The Board of Education approved Wednesday the opening of seven charter schools over the next two years, including a school that has ties to a mega-church whose pastor is an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But board members expressed reservations about some of the charter proposals, as well as the daily physical education policy that also was approved.

Nine charter proposals that could have resulted in 20 schools were up for approval, but district officials recommended that four proposals be rejected and that one operator, Intrinsic Schools, only be allowed to open one of the four schools they were requesting. Board members followed those suggestions.

Curtis Sharif STEM Academy founder Deborah Umrani said she will appeal the denial to the state’s Charter School Commission, which has the power to overrule the board decision and allow the charter to open independently from CPS. Connected Futures Design Team Leader Ron Giles said he was surprised by the denial, but that the board of the proposed charter school has yet to meet to decide whether to appeal. The leadership of Be the Change, the other charter proposal that was denied, could not be immediately reached after the board vote.

The threat that the state commission—created in 2011—could overrule a CPS denial was mentioned several times in the board meeting. For the first time last year, the commission approved a proposal that CPS had turned down: two Concept Charter Schools, which are now operating in the city.

The following charters were approved, though some proposals did not get unanimous support and others must meet certain conditions and come back to the board for a final green light:

1)      Concept: One school in Chicago Lawn and one school in Chatham (2014)

2)      Intrinsic: One school on the Northwest Side, location to be determined (2015)

3)      Noble Street: One campus in Belmont-Cragin and one to be located temporarily downtown (2014)

4)      Chicago Education Partnership: One campus in Austin (2015)

5)      Great Lakes Academy: One in South Shore (2014)

Board members Carlos Azcoita voted against the Concept School in Chatham, the Chicago Educational Partnership, the Noble Street downtown campus and Great Lakes Academy because they are not in neighborhoods considered priority areas by CPS. CPS has prioritized communities where overcrowding is a problem.  

Though she only voted against one of the approved charters, board member Andrea Zopp shared Azcoita’s concerns about putting new schools in areas where they are not needed. “What is the reasoning for putting schools in areas where there is overcapacity?” she said. “Why would we take limited resources and spread them out among an increasing number of schools.”

CPS Chief Incubation Officer Jack Elsey said that CPS has a legal responsibility to consider all charter proposals submitted and that the ones not in priority communities are going to fulfill a need for better schools (though there is no guarantee that the new schools will be high-quality). Elsey noted that, with student-based budgeting, money follows children (though that does not directly address Zopp’s concern about spreading resources too thin).

Mega-church development

Charter operators and their allies also made the case. Ald. Howard Brookins brought Rev. Charles Jenkins to the podium and Jenkins, though not registered to speak, was allowed to do so.

Jenkins is spearheading Project Legacy, a massive development that will include a Concept Charter School. A close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Jenkins will collect nearly a million a year in rent from Concept.

Jenkins argued that Chatham, where there is high unemployment and violence, desperately needs the development.  He said several charter schools asked to be part of the project and project leaders vetted Concept.

“Yeah, people are still upset about school closings,” he said. “But when I say this is going to be a math, science and technology school, they are like yes, I want that.”

Great Lakes Academy Katherine Myers said that one-third to 49 percent of students in South Shore leave the neighborhood for school. “Great Lakes wants to be part of the solution,” she said.

Noble Street also had several parents and students come up, one after the other, to talk about the positive impact the charters have made for them. One alum read a letter written by another alum who is now a student at Harvard University.

But students, parents, teachers, union representatives, including CTU President Karen Lewis, and aldermen challenged the idea of opening charters schools, especially after the closure of 49 schools last year. Several of them were specifically against the Noble Street slated to go into the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood close to Prosser High School.

“Every time you open new charters, neighborhood schools lose students and they lose money,” said Dalia Mena, a student at Steinmetz.

Erika Clark, an activist parent, charged that charter schools are only seen as good enough for poor, black and brown students.

“Why are Lincoln Elementary School and Sauganash Elementary (two schools in well-to-do neighborhoods largely white neighborhoods) get annexes while Belmont-Cragin, a Latino neighborhood, gets a charter school?” she asked board members, who did not answer.  

New PE policy

Though it did not garner as much public comment, board members were also concerned with the new physical education policy. Currently, most elementary school students only have physical education twice a week and high school students only for two years.

Since 1997, CPS has had a waiver to be excused from the state law requiring daily physical education, but the district is allowing that waiver to expire at the end of this year.

CPS Chief Health Officer Stephanie Whyte said there are four big concerns about this change in policy: staffing, space, scheduling and equipment. But she feels as though her department has done necessary work to resolve those concerns.

The district has a $2.2 million federal grant and will use some surplus TIF money to buy equipment and additional teachers, she said. Also, schools will be asked to put together action plans and the district will direct resources where they are most needed.

Already Whyte said it has become clear that some high schools will need help to implement the new policy. Whyte did not say how many additional teachers will be hired in order for the district to meet the requirement.

But several board members were skeptical. They said they have heard from principals that they are unclear about what is going on and worried about how they will work physical education into the schedule of their students every day.   

“Something will have to come off the table,” board member Deborah Quazzo said. “Schools might have to take away technology or another special to make way for this.”

Quazzo said she wants district officials to monitor the decisions that principals are having to make in order to meet the requirement.

Azcoita asked whether high school students will have to give up some Advanced Placement classes for physical education.

Whyte countered that physical education should be seen as an academic course and that studies have shown that students do better in classes after exercising. She said high school students would not lose out on Advanced Placement classes, but they will have five electives instead of seven.

District officials are encouraging principals to look at creative ways of implementing the requirement without having physical education replace things like art. One idea to meet both the new art expectation of 120 minutes a week and the physical education requirement is to offer dance during gym.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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