A new parent group is holding a school fair this fall that promises to offer something unprecedented: a one-stop place to shop for all schools, whether it be neighborhood, charter or private schools.

CPS has endorsed the Oct. 4 fair and is requiring all district-run high schools to have a display. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to parents encouraging them to come and district officials are organizing buses for seventh- and eighth-grade parents and students.

Also, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and the Archdiocese of Chicago are co-sponsors.

“As parents we send our children to someone for a long time each day to be educated,” says Chris Butler, the head of ParentPowerChicago. “We want to make sure they know the breadth of options.”

In the past, the district has run a high school fair and there was something called a New Schools Expo, which featured mostly charter schools. However, mostly the different types of schools, especially Catholic and other private schools, recruit students at different times and places.

Sullivan Principal Chad Adams says the fact that neighborhood high schools will be in attendance is a good thing and shows Byrd-Bennett’s commitment to neighborhood schools. But he says that he doesn’t expect to recruit large numbers of students from the fair.

“I will get more bang for my buck by visiting elementary schools in the area,” says Adams.

But ParentPowerChicago has raised suspicion among some parents who are concerned that the people behind the effort have an agenda. They also wonder why CPS would be so heavily involved in an effort that could draw students out of public schools and into private ones.

“Over and over, the optics are such that CPS appears not to believe in their own ability to provide a great education to all students within the public school system,” says Wendy Katten, who runs the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand Chicago.

Connections for parents

Butler was the outreach and advocacy director of New Schools for Chicago, which provided private funding for charter schools and is now in the process of reorganizing. Also, the IRS lists the address of the organization as the same as Old World Industries in Northbrook. Old World Industries was founded and is run by J. Thomas Hurvis, who served on the board of New Schools for Chicago.

Other well-connected pro-charter philanthropists, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, served on the board of New Schools for Chicago.

ParentPower is a not-for-profit organization and, as such, will have to file public tax returns, called 990s. But because it is only a year and a half old, those returns are not yet available. The Illinois Attorney General’s Charitable Database indicates that ParentPowerChicago had $800,000 in income in 2013 and $90,000 in assets.

Richard Sanderson, a brand-marketing executive who runs the administrative side of ParentPower, says he and Hurvis are the two major donors. He and Butler declined to provide the names of any other donors.

Sanderson says he and Hurvis are both businessmen who thought that parent engagement was a missing piece in improving education. He says the main purpose of ParentPower is to connect parents with resources.

“This is a total agnostic venture,” he says. “There is no commercial interest and there is no income. The whole idea is to elevate children.”

Sanderson points to the fact that district-run schools, as well as private and charter schools are invited to the fair. He also notes that school choice is only one element of what the organization plans to help parents navigate.  

Butler says that in the initial stages of the organization, 500 parents were surveyed about what they needed and wanted. “Parents said they wanted the best for their children, but they don’t feel like they have enough time to be engaged. They also said they don’t have the necessary information and relationships to make a difference for their children.”

Butler says it is not directed at any particular demographic. “But it is the parents who have least who often need the most help finding resources,” he says.

While Butler’s contention that the organization is just trying to provide information about different school choices seems innocent enough, some will argue that if the district invested in neighborhood schools, then the maze of choices and school fairs would not be necessary.

But ParentPowerChicago is setting out to help parents find resources on subjects other than schools, such as preschools, tutoring and summer programs. This spring, ParentPowerChicago attracted 3,000 parents to a summer program fair. The organization also is doing two-day parent trainings called a parent university.

It also has a hotline that parents can call. A young man who answered the hotline last week says that radio ads have led to a steady stream of calls. Many times parents ask about after-school programs, he says. He finds out what their child is interested in and what neighborhood they live in and he tries to direct them to an appropriate program. Other times they ask about tutoring.

Sometimes, but rather rarely, they ask about school options, he says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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