Many in Logan Square Community Against New Aspira Charter Proposal

In what appears to have been a done deal, the Chicago City Council zoning commission approved changes to allow Aspira to open another charter high school at the corner of Milwaukee and Central Park despite widespread opposition at a community hearing April 21, 2011, at St. Hyacinth Church. Nothing on the agendas of the Board of Education this year has mentioned any expansion of the Aspira charter schools, but local political leaders are talking as if the only thing left to do is to get the Board's approval.

The Aspira Mirta Ramirez charter high school was put inside Moos Elementary School (above, at 1711 N. California) in 2008 by Arne Duncan. The placement of the school at Moos was done by the Board of Education despite objections from the community. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. Many residents who opposed the plan to build the new high school with an estimated 600 students said 32 proposed parking spaces is not enough to offset the congestion in the area which will affect residential and commercial street parking.

“My tenants find it hard to park around here,” said Doug Smith, who owns an apartment building on Drake near the proposed high school. “(Alderman Rey Colon) says nothing during the election because he doesn’t care what we think.”

The proposed charter school has the blessing of Alderman Rey Colon.

Aspira told people at the community hearing that most of their students don’t drive.

While traffic congestion was on many people’s minds, concerns were also raised about building an estimated $20 - $30 million charter school that has been failing academically, according to the annual yearly progress tests that the Chicago Public Schools cite when closing public schools.

One concerned mother said according to the ISBE website, Aspira test scores decreased in math, science and reading: math (2006 – 32% to 2010 – 22% testing at grade level), science (2006 – 26% to 2010 14%) and reading (2006 – 36% to 2010 19%).

“Aspira has been on the academic watch list for two years,” she said. “It doesn’t make progress in reading and math. Now you want to build a $30 million school with those kinds of abysmal standards?”

Marybeth Welsh, Aspira’s curriculum director, said this is the case for every non-selective high school in the city. She added that in comparison to Clemente, Kelvyn Park and Schurze high schools, Aspira does a better job because the classes are smaller, the school will specialize in business and parents can have more oversight.

Alderman Colon told Substance that every development proposal in his ward generates parking concerns, but that he was not aware of the academic problems and would look further into it.

“I am very supportive of this project,” Colon told the community gathering.

One resident said there are a number of taverns in the area. Aspira said that no new bars can open, but that the present ones are grandfathered in, meaning they will stay.

Another resident noted that the new school with limited parking could affect the businesses because there will be less parking available for customers on Milwaukee.

Rolando Acosta, an attorney for Ginsberg Jacobs who represents Aspira, first made a power point presentation that included Aspira’s academic mission and blueprints of the new school. He confirmed at the meeting that Aspira has already bought the property.

Funding for the new school comes the state (about $20 million), and private debt where banks will lend money and receive tax credits in return, Acosta said. He added that while Tax Increment Financing monies have been used to build schools, Aspira has no present plans to dip into TIF monies for the project.

The Chicago Teachers Union and other community groups have criticized the mayor’s TIF slush fund which was conceived to spur development in blighted areas, but has cost the schools an estimated $400 million while developers and businesses like the Willis Towers have received millions.

One of the first questions at the meeting on Holy Thursday was whether or not the teaching force would be unionized. Aspira director Jose Rodriguez said "Yes." Observers found this interesting since this proposed charter school will be the first one to initially include a unionized staff, without mandating a vote and, in many cases, a bitter battle between management and staff.

Currently three of the Aspira Charter Schools "campuses" just voted in a union — Mirta Ramirez High School, Haugan Middle School and Early College High School.

Aspira hit the front pages of the city’s two dailies and network television in the fall of 2009 when it was slapped with a federal lawsuit for strip searching three female students at the Haugan middle school campus. Rodriguez said the case is still pending.

Several high-powered Hispanic business and political figures spoke up in favor of the controversial charter operator to open a fifth school at a time when the CPS projects a more than $700 million deficit. In addition to Ald. Colon, former alderman Wilma Colom, the president of the Hispanic Bankers Association and director of the Puerto Rican Arts Center told the community they support Aspira.

Another interesting concern about the proposed deal that will still have to be voted on by the Board of Education trustees is the facilities task force committee. The proposed committee bill states any facility changes that include building or remodeling existing schools are supposed to have prior community input. The committee will feature a panel of community members including parents and teachers who will weigh in whether or not a school should be built, remodeled, consolidated, phased out, closed or undergo turnaround, which mandates firing all the employees in the building because of so-called low test scores.

