A group of alumni from one of the South Side’s more prestigious high schools is fighting to open a new charter school aimed at helping middle school boys who are at risk of dropping out and potentially becoming ensnarled in Chicago’s escalating gun violence.
Supporters of the school said the plan comes at a crucial time when the city reported more than 700 homicides so far this year.
“When you see violence and murders piling up… you see young black males as the face of that,” said Enoch Muhammad, a community activist who supports the new charter school. “Those who are being shot and killed and those who are the shooters. That means we need to make a concerted effort to put that type of investment behind this type of project, behind this type of school.”
But the plan also comes at a time when the discussion around charter schools has grown increasingly heated and could become even more entrenched. Critics point to the budget deficit facing Chicago Public Schools as a major reason against opening more charter schools, which are privately run schools that receive public funding.
The proposed school, called Kemet Leadership Academy, would be the first alternative school in the city for middle school students. If approved, it would serve up to 500 students from some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods and be located in the vacant Morgan elementary school in the South Side’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, according to documents submitted to CPS. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to make a decision on the proposal Dec. 7.
The plan is backed by a group called Project Simeon 2000, which is made up of alumni of the Neal F. Simeon Career Academy -- the South Side high school known for its winning sports teams and its trades programs.
John Michael Johnson,Sr., an organizer with Project Simeon 2000, said black boys need a school that targets and helps them at an early age. While the dropout rate in Chicago has gone down in recent years, black boys have about a 50 percent chance of graduating, according to CPS data.
“Mentoring, teaching, coaching, supporting, counseling,” Johnson said. “We are going to wrap our arms around those young boys.”
But Johnson said he is aware he faces an uphill battle.
When he came to a Chicago Board of Education hearing this month on proposed charter schools, he said he was surprised to learn his plan was the only one left on the agenda. All the other proposals had been withdrawn.
It is not clear exactly why the other operators were no longer vying to open charter schools. But the environment in Chicago for charter schools has become increasingly more tense.
As CPS’s budget woes have grown more severe this year, budgets have been cut twice for schools, including charter schools.
The district has also faced a sobering trend of declining student enrollment, and parents and teachers say that adds even more pressure on CPS to justify opening new charter schools.
Anthony Jackson, a father who lives in Auburn Gresham, said that the schools in the neighborhood have been hit hard by the exodus of students. Schools get a stipend for each student, so fewer students means less money for the community’s schools.
“My children and the children of that community are not guinea pigs,” Jackson said. “I am so tired of these rich corporations and businesses coming into our community, taking funding and diverting the funds from the Chicago Public School system.”
The Chicago Teachers Union successfully negotiated a cap on charter schools in its new contract approved this year. And CPS has drastically slowed the number of new charter schools, with a mere four schools opening during the last two years after more than a decade of rapid expansion.
Chicago has 143 privately run charter or alternative schools, according to CPS. Most alternative schools are run by Youth Connection Charter School, and Project Simeon 2000 is proposing that Kemet also be managed by Youth Connection.
The situation in Chicago runs in opposition with what looks to be going on nationally in education. President-elect Donald Trump this week tapped the pro-charter Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education.
But the people behind the Kemet Leadership Academy seemed uncomfortable with getting in the middle of the debate around charter schools. Instead, Johnson insisted that Kemet would be unique and would meet an urgent need.
He said the boys who could benefit from the school can’t wait for CPS to fix all of its massive financial problems.
“Unlike a car, if you make a mistake, there’s no recall,” he said. “You can’t call them back five years later and say, ‘We didn’t put enough English in you, we didn’t put enough science into you and we are going to do it over.’ What we are talking about is one child, not all the children, just one. And if we are not taking care of that one child, we have failed them.”
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her @SSKedreporter.