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Jobs and schools promise to be top issues in next year’s city elections. The mayor’s education agenda faces its toughest test in the African-American communities that gave him strong support in 2011.

Existing charter operators outline expansion plans

At a sparsely attended Thursday night forum at CPS headquarters, three of CPS’ most well-established charter school operators pitched their plans to open up 10 new charters over the next two school years. 

Representatives from LEARN, Noble Street and UNO said they would be asking for approval at the November Board of Education meeting. They did not specify where they intend to put the new campuses. Two current undertakings will help determine their locations: a “portfolio analysis” of the distribution of high quality seats, which is set to be completed later this month, and a facilities master plan, which a new state law calls on CPS to develop.

After a Request for Proposals was issued last year, the operators were named as three of five finalists. 

LEARN Charter wants to open one K-8 elementary school in 2012 and two in 2013. If facilities were available, LEARN would try put each of them in close proximity to an existing campus. (Currently there are five campuses, serving 1,940 students; they are located in South Chicago, Auburn Gresham, Garfield Park, and North Lawndale).

The school’s growth plan calls for it to add one more campus in fall 2014 and another in fall 2015, eventually growing to 4,800 students, but those long-term plans were not under consideration at the forum.

CEO Gregory White said that so far, 99 percent of LEARN’s alumni have graduated from high school and 83 percent have enrolled in four-year colleges.

Noble Street Charter School’s proposal calls for two new high schools in 2012, and two in 2013. Two current principal interns, who each would be opening a school in fall 2012, showed up at the forum. (Currently, the network’s ten campuses serve about 6,500 students.)

One, Lauryn Fullerton, graduated from Lincoln Park High School and taught in Teach for America before becoming a founding teacher at UIC College Prep and an administrator at Johnson College Prep. She plans to run a high school with an International Baccalaureate program and require all students to take at least one advanced placement or IB class.

Another, Matthew Kelly, taught at Rauner College Prep for four years. His school will use a blended online and in-class learning model, with all students spending at least an hour each day in online classes while teachers pull out students to work with them in small groups.

UNO is proposing three new K-8 elementary schools in 2013. (Currently, it has 11 campuses.) As with the other charter operators, the locations haven’t been determined, but they are expected to be in the territory UNO serves – the predominantly Latino neighborhoods on the city’s Northwest and Southwest sides that often struggle with overcrowded schools.

Matt Moeller, director of academic affairs, touted UNO’s 97 percent average attendance rate, as well as its practices of sending teachers out for home visits and having parents sign contracts.

“It was the first time a teacher has visited a place where a student lives, and I have five kids,” Soccer Academy parent Rodolfo Benitez said. “It was the first time a teacher sent me an email on the first or second day of school.”

Support and opposition

A small number of charter school parents came to support the schools. “I think it’s a good opportunity for kids because a lot of grammar schools don’t offer what charter schools offer,” said Tarnisha Hoskins, whose 2nd-grade daughter has taken Spanish since kindergarten at LEARN Third Campus, located at 212 S. Francisco.

“They bring textbooks home in kindergarten. You don’t see that,” said Suviki Russell, whose daughter attends the Hunter Perkins campus. “The hours are good; they go from 8 to 4.”

Art and computer classes add to the school’s appeal, she said.

“I wanted her to have the same education (her brother) had (in a private school) but on less budget,” she noted.

But LEARN and Noble Street also faced tough questioning from some Chicago Teachers Union representatives in the small audience.

Jay Rehak, a Whitney Young High School teacher and Chicago Teachers Union executive board member, hammered LEARN CEO Gregory White on the issue of teacher turnover.

“It’s not about turnover,” said White, who didn’t have statistics at hand for a dissatisfied Rehak. “The question is how many teachers do we lose each year who we thought were exceptional? We’ve had very few people who leave, who we want to see stay.”

Martin Ritter, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, asked why the schools fine families whose students violate rules – and whether they turn away families who can’t pay.

“We said, it’s not fair that the kids who aren’t breaking the rules have to pay” for those who are, when a school spends its resources staffing an after-school detention room, responded Michael Milkie, superintendent and CEO of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. “It invests the parents; the kids have a better incentive not to break the rules.”

“We ask people to pay all the fees before they’re enrolled in the following year,” Milkie said, but in cases of demonstrated financial need, parents are given payment plans or are simply allowed to register students without paying.

 Parent LaShonda Snowden, whose son is a sophomore at a Noble Street campus, offered her support for the fees.  “Noble has saved my and my son’s life,” she said. “It was a shocker at first, but what it made me do was put it back on my son.”

She said many students appreciate the discipline. “Children were coming in packs, trying to enroll,” she said. 

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