The facilities task force bill came out of the Soto bill which state rep. Cynthia Soto proposed to put a moratorium on all school closings because of the community outrage over what many believed were deals done with no community input. Mayor Daley and the Board of Education lobbied heavily against the bill and state rep. Michael Madigan stripped it of the moratorium provision.

But the current facilities task force bill which just passed the senate was co-sponsored by state senator Iris Martinez. Martinez was also the sponsor of the state bill which awarded Aspira $20 million two years ago. She is closely linked to the controversial charter operator. Her former chief of staff Sonia Sanchez is also chairwoman of the Aspira board of directors, and Aspira director Rodriguez served as her campaign treasurer in her last senate election.

“We need a holistic approach,” said the woman who did not identify herself at the meeting. “If Sen. Martinez was the sponsor (of the facilties task force bill) and is so supportive of Aspira, why not work with this group.”

Sanchez said that Aspira does not have time “to wait a decade” to work with the proposed community group because there is a process.

“If people were involved in the process, it might have gotten more support,” the community member replied.

One of those opposed to the addition of an Aspira high school "campus" at Milwaukee and Central Park is activist Larry Nazimek (above at the April 28 meeting). Substance photo by Jim Vail.Larry Nazimek, who identified himself as a concerned community activist (and who serves as the Republican deputy ward committeeman), said a city housing department official told the zoning commission that at least 49 parking spaces are needed, more than Aspira is providing.

He noted that Aspira said 30 parking spaces will be for faculty and only 2 for students. However, this doesn't include parking for janitors, building engineers, cooks, visitors and others, he said.

“It was fixed,” Nazimek told Substancenews. “It was not a real meeting with advance notice, and the zoning commission approval looked fixed as well.”


May 2, 2011 at 1:41 PM

By: Larry Nazimek

My printed comments concerning the proposed Aspira run charter high school

Just to set the record straight, I didn't say that 2 spots were reserved for students. What I said is that Aspira said they came up with 32 spots, because there are 34 teachers. They estimate that 1-2% of the students would drive.

They would also need spots for janitors, building engineer, principal and office staff, visiting maintenance technicians, delivery vehicles, security, food workers, visiting parents, visitors from Board of Education, and other visitors (such as politicians). There would probably have to be some handicapped spots, perhaps 2, but I am ignorant of the requirement.

There is the potential for traffic jams and accidents, since Central Park and Milwaukee Aves. are two lane streets (i. e., only one lane in each direction). Milwaukee Ave. is a diagonal street, and is also designated as State Route 21, so it gets plenty of traffic. Parents who drop off students will probably be stopping in traffic to let them out of their cars. At the same time, people will be driving to work, and they will try to drive around the stopped cars, while some of these stopped cars will be rejoining the traffic flow. This should prove interesting, to say the very least.

Many community members were angry about the date and notification of the meeting. The space had been reserved a few weeks in advance, but it was not announced until shortly before the date. Consequently, it was not announced at St. Hyacinth Basilica services the previous weekend.

Scheduling the meeting for Holy Thursday was a very bad idea. Many community members go to church services on Holy Thursday, while some others travel over the Easter break to visit relatives or take a short vacation.

We would like to see the matter deferred until such time as the community can study the matter and make its opinions known. In addition, there's more than just putting up a major project in a neighborhood. It's impact on the neighborhood should be considered.

The proposed location for this charter high school is very close to the St. Hyacinth Basilica school, so there are concerns about the safety of the children.

Lastly, I don't consider myself to be an "activist," although I am a very concerned long-time community resident

May 4, 2011 at 10:47 AM

By: Jean Schwab

Consolidated and charter schools

The movie Waiting for Superman would like us to believe that everyone wants a charter school and public schools are "bad." The BOE also wants us to believe that, but, every month large groups of parents and community people come to the meetings to support their public school. The board must be delusional to believe a movie and not real people.

June 6, 2011 at 2:00 PM

By: Thomas Tulley

Aspira Charter School

I was four years on the board of directors of the Alternative Schools Network, Inc. during the seventies. I believe the good done by alternative schools and charter schools is significant. But the proliferation of such schools is draining resources and human capital from the public schools, to the detriment of students, their families and the neighborhoods in which the public schools are located. Aspira is just one school too many in the Humbolt Park area.

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