Five years ago, two teachers knocked on Precious Brewster’s door in Englewood to tell her about a new school in the community, Amandla Charter School. She liked what she heard and decided to enroll her three children.
Up until that point, Brewster had considered homeschooling her kids so they didn’t have to attend their neighborhood schools, which she says were chaotic and sometimes violent.
Amandla’s rules and structure were a big draw. Brewster also liked that teachers visit families at home and give frequent updates about children’s progress.
“Our son’s 8th-grade teacher texts me every day,” she says, “sometimes two to three times a day, to let me know what homework he has.”
Amandla was founded seven years ago by a small group of teachers from Robeson High School — a stone’s throw away — under Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 program to close poorly performing schools and open 100 better ones. The charter operates a single campus with 323 students in 5th to 12th grades.
For its first five years, the school struggled academically, meeting federal annual progress benchmarks only once. Last year it focused heavily on literacy and improving advising for 9th-graders. The strategy paid off with gains in reading and the percentage of freshmen on track to graduate on time. And last month the Chicago Public Education Fund awarded the school a grant for an innovation project.
But CPS officials say that progress wasn’t enough, and they recommended Amandla close at the end of the school year. The decision was made under a new, tougher charter accountability policy that allows the district “to take faster action [against] poor performers,” as CEO Forrest Claypool put it.
Three other charter schools also were recommended for closure: Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore campus in West Englewood, Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School in Bronzeville and Chicago International Charter School’s Hawkins campus in Altgeld Gardens. Bronzeville Lighthouse is in the final year of its charter and is slated for non-renewal, while the others would have their charters revoked.
Getting tough on charters
While CPS says performance is the only reason the schools are being recommended for closure, some speculate that CPS felt it needed to close some schools to balance the upcoming expansion of the Noble and LEARN charter networks, which won nearly $15 million in federal dollars to open more schools.
“I think we’re at a place in time where there is pressure from people who don’t like charters,” says Phyllis Goodson, a regional vice president of Lighthouse Academies who oversees Bronzeville Lighthouse. “We’re not a big network, and we’re something they can use to show, ‘OK we’re tough on charters.’”
All four schools are on the South Side and serve mostly poor, African-American students. Two schools, Amandla and CICS-Hawkins, have nearly double the district’s percentage of students with special needs. The schools have been operating for five to 10 years.
The closure recommendations came a week after the Board of Education approved the new charter accountability policy, leaving many parents and school leaders in shock.
“We got a phone call… we thought it was a congratulations call,” says Makita Kheperu, the Shabazz chief instructional officer. “Instead they told us that a decision had been made to put us on the list of schools recommended for closure. We were just completely floored.”
Under the district’s rating system, three of the schools — Amandla, Shabazz-Sizemore and CICS-Hawkins — moved up this year from the lowest to second-lowest level, which school leaders had thought would keep them safe from closure.
The Board is slated to vote Wednesday on whether to close Amandla, Shabazz-Sizemore and Bronzeville Lighthouse, while the vote on CICS-Hawkins will come in December, a few days after the open-enrollment period closes. That means if CICS-Hawkins students wait for the Board’s decision, they’d miss the deadline to apply for a high school other than the one they’d be assigned based on where they live.
All four schools, which together enroll about 1,200 students, plan to contest the closure recommendations.
The abrupt announcement and lack of a public meeting made John Brewster, an Amandla parent, angry. It’s disrespectful, he says, to make that decision for parents without input.
“It’s just slash — we’re going to close,” he says.
Raise Your Hand, a parent group that historically has opposed charter school expansion, submitted a letter to the Board of Education in support of Amandla. The group says it’s against using the school rating policy to determine closures, especially when a school like Amandla is too new to have data for important markers like college enrollment and high school graduation.
“This is a bad way to treat students,” says Wendy Katten, who directs the group. “The accountability policy for charters is rushed, and so we don’t really want to see schools being closed on these narrow metrics.”
