Chicago Talent Development High School—a pro-union charter school that focuses on educating students who are behind academically—will close its doors at the end of next year.

The school cited funding challenges as the reason for the phase-out. The decision makes Talent Development the first charter-school casualty of this year’s budget, as CPS grapples with a deficit fueled by state pension problems.

When calling students last week to tell them, school founder and CEO Kirby Callam says the parents and teenagers at the close-knit school—it enrolls just about 270 students—were sad but “pretty resigned.”

“Unfortunately, people in Chicago are getting conditioned to this,” says Callam. “They were like, ‘It is too bad.’ But they aren’t planning any protests at the board meeting.” (The Board of Education meets on Wednesday.)

CPS officials acknowledged that it was difficult time for Chicago Development High School students and family. “As a District, we are committed to fully supporting Chicago Talent’s school community to ensure students find school options that meet their academic needs over the coming months,” district officials said in a statement.

Callam says the high school, which graduated its first class of 56 seniors on June 8, was never able to attract enough students to make it viable. No new students will be accepted this fall.

On top of that, CPS is cutting funding to charter high schools for the third time in the four years since the school opened.

Though CPS has not released any official information on school budgets, charter schools are reporting that they got less. In addition to having to pay a 10.6 percent pension cost for each certified staff member, charters also are receiving less for special education students.

 Traditionally, CPS has provided charter schools with special education teachers, based on the needs of their students. Charters also received money on a per-pupil basis. Now, they are still getting special education teachers, but only 70 percent of the per-pupil rate for special education students.

Callam says the change is fair yet unexpected, and the school cannot weather the storm. Though many charters have lower-than-average enrollment of special education students, Talent Development went against the grain: 26 percent of its students are in special education, more than any other charter school.

Despite the challenges, the school made academic gains, had high attendance and single-digit dropout rates as well as a 72 percent college acceptance rate for graduates.

Penalized for having union?

Other charter schools rely heavily on private fundraising to offset initial expenses and get them going. But some of the foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation, refused to give Chicago Talent Development a grant—though it is one of a network of schools based on a model developed at prestigious Johns Hopkins University. . The Illinois Network of Charter Schools administers the Walton Family Foundation grants and its president, Andrew Broy, says between 50 percent and 70 percent get funding and it is between $250,000 and $500,000. 

“It is a tough place to be a pro-union charter,” Callam says.

For a few years, Chicago Talent Development was helped by an American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund grant and also has received some funding from the Service Employees International Union. One of the goals was to provide a new model for a teacher’s contract that would honor teaching as a profession while giving the school freedom to make decisions to improve student learning.

Callam says having a union at his school has been helpful because teachers feel like they have a place to turn if they have problems. He also says it has helped the school hold on to good teachers. The union at Chicago Talent Development is part of the AFT.

Rather than look to enroll students who are doing OK academically but couldn’t make the cut to get into a selective enrollment high school–a trend in some charter networks–Chicago Talent Development wanted to attract students who were struggling. Most of the school’s students walk into high school learning at a 5th or 6th-grade level.

The Johns Hopkins model emphasizes small learning communities, teacher teams who have the same students and plan together, plus sessions to give students extra help. The model is being used in 59 high schools and 24 middle schools across the country.

No permanent home

Like most Talent Development high schools, Chicago’s school also offered Diplomas Now, which focuses on providing social and emotional supports. For example, Chicago Talent Development had a social worker dedicated to making sure students had caring, trusting adults to support them.

 A major problem, though, was the lack of a permanent home—the school moved three times since its launch in 2008, to various locations on the West Side where, Callam points out, the city has a glut of high schools. The district-run neighborhood high schools have low and declining enrollment, plus numerous charter schools are part of the mix. 

Last year, Chicago Talent Development was given space inside Crane High School, which the district is phasing out.

While the leaders were initially worried about the move, students wound up getting along, participating in dances and sports together. Callam says the tone was set when school staff made the decision to delay the opening of school for a week while CPS teachers were on strike. His teachers joined the CPS teachers on the picket line.

This year, a new school, Crane Medical Preparatory High School, will welcome its first freshman class. Students must apply for the magnet school and be selected.

Once the medical academy opens, three schools will operate in Crane’s building in the coming school year. But ironically, Callam points out that only one will survive in the long term—the one that is selective.

“Those students who aren’t able to get into selective schools will more and more have to go to schools of last resort, schools that are penalized because of the accountability standards,” he says. “There are no incentives for charters to serve the lowest-performing students. But where will those students go?”

This story has been updated to include information from INCS’ President Andrew Broy about the Walton Family Foundation grant. 

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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