’ So that by opening new schools and potentially closing schools you’re overall offering a better educational experience for all the students in the system. And one of the questions in a case like this is—what is happening to the students who are not in these high-performing schools?”

Bulkley says the city must think very carefully about opening any new school “because of the kind of tipping point that Chicago has reached, at the high school level, where the opening of any individual new school may result in the unsustainability of one or more existing schools.”

Maureen Kelleher, a Back of the Yards resident and charter school parent who sat on a neighborhood advisory committee charged with evaluating Noble’s Southwest Side campus proposal, said committee members who raised questions about the impact of a new school on existing schools were told those were “parking lot” issues—to be set aside and dealt with at a later date.

Politicization of the process

In many ways, both sides are right.

Noble has helped thousands of students advance; their schools are safe and high performing. They are orderly and focused. The network has helped many low-income and immigrant students make it to college.

And Brighton Park neighbors opposing the expansion are also right—opening a new Noble high school will almost certainly sap nearby existing schools of students and resources, and result in painful budget cuts.

Noble’s most recent school to open, ITW David Speer, drew 262 students from the Steinmetz High attendance boundary, and 162 from Foreman’s attendance boundary. Both schools were among the city’s top losers for enrollment and budgets this year.

Noble says 2,400 students currently travel from the Southwest Side, where the 17th campus would be located, to other Noble campuses. “We see a ton of support and demand on the Southwest Side,” says Matthew McCabe, the network’s director of government affairs.

McCabe says Noble Street does not have to be a zero-sum game in Chicago.

“This is anecdotal, but we see more families that would otherwise go to the suburbs or would otherwise go to Catholic school or private school come into the system and stay with Noble,” says McCabe.

Overall, however, the total number of high school students in the district has remained essentially flat over the last decade (grades 9-12, not counting alternative students).

“I think the focus should be on quality options around the city,” says Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “I think the best evidence of whether a community wants a school is whether the community sends their children to that school. And on that question there’s no dispute,” says Broy. “There are literally thousands (of Southwest Side) families that have already chosen Noble.”

Broy says despite Noble’s success, including being named the best charter school network in the nation, “this has been the most challenging expansion environment for Noble. But it’s been the most politicized charter environment we’ve ever had in Chicago.”

Broy laments that “we can’t have any sort of hearing on a charter that winds up being a rational discussion of the merits of an application” and says more and more he sees elected officials being asked to choose sides.

“Charter schools are becoming a litmus test for politicians,” he says.

The Chicago Teachers Union has said school closings will be a “natural consequence” of opening more charters. Expanding charters will almost certainly weaken the teachers union—one of Emanuel’s most persistent foes.

Becky Vevea contributed to this report. Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her and Becky Vevea at @WBEZeducation.