In its first year, Urban Prep Academy for Young Men received 280 applications for 150 freshmen slots. As word has spread about the city’s only all-boys public school, applications to the Englewood charter have risen apace, to 422 in 2007 and 583 this year.

To meet the growing demand, Urban Prep is ramping up quickly, recently winning approval to add new campuses in two of the district’s high-needs communities—East Garfield Park and South Shore. School officials hope the new schools will help address a vexing concern at the original Englewood campus: an influx of students from outside the neighborhood, threatening to divert the school’s community-oriented mission.

As part of his pitch for new schools, in fact, Executive Director Tim King noted that the new campuses would allow Urban Prep to serve more children within their own communities. (King is a member of the Catalyst Chicago editorial board.)

Although data from the state do not indicate whether charter applications are from inside or outside the community, a Catalyst analysis of student commuting data for 2007 found evidence that charters are attracting more outside families. Among charters opened since 2004, when Renaissance 2010 was launched, the percentage of students who commute to school from 6 miles away or more has increased—to 13 percent for elementary students, up from 9 percent; and 15 percent for high school students, up from 10 percent.

Some charters have begun to restrict their recruiting, and in some cases negotiate community set-asides, to ensure that the original charter mission—serving a particular neighborhood—remains in focus.

So far, 10 charter campuses have boundaries that ensure preference in admissions to neighborhood students. While these attendance zones resolve the problem of neighborhood access, they fly in the face of school choice orthodoxy, which calls for citywide schools that spur competition and ensure all students have an equal shot at enrolling. Charter advocates say the rising demand is a signal that more charters, not attendance zones, are needed.

Setting boundaries

A 2004 state law permits up to 10 attendance boundaries for charters, assuring some preference for neighborhood children in admissions. So far, boundaries have been set for:

  • University of Chicago, Donoghue and Woodson campuses in Douglas (the schools share one boundary)
  • ASPIRA, Haugan Middle in Albany Park
  • UNO Charter, Fuentes campus in Avondale
  • UNO Charter, Tamayo campus in Gage Park
  • Chicago International Charter, Northtown campus in Forest Glen
  • Chicago International Charter, Wrightwood campus in Ashburn
  • University of Chicago Charter High School, Wadsworth campus in Woodlawn
  • Chicago International Charter, Ellison campus in Auburn Gresham
  • Noble Street Charter, Comer campus in Greater Grand Crossing

 Greg Richmond, former head of the district’s Office of New Schools and now president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says boundaries are exceedingly rare nationwide. But in Chicago, neighborhood pressure sparked a change to the state’s charter law in 2004 to allow for up to 10 attendance zones. The issue flared up, Richmond recalls, when charters opened in overcrowded Latino communities that demanded access.

Although its mission is to serve Englewood students first, King says the school should remain open citywide. “We’re the only option in town if you want to send your son to an all-boys school and you want to do it for free,” King says. Still, student recruiting is strictly limited to Englewood and nearby parts of Washington Park, Greater Grand Crossing and Auburn Gresham.

During the community planning process for Urban Prep’s new schools, King says the issue of access came up repeatedly. “In every single meeting and every single interview, at least one person brought it up,” he notes. But the details of how to guarantee community access at the new schools are still being worked out.

At Perspectives Charter Schools on the Calumet High campus, Director of Community Relations Ray Thompson says the school has struck an agreement with the alderman and community organizations to recruit students solely in Auburn Gresham and ensure that at least 70 percent of all students are from nearby.

In Douglas, where the charter recently opened its new IIT campus, Thompson says the same concerns are being hashed out. By word-of-mouth, the new campus drew in students from several neighborhoods away. Thompson says a group of parents at Perspective’s South Loop-Joslin campus told friends at Murray Language Academy—a well-regarded magnet school in Hyde Park—to consider the new IIT school.

Perspectives has reached out to Stateway Community Partners, an organization that helps families who have moved back into renovated public housing at the Park Boulevard complex across from the new charter, to begin recruiting students.

At the University of Chicago charter schools, just one campus, North Kenwood/Oakland, is without an attendance zone. At the other campuses, the aldermen and community activists demanded boundaries.

Recruiting may become more important for North Kenwood/Oakland, since the mix of students at the charter needs to mirror that of the regular schools that are part of its professional development network.

Gentrification may eventually make that mission harder to fulfill. “[Expensive] condos are going up and, unfortunately, they will weed out some people. That’s an issue on the horizon, but right now, most of the school is African American and low-income,” says Michael Lee Yow, the charter’s new director of family and community engagement.

Yow notes that North Kenwood prides itself on the ability to teach children from a wide range of backgrounds, from homeless students to kids from two-parent homes to children who live with their grandmother because their parents are unable to take care of them. But the charter’s goal is to serve children in the community and ensure that families understand the application process.

Yow agrees that the University of Chicago name is a draw for middle-class, stable families from elsewhere. But, he adds, “all we can do is make sure we get applications in the hands of those who need it most.”

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