CPS leaders are recommending the Board of Education approve a controversial proposal to open a new Noble campus in Brighton Park. Credit: Photo by Melissa Sanchez

Chicago Public Schools leaders are recommending that the Board of Education approve the controversial proposal by the Noble charter network to open a new high school in Brighton Park, as well as two KIPP proposals to co-locate inside district-run schools.

In addition, CPS officials will ask the Board to place 10 charter schools — including two CICS campuses that have been struggling with finances and enrollment — on an academic watch list, and to make it easier to shut down low performers.

Of all the proposals, Noble’s plan to open a high school in the Southwest Side has drawn the most criticism in recent months, with principals and advocates for nearby district-run high schools expressing concern about losing students to a new campus.

In a press call Monday morning, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool painted a different picture.

“We know in this instance that seven of the nine schools in the area are above ideal enrollment,” he said. “And we know there is unmet demands: two-thirds of kids in that area are going outside their boundaries to attend schools. We feel pretty strongly here that will not be an issue. We’re providing a significant quality option to that community.”

Brighton Park activists who lead a months-long campaign against the Noble proposal questioned whether CPS officials took into account community input on the proposals or advisory votes submitted a month ago by Neighborhood Advisory Councils. (The Southwest Side NAC, for example, voted against the Noble proposal, 3 to 2.)

“This is a demonstration of what little regard CPS has for parents, and shows how absolutely fraudulent their concern is,” says Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

He added that the district’s per-pupil funding formula — in which dollars follow students — has forced all types of schools to compete for a dwindling pool of students. “We have too many seats,” Brosnan said. “Frankly the only way for schools to actually succeed is if they’re a little overcrowded. Schools can’t succeed if they’re not fully enrolled, and schools that are not fully enrolled are losing thousands of dollars.”

The KIPP proposals include opening an elementary school inside Orr High School, in West Humboldt Park, and adding grades kindergarten through four at a campus that is already co-located at Nash Elementary, in the Austin neighborhood. Those proposals are contingent on the district separately approving the co-locations in its “school actions” process.

A third KIPP proposal to open another campus inside Till Elementary in Woodlawn was recently withdrawn, district officials said.

CPS leaders will recommend that the Board deny the other nine charter proposals when it votes at Wednesday’s Board meeting.

Tougher talk on accountability

Also Monday, Claypool announced an updated accountability policy for charter schools that “will allow us to take faster action [against] poor performers.”

“Our families deserve quality options, but they also deserve to have all our schools be held accountable,” he added.

The new policy will place charter schools that perform poorly in the district’s School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) on an academic warning list and require them to submit a written remediation plan.This will apply to schools with a SQRP rating of Level 3; those that averaged 2.5 points on the SQRP over two years; and those that had a rating of Level 2 in three consecutive years. Level 3+ is the highest score in an 5.0–point rating system.

If the school doesn’t improve within a year, CPS will recommend its charter be revoked. The district has not yet released this year’s school ratings, although they were sent to principals last week.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), says this is the first time the Board will vote on specific policy on charter accountability — in the past, CPS staff determined how performance was used to decide school closures or other actions.

“We’ve always supported the idea of having a clear and transparent policy,” Broy said. “The real benefit here is we finally have in writing a policy that hopefully will last awhile.”

Ten charter schools will be placed on the warning list if the Board approves the new policy. About 3,200 students attend those schools.

Four of the schools are elementary schools: Betty Shabazz Sizemore, Bronzeville Lighthouse, Galapagos and Kwame Nkrumah, and six are high schools – Amandla, Aspira’s Early College, CICS’s ChicagoQuest, Hawkins, Instituto del Progreso Latino’s Lozano High, and Prologue’s Joshua Johnston.

Because three of those schools – Amandla, Shabazz-Sizemore and CICS-Hawkins – had received warnings last year, they run the risk of an even quicker revocation. District officials will be reviewing the remediation plans they submitted last year to determine whether to recommend pulling their contracts at the end of the current school year.

In the past, district officials have said they would hold charter schools to tougher standards by tying the length of their contract renewals to the schools’ academic performance. More highly rated schools got five-year renewals; faltering schools got renewals as short as one year.

The proposed policy also sets clearer standards for charter school expansion. Charter school operators that operate a single-site school will be recommended for expansion if their current SQRP point value averages 3.2 points; operators with two or more charter campuses will be recommended for expansion if their two-year SQRP averages 3.2 points and if the campus that is being proposed for expansion is not on the warning list.

Financial viability at CICS campuses

Several of the schools on the new warning list are struggling with enrollment — seven of the 10 fell below district enrollment projections released this summer. The CICS Hawkins and ChicagoQuest campuses topped that list with enrollments that were 31 percent and 29 percent short of summer projections, respectively.

A spokeswoman for CICS did not respond to a request for comment. But CICS board meeting minutes from earlier this year indicate that network officials have been worried about performance and enrollment trends at both schools for months.

The charter network had already set a November goal of determining whether ChicagoQuest “has made academic progress at a rate that indicates further action does not need to be taken during the 2016-2017 school year,” according to the February 2015 meeting minutes. In addition, charter network officials indicated that the school would be able to “break even financially, on a cash basis, with 305 enrolled students.” Last year, there were 295 students enrolled at the campus; data from this year show just 225. (The Noble Academy is co-locating with ChicagoQuest this year.)

Meanwhile, minutes from the March 2015 CICS meeting show that officials were concerned about the finances and enrollment at Hawkins, where enrollment fell from 237 students last year to 170 today.

“With gross under-enrollment and a financial deficit of close to $750,000, it is hard to imagine the long-term sustainability of the school,” the minutes stated.

The CICS network is one of the oldest in Chicago and was started by Beth Purvis, who earlier this year became Gov. Bruce Rauner’s chief education advisor. The network has not named a permanent successor.

Appeals to the state?

In a speech at INCS’s annual conference on Monday, Broy said he expects Wednesday’s Board vote on the charter proposals will be a close one. He encouraged charter supporters to attend a rally before the Board meeting to voice their support.

“It’s the first time five new board members are voting on charter applications,” Broy said. “It will be a telling vote, in some ways.”

As in years past, charter school operators whose proposals are denied by the CPS Board have the opportunity to appeal to the Illinois State Charter School Commission. The nine-member Commission, which is appointed by governor, has the authority to approve charters that were denied at the local level. Four new members – appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner — joined the Commission last month.

Since the Commission was formed in 2011, it’s received 42 appeals. Three were denied, three were approved and the rest were withdrawn before a formal vote was taken. (Two of the approved appeals were in Chicago, along with one of the denials.)

Broy said he expects several operators likely would petition the commission if the Chicago Board rejects their proposals, while others would wait a year and try again through the district. Under a $42.3 million federal grant Illinois recently won, operators denied a charter are eligible to apply for funds to try to improve their design plans. State officials have said they expect to release a Request for Proposals in January, with funds to be distributed as early as March.

As part of budget cuts announced this summer, CPS won’t provide start-up and incubation funding to new charters this year, though KIPP would be eligible to apply for federal grant money and Noble recently won an $8.4 million federal grant to open new schools.


Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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