Parent Sharisa Lee Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

In the short time Sharisa Lee’s children have been enrolled at Wendell Smith Elementary School in Pullman, she’s seen the hallways become sparse and classrooms left with empty chairs and desks.

Some families moved to new apartments outside Smith’s attendance area. Some students were sent to live with relatives in other neighborhoods deemed safer than crime-plagued Pullman and adjacent Roseland, nicknamed the “Wild Hundreds” (a reference to the east-west streets numbered in the 100s). A few students now travel daily to magnets and other schools, their parents eager to see if they could do better than the steel-frame, blue-and-yellow school at East 103rd Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue.

Lee has thought about joining the exodus. But, reluctant to give up on her neighborhood schools, she didn’t.

In Roseland, another mother, Charise Agnew, keeps her children in the neighborhood school because of proximity. Agnew works as a security officer at Horseshoe Casino in Indiana, and leaves in the wee hours of the morning to make it to her job on time. She is deathly afraid of having her two boys travel to school alone on buses and trains.
“I just worry,” says Agnew.

Lee’s and Agnew’s stories illustrate some of the challenges raised by Renaissance 2010, which promised to create new school choices and options in communities with low-performing schools.



Renaissance 2010, launched under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure in Chicago, foreshadowed the federal Race to the Top emphasis on charters. Yet a Catalyst Chicago analysis of charter financial documents, staff lists and test scores raises questions about the strategy’s impact on equity and school performance.

  • CPS does not require prospective operators to open schools in the neediest neighborhoods. Eleven of the 25 highest-need communities have gotten no new charter, performance or contract schools, cutting them out of the money flowing into these new schools.
  • Charters bring in significant private donations, raising five times the private cash that traditional schools received in 2007. But half of charters still had deficits in recent years, putting them in danger of potentially shutting down.
  • On average, charters lost half of their teachers over the past two years, a turnover rate that rivals many low-performing neighborhood schools.
  • Only 16 of 92 new schools have reached the state average on test scores. Of those 16, just eight are charters. The rest are new magnet schools or new satellites of existing magnet and selective schools.

Mayor Richard M. Daley and then-CEO Arne Duncan stressed that goal when they announced Renaissance in a packed hotel conference room in June 2004. The launch came on the heels of a 2003 report from the Civic Committee that argued for a market approach to education: Force neighborhood schools to improve through competition from more charters.


But six years later, the initiative has not sparked widespread improvement or equity. Eleven of the 25 neighborhoods identified as most in need of better-performing schools have gotten none. (The 25 neighborhoods were identified in a report from the Illinois Facilities Fund, which provides assistance to non-profits, including charters.)

Charter schools, the primary strategy under Renaissance, have pulled in millions of private dollars. In 2007—the most recent year for which complete financial data are available—charter schools brought in $21 million from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals, according to a Catalyst analysis of financial documents. CPS data show the 500 traditional neighborhood schools brought in just $5.4 million.

In Roseland and Pullman, where no charters have opened, the 20 neighborhood schools have raised just $100,000 over the past three years, in small grants of less than $2,000 each.
Charter school advocates maintain that the movement has meant more equity for poor children, rather than less. Robin Lake, associate director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, says that charter schools want to be in low-income neighborhoods with concentrations of children of color.

Even if it is not across the board, it is these children who are benefiting from the performing charter schools that are bringing in extra money, she says.

“I am not too worried about the distribution of resources, though it is something we should keep an eye on,” Lake says. Lake adds that public school parents in wealthy areas have the ability to contribute money to supplement their children’s education.

But it is this unevenness that troubles Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, who was once a proponent of charter schools and now is convinced that as a large-scale method of school improvement, they are a bad idea. Quality public education is not something that should be doled out to some and not others.

“It is an obligation,” she says.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has heralded his initiatives in Chicago as the groundwork for his national agenda, Ravitch points out. Yet the evidence in Chicago is that thousands of children and entire communities did not benefit. In fact, as the choice movement has grown, neighborhood public schools have been decimated, she says.

Why have some communities benefited more than others from Renaissance? “There is no easy answer,” says Jaime Guzman, who recently left his post as director of the CPS Office of New Schools to work for former School Board President Gery Chico, who now heads the board of City Colleges.

The district has no formal process to ensure potential school operators go to the neediest neighborhoods. The new schools office issues requests for proposals, notes preferred neighborhoods—and then waits.

Lake says the fact that CPS issues requests for proposals, which note communities and types of schools, makes the district proactive.

Some operators don’t consider certain neighborhoods because the population is declining and the area is isolated from public transportation, Guzman points out. Charters have citywide lotteries for enrollment and get a per pupil stipend for each student, so they have a financial incentive to fill their seats.

Roseland and Pullman are tough draws on both counts. Despite a decade-long fight to extend the Red Line, the el train still ends outside the northern edge of the communities, at 95th Street. The number of school-aged children in the area fell by 22 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census and CPS estimates.

“I saw the transition,” says Claretha Morrell, a school clerk at Lavizzo Elementary. She notes that the community is not only aging, but hard-hit economically.

Need is not always the decisive factor in where new schools open.

