Bowen High School is slated to share its building with Noble Street.

As CPS prepares to close dozens of schools, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has promised that none of the keys to the shuttered schools would be handed over to private charter operators.

But the district is proposing 11 co-locations, eight of which involve charters moving into buildings with traditional neighborhood schools. The proposals have reignited fears among some activists, parents and even school staff–not only about the logistics of space-sharing but that the co-locations are just a back-door way of kicking out a traditional school.

There’s precedent for their anxiety: Co-locations in CPS have not worked out smoothly and have been marked by tenuous relationships between students and staff. In some cases, charter schools have taken over.

Still, concern about co-locations is not just about sharing buildings with charter schools. Teachers and parents at Marshall Middle School are also alarmed at the prospect of sharing a building with Disney Magnet 2 High School.

Beginning of the end?

Two high schools also appear to be in a particularly precarious position: Bowen and Corliss.

Both schools are in similar straits—located in tough South Side neighborhoods, struggling to lower dropout rates and raise test scores. Both have the building capacity for about 1,000 students but have enrollment of only around 500.

CPS proposes to have both Bowen and Corliss share buildings with Noble Street charter schools. Noble Street charters have an average of 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Prairie State exam, compared to a district average of 32 percent. And though students do not take entrance exams for charters, Noble Street expects students to attend an orientation to pick up an application in order to be part of the admissions lottery (a step that critics say makes the charters selective, in comparison to neighborhood schools).

Noble Street leaders have not completely signed on to the co-locations yet and are still looking at the option, said Angela Montagna, the charter operator’s director of external affairs. A CPS official said charter schools could turn down the offered space, but won’t be offered alternative.

Chris Goins, slated to be principal of the Noble Street at Corliss, said he is recruiting students from the Pullman neighborhood and engaging the community to sell them on the school.  

Corliss Principal Leonard Harris said he doesn’t see Noble Street as a threat, but rather as offering more opportunity to students in the area. “I am not fearful,” he said. “Corliss is a good school.”

However, three teachers from Corliss showed up at a public hearing in April to voice their concerns.

Eva Dervin said she and other teachers want to know if the co-location is a precursor to a phase-out.  “If so, we should be told that at the beginning instead of being told two years down the line,” she said.

Mandy Walker-Edwards added that students who don’t meet the expectations of Noble Street will land at Corliss.

“Now, instead of us getting selective enrollment status like Noble Street, we will still be a [neighborhood] school,” she said. “We have to take whatever student at whatever academic status. It is like you are pitting one school against the other. One gets selective enrollment and you tell the other, take whatever [student] is out there.” 

“Nothing to help our students”

At Corliss, the principal is putting a positive spin on the co-location. But at Bowen, Principal Jennifer Kirmes talks about her trepidation at the prospect and her dismay at not being consulted before the plans were drawn up.  

The exterior of Bowen’s main building is a gracious, red brick. But inside, it’s age show. Some ceiling tiles are missing and paint is crumbling. The school will get some repairs because of the co-location, though CPS proposes to put Noble Street in an annex. Noble Street receives a lot of private donations and usually does a complete renovation before moving in, and Kirmes wonders how this will make her students feel.

Kirmes is also upset she was never consulted before the plans were drawn up. She recently won funding, through the city’s Ready to Learn program, to open a preschool in a part of the annex that once housed one. “It has little toilets and little sinks, so it doesn’t need a major renovation, just a little elbow grease,” Kirmes says.  

She plans to offer Bowen students the option of career education courses in early childhood, giving them the chance to do an internship at the preschool. The early childhood program will go forward, but Kirmes doesn’t have the money to renovate another space and doesn’t know where she will put the preschool if the annex is occupied.

Kirmes also points out a safety concern. Noble Street schools do not, as a practice, have metal detectors. The charter’s students will have to use a gym in the main building, and Kirmes says security staff are worried about students being in the main building without having been screened.

“I want to be cooperative and collaborative, but I also want us to survive,” Kirmes says.

Bowen recently experienced a dramatic shift in 2011, when it was consolidated back into one school after being split up into four small schools. Teacher Magen Kilcoyne points out that the current crop of juniors started freshman year at a small school, went to a consolidated school their sophomore year, got a new principal their junior year and now will face having a “completely remapped building.”

“It does absolutely nothing to help our students in terms of much needed resources and the overall quality of their education,” Kilcoyne says. “It does, however, tell them that they are not a priority and are very much dispensable to those at the top. What picture does this paint, when another fully functioning, [highly] resourced school takes up their space? It seems quite clear that this is just the first step in slowly destroying this public school.”

A third high school that will co-locate with a charter is Hope, which will share its building with a new KIPP middle school. Several Englewood residents attended public hearings to say they wanted KIPP to come to their neighborhood and no Hope representative came to oppose it.

Ironically, however, Hope used to have middle grades, with a 6th through 12th grade configuration. At that time, Hope was the highest-scoring school, at those grade levels, in the area.

When Englewood High School was closed to make way for Urban Prep and Team Englewood, Hope was turned into a receiving school for high school students and was stripped of its middle grades. Since then, its test scores have plummeted.

Not just concern about charters

Charter takeover remain the biggest concern among some activists and parents, in particular those at Wadsworth Elementary in Woodlawn.  CPS is proposing that the University of Chicago Charter High School-Woodlawn take over the Wadsworth building that both schools have shared for several years. The charter will take in 60 more students.

“Do you think it is fair for Wadsworth school to relocate to another building just because the University of Chicago wants to expand their charter school?” said Wadsworth LSC chair Pamela Jernigan, sparking applause at a public meeting in April. “CPS, if you really want to make a strong impact and impress us all, then put a moratorium on all charter school actions. They are only options and not solutions to the public school fiasco.”

Later, Jernigan said the experience of building-sharing has not been good. For one, it has provided a sharp contrast between a school that has a wealth of resources and one that does not.

From the day it opened in 2006, the charter school had a lab of brand new Apple computers. Students also had laptops. But up until last year, Wadsworth had a room of outdated computers, Jernigan said. “It sends the wrong message to children.”

Jernigan also doesn’t like the fact that Wadsworth’s students are being sent a few blocks west to Dumas, into an area along 67th Street that is considered more dangerous. “If it weren’t for the charter school, Dumas would likely be coming here,” she said.

But Shayne Evans, director of the University of Chicago Charter Schools, insists that the charter school didn’t request and doesn’t need the rest of the building, even with the additional students.  He also notes that he and the school’s staff have not assessed the rest of the building, nor have they inquired about how much it would cost the charter in facilities rent paid to CPS.

Though specific plans have not been developed, Evans says it might be better to build a new high school, rather than try to make an old elementary school work.

Yet Evans says he would like the school to enroll more students. As one of the few charters with an attendance boundary, the school got about 700 applications this year for a class of 160 students.

“We have a huge demand and we are trying our best to serve it,” Evans says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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