Victoria Woodley Credit: Photo by John Booz

At the Bessie Coleman Library in Woodlawn one Saturday morning in February, more than 50 parents and children showed up to hear about the University of Chicago’s new charter school and pick up applications.

Although the idea of a neighborhood attendance area was still undecided, Woodlawn parent Jacqueline Topps was delighted at the prospect.

“I like the fact that it’s a college prep and that neighborhood kids will be considered first,” says Topps, who has an 8th-grade daughter at Carnegie Elementary. “It’s nice to know there’s finally something in the Woodlawn area that’s aimed at our children.”

The school, which has not yet been named, will serve 160 students in grades 6 through 12 in its first year, and will be housed in Wadsworth Elementary. Woodlawn students now have only one neighborhood high school option, Hyde Park.

While charters by law are open to students across the city, lobbying by local leaders pushed Chicago Public Schools to award the new charter one of the 10 attendance boundaries the district is permitted to grant. The School Board is expected to approve the boundary in late March.

How the policy will work this year, however, is still up in the air. The attendance area has not been mapped out, and is not likely to be in place before the admissions lottery on March 23. Without specific street boundaries, the charter may have to operate under the law requiring citywide admissions, potentially shutting out some Woodlawn kids.

The school has also had to play catch-up in recruiting local students, although budding relationships with grassroots activists helped bring in some prospective students.

“The way I found out about the [school] was through Mrs. Fuller,” says Topps, referring to longtime activist Collean Fuller, who started an after-school program in the community. “If I had not found out through her, I may not have found out at all.”

Though Topps is now helping to spread the word, she’s not convinced enough parents know about the new charter.

Worse, she fears, some parents may simply assume the school will not welcome their children. She describes their attitude as: “Oh, well, it’s a charter. They’re going to look over Woodlawn and go to Hyde Park or other influential areas.”

Site hard to find

Influential neighborhoods close to the university were, in fact, eager to host the new charter. Last August, in a letter of support for the new school, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle pledged to help find a facility in her ward, which encompasses parts of Hyde Park and Grand Boulevard, plus North Kenwood, Oakland and Douglas.

But as early as June, Ald. Arenda Troutman, a Woodlawn resident, had encouraged university officials to look to her community. “She was a strong advocate,” says Henry Webber, the university’s vice president of community and government affairs.

Troutman says she introduced the idea of sharing Wadsworth to Principal Velma Cooksey in July. Cooksey was willing to enter negotiations. Wadsworth enrolls about 390 students, but is designed to hold about 2,000.

The university, meanwhile, had no luck locating a site in the Mid-South area, Webber says, and turned down as too expensive the ideas of building from scratch or retrofitting buildings that weren’t originally schools. The university still did not have a site firmly nailed down when it submitted its proposal in August, although negotiations with Wadsworth were ongoing.

Given the history of bad blood between the university and the neighborhood, charter officials knew they would have to be diplomatic about the plan. “Had we gone in as the big, bad university saying, ‘Hey, this looks like a nice site,’ that would have been suicide,” says Timothy Knowles, executive director of the university’s Center for Urban School Improvement and a member of the charter’s governing board.

Troutman says the partnership itself was not an issue, but the details of how to share space were challenging; for instance, how to share the school’s two aging science labs. (The schools want the district to renovate them.)

In the end, Wadsworth agreed to allow the charter to use most of the original 1926 building. “We look forward to the opportunity to form a partnership with the university,” says Cooksey. “We have plenty of space. The single most important thing is the children. With that in mind, it’s going to work.”

Knowles acknowledges the difficulty of space-sharing, and credits Troutman with brokering the deal. “She was there at the table for eight hours. She canceled appointments,” he says. “She really pushed to say, ‘Come on, this is bigger than which school gets which classroom.’ She did thoughtful pushing on both sides to find points of compromise.”

‘Accessible to our kids’

Meanwhile, members of the charter design team were meeting their Woodlawn neighbors-to-be. Members Linda Wing and Barbara Crock sat in on a variety of meetings, from community policing beat meetings to a monthly gathering of social service providers to strategy sessions for Woodlawn’s New Communities Program (one of 16 community development projects sponsored by the national nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation).

“I am of the opinion you can’t start a new school without generating demand from the parents. You have to gain some respect of key people,” says Wing, associate director of the Center for Urban School Improvement.

One key group they contacted quickly was the Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization, known as MAGIC, an organizing effort with university connections targeted at local youth.

The group’s executive director, Bryan Echols, says the charter’s outreach efforts have been pragmatic and sensitive to longstanding tensions. “They knew they had to get the endorsement of the community. You’re looking at a history that hasn’t been the greatest,” Echols says.

Long before the university and Wadsworth reached an agreement, activists were making it clear the university could best be a good neighbor by assuring local kids seats in the new school. “As long as it’s accessible for our students, we love it,” Echols said in January. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that happens.”

But it wasn’t until the 11th hour that the boundary question was settled. Knowles says that “in the days and hours” before the February public hearing on the space-sharing plan, university officials realized that community pressure was building to give preference to Woodlawn kids. The charter team agreed.

“The school is designed as a community school. The curriculum itself is firmly rooted in the community,” says Knowles. Students will work on projects centered on Woodlawn’s history.

At the Feb. 14 public hearing, neighborhood leaders did, indeed, make their push.

“It is our concern that the first choice in this school will be the children of Woodlawn,” stated Rev. Arthur Brazier of Apostolic Church of God. “We believe this new school will be a wonderful opportunity for the children of Woodlawn to receive an excellent education and go on to college.”

Catch-up recruiting

In January, Victoria Woodley, the charter’s new director of academic and social supports, was making recruiting calls to schools elsewhere on the South Side—but not in Woodlawn, since negotiations with Wadsworth were not yet final.

The charter team faced other obstacles, including anti-charter sentiment among staff at schools where they wanted to recruit and concern over creating tension with other schools that could potentially lose students.

Since the Wadsworth deal was finalized in February, the charter team has worked to make up for lost time by visiting schools that agreed to let them in to recruit 8th-graders and holding an additional informational meeting for parents at Wadsworth.

Mary Ann Pitcher, former co-principal of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, notes that recruiting is a concern for all charters. Young Women’s held community information sessions and Pitcher met personally with over 200 families, but, Pitcher says, “We still didn’t do as much as we could have.”

“It’s an important thing I’ve seen missing with all this Renaissance 2010 stuff. The community work is very cursory,” she observes. “We’re leaving the most important people out of the picture.”

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