Greg Richmond, the former head of new schools for CPS and now president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, acknowledges that politics plays a role. “It happens everywhere,” he says. “Some places are better at managing it than others.”

Many observers believe charters should be approved by independent authorizers, disconnected from local districts and school boards. In Chicago, where CPS controls charter approvals and Daley controls CPS, politics are ever-present. Communities that need new schools are often left to flex their own muscles.

Roseland has so many challenges—violence, transportation problems, joblessness, lack of grocery stores and other retailers—that it can be hard for activists to focus on a single issue and build grassroots support to confront the problem, says Darryl Gibson, a Roseland activist who is working at Dunne Elementary School and Fenger High School.

“The activists have been fractured,” he says.

People rallied around the schools this past fall after the beating death of Fenger student Derrion Albert. But even so, there’s little agreement about how to improve schools and whether charters are the way to go, Gibson says.

Yet in a struggling community, a new school, of any variety, can represent hope and spark new energy.

“I embrace anything new,” says Deloris Lucas, who lives around the corner from a Chicago International Charter School that opened last year in nearby Riverdale. She says that when Carver Middle School shut down five years ago, it cast a shadow over the community, another sign of its depressed state.

“I have a love for that building,” Lucas says. “Charter or not, doesn’t matter. It is a new school, a new curriculum. It is a shot in the arm.”

This spring, Charise Agnew was forced to confront the lack of school options in Roseland as she made an agonizing decision about where to send her older son, Dorian Metzler, to high school.

Dorian was one of the top 8th-graders at Lavizzo, one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. In 2010, only about 44 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT.

Agnew had her heart set on Dorian attending Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective enrollment school just to the west of Lavizzo. She had him apply, and then she waited. But Agnew didn’t know that Dorian needed to take an entrance exam. Few students at Lavizzo score above the 70th percentile on the ISAT, the cutoff to take the selective enrollment test. So there was no buzz in the hallway. A teacher might have asked about it, but the original 8th-grade teacher was fired and the class had a substitute for two months.

The end result is that no one tapped Dorian or Agnew on the shoulder to tell them about the entrance test. “I just had no idea,” Agnew says.

Brooks is the only higher-scoring high school in the area. Agnew’s first reaction was to take Dorian’s transcript up to Brooks and try to talk to the principal. But selective enrollment school principals can be inundated with pleas from parents to offer their child a slot. Schools set up shields, and Agnew didn’t make it past the foyer.

Agnew started to bite her nails and worry. She called the Office of Academic Enhancement and asked for advice. They gave her some phone numbers of charter schools.

Agnew was not happy with that idea. She has nothing against charters; in fact, when she lived in Indiana for a brief time, her sons attended a charter school near the Dunes. The kids got out into nature a lot, which Agnew liked. But no charter high schools are particularly close by, and Agnew didn’t know anything about the academics or climate at the schools. 

Late in the game, Dorian was presented with another option. To increase the number of black and Latino students in the elite downtown and North Side selective schools, the district set aside 25 additional seats at each of them for high-performing students from the worst elementary schools. Dorian got into Walter Payton College Prep, the second highest-scoring school in the city, on the Near North Side.

On the early spring day that Dorian received the acceptance letter, Agnew brought it to Lavizzo. Dorian says he doesn’t know what to think about going to Payton, but he had asked his mother to let his teacher make a copy of the letter to post on a hallway bulletin board that shows which schools the graduating 8th-graders will attend. By April, only three letters were on the board—one from Chicago Vocational High School, one from Carver Military Academy and the third from the DuSable campus of Betty Shabazz Charter High School.

All the other 36 8th-graders are planning to go to Corliss, the neighborhood high school. Corliss’ truancy rate is 35 percent, fewer than half the students who start as freshmen graduate and only 10 percent of juniors passed the Prairie State achievement exam.

After Dorian and his mother receive the acceptance letter, Agnew walks into Lavizzo’s office with it in hand. Principal Tracey Stelly meets her with an immediate smile. “Congratulations, Mom,” she says.

But Agnew sighs. Payton is two buses and a train ride away. Dorian would have to travel more than an hour to get there. In the winter, he would most likely leave and come back in the dark.

Agnew still wants him to be able to walk quickly up to Brooks, on a leafy campus that seems like a different, better world to Agnew.

She presses Stelly to send a letter to the Brooks principal, making the case that Dorian should get a seat. “Did you mail it?”

Sharisa Lee’s decision to keep her children at Smith Elementary, across the park from her apartment, is a matter of philosophical choice.

Lee is just 25, but has the aura of someone older and highly adept at navigating her way through the world. She has a broad face and an alto voice, and she revels in the fact that she does her homework. She presents her opinions about education and the neighborhood with confidence.

Lee’s demeanor gives the impression that she could easily find another, better school for her three boys, and get them to the bus and to school on time. But she sees herself as a budding activist and thinks that to abandon the school would be paramount to giving up on the community.

“I don’t believe in running away from problems,” Lee says.

