Hundreds of parents, students and families poured in to Soldier Field
bright and early this Saturday, not to get an early seat at a game, but
to hear about new schools and charter schools eager to recruit a fresh
class of students. Hundreds of parents, students and families poured in to Soldier Field bright and early this Saturday, not to get an early seat at a game, but to hear about new schools and charter schools eager to recruit a fresh class of students.
The annual New Schools Expo was buzzing with hundreds of people by 9:30 a.m., mostly clustered elbow-to-elbow in a large space with a wraparound border of tables for each new school. The hall was a blur of bright red LEARN Charter School Network tote bags, handed out to each parent, and big white balloons dangling from each table.
“It’s all about the parents and the kids today,” said Phyllis Lockett, president of the Renaissance Schools Fund, which provides funding for charter and new school start-ups. “We want parents to talk to the campuses, learn what’s available, and get application assistance.”
Yellow was also a popular hue – Lockett and many others wore bright canary-colored scarves, a symbol of the United Neighborhood Organizations’ Charter School Network, The scarves were to celebrate last Tuesday’s vote by the Board of Education to approve seven charter contracts. Pro-charter groups provided buses for supporters, and more than a thousand of them gathered outside board headquarters in the early morning before the board meeting.
Saturday morning at the Expo, students who currently attend charter schools donned their uniforms and carried clipboards and flyers, urging parents to support the schools.
“Students hear it’s strict here, but the adults want to get their kids involved,” said D’Marco Brown, a junior and part of the first graduating class at Gary Comer College Prep in Greater Grand Crossing. “We want kids to realize that if you’re disciplined in your everyday life, you’ll do just fine here.”
“It’s hard, but it’s worth it,” added Stephen Wilkes, also a junior at Comer, which is one of the Noble Street Charter campuses.
Joshua Mitchell, a middle-school student who had come to look at schools with his friend, Eric Wilson, was one of those hesitant about the rumored “strict” charter schools.
“I want a high school with a good basketball program so that I can get a scholarship to college,” Mitchell said. “That’s what’s important to me.”
Mitchell and Wilson, who is looking for a school with a science and technology focus, each signed up for 15 charter applications.
Other students noted long commute times from their homes to school. “It takes me 45 minutes to get to school on the Red Line every day,” said Angelique Jackson, a sophomore at Uplift Community High School in Uptown. “That’s something that kids have been asking about a lot.”
For that very reason, Wysonja Shelton, a parent with three children who currently attend neighborhood schools, was glad to see that the booths were sectioned off according to their location in the city. “Aside from that, it’s just really important to have diversity in an elementary school,” she said.
Off to the side in a small lounge area, Angela Williams and her four children were resting and looking over school brochures. Williams’ wants to make sure that each of her kids, who currently attend private school, are placed in a school that allows them to focus on their passions – her oldest daughter plans to go into the military, and one of her younger daughters wants to explore fine arts.
“Each school offers so much – it’s just hard to make a decision,” she said. “At this point, I need to go to the open houses to really find out more.”
The expo’s Town Hall Forum also attracted a crowd of parents, many of whom were already well aware of the panel’s main message: parental involvement is the key to taking ownership of their children’s education.
Panelists urged the audience to be ambassadors for parental involvement in their communities, adding that poor-performing teachers should not be allowed to stay in schools. In charter schools, they said, the students’ education is prioritized over the longevity of a teacher’s career, and the same should apply to neighborhood schools.
“If you don’t get in [to a charter school],” said Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep Academies, “go to your neighborhood schools and demand they do the same things.”