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Rebecca LaFlure/MEDILL

Community members talk about the need for more quality school options in Chicago Public Schools.

Parents call for more school options as CPS mulls neighborhood campus closings

by Rebecca LaFlure
Nov 14, 2012

As Chicago Public Schools officials consider closing up to 100 schools, a group of parents and community leaders called on the district to offer more alternative educational options like charter campuses.

About 50 parents, students and community leaders from the Austin, Lawndale, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Roseland neighborhoods huddled outside the CPS administration building Tuesday evening, bringing attention to failing Chicago schools and asking district officials to replicate the successful ones.

Demonstrators shined flashlights on photos of children they care about and toted signs with phrases like, “Closing schools is not the answer; opening quality schools is the answer,” and “Let our students’ light shine.”

The demonstration was part of the 123 campaign, which is organizing daily events for 123 days to draw attention to the 123,000 students in under-performing CPS schools. Tuesday night’s action marked day number 51.

The campaign is led by New Schools for Chicago — previously called the Renaissance Schools Fund — that has raised millions of dollars to help open charter schools in Chicago. Under the Renaissance name, it helped open 70 new schools, mostly public charters, and 13 charter school networks. In April 2011, it changed its name to New Schools for Chicago and announced a $60 million investment to open 50 more charter schools.

“There’s a lot of conversation going on about what we need to do to fix our schools,” said Chris Butler, director of operations for New Schools for Chicago. “We’ve got great schools in the city, lots of great charter schools, great turnaround schools, great traditional schools. We just need more of those schools.”

Charter schools, which are privately run but receive some public funding, have been a huge topic of debate both in Chicago and nationally.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a study Wednesday showing that Chicago Public Schools saw an 8 percent increase in charter enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, with 44,870 Chicago students attending charters.

Advocates say charters offer an alternative to parents in low-income areas and allow greater flexibility in how the schools are run. Butler pointed to the Noble Network of Charter Schools and Urban Prep Academies as two examples of public charter schools that have seen great success in challenging areas of Chicago. CPS should replicate those successes, he said.

But nationally, academic performance at charter schools is mixed. And many Chicago Teachers Union members and community activists say charter campuses take resources away from traditional public schools, and CPS should focus on improving the schools that already exist.

The conversation has gotten particularly heated in recent months since reports surfaced that CPS officials were considering closing low-performing and under-enrolled schools in an effort to consolidate resources. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced the district would seek to extend its Dec. 1 deadline to release school closure plans. The deadline extension requires approval from the Illinois legislature.

Some union advocates have questioned why CPS still plans to open more charters as they mull possible school closings.

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said by email that CPS is committed to expanding quality school options, regardless of type or operator.

“We will continue to replicate successful models and expand access to high quality school options—whether neighborhood, charter, magnet, military, etc.—to ensure that every child in every community across the city has the opportunity to attend a school that prepares them for success in college and career,” she said.

Tearra Betts-Montgomery, a charter school parent who attended last night’s event, said she has seen a significant change in her son’s academic performance since he began attending an Urban Prep Academies charter school earlier this year. He’s on the Honor Roll, has perfect attendance and is planning a trip to Africa, she said. She has experienced better cooperation at the charter school among parents, teachers and administrators.

“He loves school. I don’t even have to wake him. He gets up early enough,” she said. “You can tell the difference.”