Still, the idea of a high-quality neighborhood school sometimes seems like a fantasy to Lee. She knows enough to realize that Smith Elementary, where just about half of students met or exceeded state averages on the ISAT in 2010, is a disappointment. The clearest evidence is the library. On each shelf, a few books lean against each other, gathering dust. Worn, used chairs and tables are scattered about. There are no computers and no librarian—and so, no students.

“To tell you the truth, I think our children are way back” in terms of their educational opportunity, Lee says.

Sitting in the library one day, as her preschool-aged son pages through a dusty book, Lee says test scores and the lack of materials are not Smith’s biggest problem. Most frustrating for her is the lack of parent involvement, essential for a high-performing school. Lee attended just two parent committee meetings before she was voted in as chairwoman. The committee, required under the No Child Left Behind Act, is the only functioning parent group at the school. The local school council has had problems attracting members.

Among other tasks, the committee works with the principal on the school improvement plan and decides how to spend the $6,000 set aside for parent involvement activities. To drum up interest, Lee has gone door-to-door and won promises from people that they will attend. When they don’t, she calls them on their cell phones to urge them to show up—with mixed success.

“Oh, girl,” Lee says, wearily. “I have tried everything.”

Lee says to some degree, the infusion of new schools through Renaissance has created a scenario that many in the community feared. Lee says Smith is now largely a school for children whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to get them somewhere, anywhere else.
“A lot of students are children of really young mothers and they don’t know how,” Lee says. “This is a high-risk area. We had the children of the crack addicts, and now it’s the children of the children of the crack addicts.”

Smith Elementary Principal Johnny Banks and Lavizzo Principal Tracey Stelly are well aware of their precarious position. Being at struggling schools in an area with a declining student population puts them at high risk of closure or turnaround. Either option would mean the loss of their job.

Banks, a thin, soft-spoken man with graying hair, is not sold on the idea that a dramatic change through turnaround will make a difference.

What he wants most is counseling for students, who, he says, “come to us with a lot of needs that are difficult to meet. They need someone to talk to. They are screaming inside.”  The district had a small-scale plan to bring in more social and emotional curricula for schools, but the lack of resources has hindered that effort.

In his five years at Smith, Banks says he has sought outside resources, applying for at least one grant a year. Some he has received, others not.

The general public might think that wealthy people and foundations line up to help schoolchildren in the most destitute neighborhoods, but Banks says that hasn’t been his experience. “If you know where they are, let me know,” he says.

For her part, Stelly is unique among traditional neighborhood school principals: She isn’t afraid of competition from charters or turnarounds. She would have loved to walk into Lavizzo with a clean slate and a pot of extra cash, which turnarounds receive.

She can quickly tick off a wish list for Lavizzo—at the top are reading and math specialists to help teachers with instruction—and she is not inclined to sit around and wait for help. “In a minute, I will get on the phone and beg,” Stelly says.

This is her first year at Lavizzo, and she got Xerox to donate $4,000. She also secured a $163,000 grant to turn Lavizzo into a community school.

But Stelly is also quick to note that it is not easy to go out and raise money. Principals have a seemingly unending list of tasks, and most of her time so far has been spent trying to get rid of poorly performing teachers and staff. Two have gone on medical leave, in an apparent move to sidestep the dismissal process.

Stelly was then left in an even worse position: She can’t hire a permanent teacher and has had to hire long-time substitutes for the classes.

“That is the most frustrating part,” she says.

Stelly has also had another major task: Since the school had been sanctioned by the state for failing to include special education students in regular classes, Stelly decided she had to go through and work with caseworkers on each student’s individual education plan.

CPS officials acknowledge that new schools can only do so much: They can give areas a boost, Guzman says, but it is wrong to look to them to spur general, systemwide improvement. After all, nearly 300,000 students in Chicago still attend low-performing elementary schools and high schools. About 6,000 of them live in Roseland and Pullman.

Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie agrees. Going forward, he says, the discussion should move away from charter schools versus neighborhood schools and focus more on school quality, no matter the structure. He points out that the evidence on charter schools is mixed.

Runcie says later this year, the district will hold community meetings to get residents to talk about how to improve regular schools. The meetings will include discussion about closing under-enrolled or under-performing schools, opening new schools and improving existing ones.

“We are trying to take a more holistic approach,” Runcie says.

Ultimately, for parents, the type of the school is not as important as whether they feel their children have a chance at a good education, he says.

That is the bottom line for Charise Agnew and Sharisa Lee.

Agnew wishes that she could keep her son close by. She worries that Dorian—who at 14 is still shorter than her 5 feet, heavy-set and shy—will be an easy target for bullies while waiting at bus stops.

But in the end, Agnew signed Dorian up for Payton. “We will see how this whole thing works out,” she says. “We will try it.”

Lee also is holding her breath as she waits for the coming school year. She is trying to be patient for improvements at Smith. And she remembers the situation she was in eight years ago, when her oldest son was born. At the time, she was a homeless teen mother. While living in a shelter, she was offered a subsidized apartment in Pullman.

Getting that apartment saved her and is one reason she is so committed to the community.
When Lee thinks about pulling her oldest son out of Smith, she thinks of her neighbors’ children. “I worry about the children left here. What will happen to them?”

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Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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