Policy change prompts action
Last fall, schools that received the lowest rating under CPS policy were put on an academic warning list and told that if they didn’t improve, district officials would recommend they be closed.
The then-head of the CPS office that oversees charter schools, Jack Elsey, sent those schools a letter in November 2014 saying that to get off the warning list and stop the charter-revocation process, they had to meet one goal: Don’t get the district’s lowest rating again this year.
Schools were required to submit a remediation plan outlining how they’d improve their school rating. Jennifer Kirmes, Amandla’s CEO, says her school set ambitious goals. The district didn’t give her feedback on her plan, she says, and didn’t ask until last month for any evidence of how she’d put it into action.
When she wrote the plan, she says, she didn’t know that if her school failed to meet all its goals CPS would put it on the warning list again, which makes a school eligible for closure under the new charter policy. (Other charter officials say they had similar experiences.)
“It feels like the rules definitely changed, and it feels like the process happened very fast,” she says. “I anticipated there would be some sort of review process that would include a thorough investigation into who we are as a school and the kind of education we’re providing.”
The district provided reporters with internal documents to justify the closure recommendations: scorecards that show where the schools fell short of the goals in their remediation plans, or in Bronzeville Lighthouse’s case, failed to make academic progress.
Amandla met five of its 15 goals, Shabazz-Sizemore met five of 10 goals, and CICS-Hawkins met eight of 16 goals.
But the district didn’t share those scorecards with schools.
CPS officials say the metrics on the scorecard were readily available to charter schools and that keeping track of progress was their responsibility.
Officials who oversee Shabazz-Sizemore say that though they didn’t meet every goal, they believe their improvements constitute the “reasonable progress” required of charters under state law.
They also don’t think their school should have been on the academic warning list to begin with: they’re asking CPS to take a second look at why their growth scores on the NWEA test dropped so precipitously in 2013 when the district re-calculated the scores, ultimately lowering the Sizemore campus’ rating.
Goodson objects to CPS classifying Bronzeville Lighthouse as “chronically underperforming.” Only recently did the school hit a “rough patch,” she says.
Over the last two years, the school tumbled from the district’s second-highest rating to the lowest. Goodson says the school had “disunity” issues as it changed curriculum. Teachers left midyear. The principal was replaced. It took some time to get back on track. But the district’s evaluation, which didn’t include site visits, school leaders say, didn’t capture this turnaround.
Goodson used to work in the CPS office that oversaw charter schools under former CEO Arne Duncan. Previous processes to evaluate charters were more “fair and equitable,” she says.
“I want to be judged on where we are now, and I want somebody to come and look at our program,” Goodson says. “I don’t want you to stand from afar and never even look in the door.”
CPS says it will reach out to the families impacted by the proposed closures and help them find a new and better school for their children.
But several school officials questioned how far students would have to travel to find a better option. Data show a large portion of students at three of the charter schools, excluding Bronzeville Lighthouse, would normally attend neighborhood schools that have similar or worse ratings.
Kheperu says it’s unfair that CPS would shutter a charter school on the second-to-lowest tier but keep open district-run schools that rank at the very bottom.
“It doesn’t seem there actually is parity among all the schools in how they are receiving sanctions,” she says.
Rodney Hull, the principal at CICS-Hawkins, says his school opened five years ago to give the neighborhood an open-enrollment high school after Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was beaten to death. More than half of Hawkins students would normally attend Fenger, data show.
“We definitely turned the school around in terms of movement in the right direction,” says Hull, who became principal in 2013. “We’re getting kids to think about school and staying in school. All of those ratings are going to increase, given time.”
David Ireland, the CEO who oversees Shabazz schools, says he’s also worried that closing two schools in Englewood will further destabilize a community that sorely needs stability. He points to Sizemore’s curriculum, which teaches students “how to avoid violence and resolve conflicts.”
“The academics of the school are certainly a priority,” he says, but so are “life outcomes.”