Interview with Delores Angeles... Another family hurt by the Aspira charter schools

Interview with Delores Angeles, parent of a student who attended Mirta Ramirez Aspira Charter School during the 2006-2007 school year. January 2, 2008.

Substance spoke with Delores Angeles, a parent whose daughter Angelica attended the Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School in Chicago last year. Because of the school’s problems, her daughter has since transferred out of the high school and is now attending a Catholic school. It is interesting to note for Substance readers that a similar interview was published last year about the Aspira Haugan Charter School. In that interview, parents and students at the Haugan Middle School said there were serious security and organizational problems as well as deceptive advertising. In the meantime, Aspira is seeking to expand its network of charter schools.

Substance: Why did you choose the Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School?

Delores Angeles: I have three children — ages 22, 18 and 17. My first two children attended the Noble Charter High School. But my 17-year-old daughter wanted to work with computers. That was her interest. I had a good experience at Noble, so we didn’t think it wouldn’t be a positive experience. In my mind charter schools were good, but then we went to the Aspira Charter school, and it was totally different. Also, my daughter had a year-to-year scholarship at a private school, so we had to transfer to a public school. It’s not easy to transfer in as a junior in a CPS high school. They said to just go to your neighborhood school, but I was not about to send her to Wells. If you know the right person, you can get your kid into one of the top high schools. But at the high schools we applied to, they kept telling us ‘we don’t take transfers.’ It was very frustrating to know my kid couldn’t go to a good public school because I didn’t know the right people.

Substance: Why didn’t you just send your daughter to the Noble Charter High School?

Angeles: I did contact Noble, and my daughter being a sibling of former students who graduated was a plus, but again they have the luxury of saying we have hundreds of kids on the waiting list and we don’t take transfers. They knew our entire family, but they said she’s a junior. I asked for a recommendation and they said to contact Aspira and mention their name. And that helped us get in the door.

Substance: Did you know anything about Aspira charter schools?

Angeles: I went on the Internet and searched for charter high schools in the Chicago Public Schools and they described the different charter schools. And there was a parent of a friend whose child attends (Mirta Ramirez). She kind of said they didn’t get back to the parents when they had questions. But I didn’t think much of it because I was thinking that it was her experience and that’s not going to be mine. So I called them up and asked if I could speak to the principal. But I couldn’t get an appointment because enrollment was late. I was calling and calling, and then I decided to just show up. My daughter had good grades and good test scores so it was not a problem to enroll her in the school.

Substance: What happened in the beginning?

Angeles: Teachers quit. First the math teacher quit in September and my daughter said at least she’s leaving, and then the very next week the English teacher quit. This was the first sign that this was not good. There was no explanation. She lost two teachers in the beginning of the year and after winter break they lost another teacher. We didn’t get much information. No newsletters or anything. I said, “O.K., they don’t have their act together yet.” Like at Noble, it was rough in the beginning, but they just needed some time.

Substance: Any other problems?

Angeles: They didn’t have any textbooks. Or if they did get the textbooks, they couldn’t take them home. How can you study with no books? My daughter wasn’t used to this. So I asked the teachers for extra work, but (my daughter) felt the environment made her feel a little uncomfortable to appear like she’s a nerd or too smart. I emailed teachers for extra work to prepare her for college. The teachers were very helpful and very accessible. She did the extra work on her own. The teachers said she was more advanced than the other kids — so she got extra help outside the classroom. At Noble, they test the kids first and then put the kids in classes at their level. At Aspira, this was not happening.

Substance: Did you speak to the administration about this?

Angeles: I went to talk to the principal and said that my daughter was not being challenged and what could be done. I said I could help out too. She basically said the Aspira model of education didn’t allow that. This was the first time I heard that. What do you do with the kids who need extra help? I kept thinking how could she say that. Then I realized there was nothing she could do about it. I felt very frustrated. I talked to the teachers a lot, at open houses. There were mostly young teachers. They had a lot of ideas and energy that seemed to motivate the kids a lot.

Substance: How was the overall environment in the school? Was security an issue?

Angeles: That was the first thing I asked. Was the school safe? That was my number one priority - is it safe. The classroom teachers were pretty much in control of their classes. There was no real fighting or gang activity or stuff like that. Sure the kids were rowdy at times, but nothing out of the ordinary. Aspira - everybody associated it with the alternative high school. When people asked what school she was attending, my daughter wouldn’t ever say it was Aspira. That’s really sad. My daughter would have to be defensive, saying no, it’s not the alternative high school.

Substance: How did your daughter feel about the school?

Angeles: I would ask my daughter frequently what’s happening at the school and she would say nothing. But she is quiet. I would talk to the parent constantly who has a daughter there. She told me her daughter said it was fine. I was emailing teachers and gathering extra help. I wasn’t worried the first half of the year. When the (third teacher) quit after the winter break, my daughter said that was ok because this teacher had no control. But how come there was no letter explaining what had happened? We were in the dark and we had no direct telephone number to the school. If we called, we would be calling Aspira (the management entity) and have to listen to a long message before we could get the school. The principal was just showing up. She had good intentions, but her hands were tied. I was thinking why wasn’t she doing anything?

Substance: And then you say there was a meeting?

Angeles: It took a lot of effort to get a meeting with Aspira. The parents finally created a PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) and requested a meeting. In April there was a meeting of parents and students about the problems of the building. The building was supposed to be temporary. But here we were in year four and we still didn’t know what’s going to happen to the school. It was very crowded. People were very frustrated. Students and parents were frustrated because we were not getting responses from Aspira. The students and parents were upset. They said, ‘You told us we would be in a different building.’ They actually showed pictures of the newly built ($18 million) Haugan Middle School to the kids who came in as freshmen and were shown a video - one of the things that convinced us to come and then we realized this was not what we were promised. They did not have a good cafeteria, the food was awful, the place was cramped. The first time I went in I couldn’t believe it was a school building. It looks like a warehouse. But when I met the kids, they were very enthusiastic. My daughter said, ‘But the kids are great and the teachers are good’ - that’s why my daughter said to stick it out ... We started hearing there were fire code violations and (Aspira CEO) Jose Rodriguez said they were in the process of looking at other schools. He was saying it’s not our fault that the people didn’t want us. We need your support. We were told the schools they were looking to move to were not being fully utilized. They were looking for a location relatively in the area so the students did not have to travel far away.

Substance: What happened next?

Angeles: The parents were requesting that Aspira correct all fire code violations so that the students could remain at the location even though it was cramped rather than not knowing if the school would reopen. But we heard nothing. Later the students sent a letter to Mr. Rodriguez asking for another meeting. I said you can’t just complain and not do anything about it. I think that’s what my daughter learned more than anything - you have to fight for a good education. So the students had hand written the letter and hand delivered it to Rodriguez and each board member, and also emailed it. They even videotaped handing the letter to the secretary to make sure it was received. But they never got a response for a date and time to meet. They sent a second letter and again no response. The students then decided to go see Rodriguez at Aspira’s main office on Milwaukee. Parents went with their kids. When they showed up, they said there was no one to meet you. The students and parents said we’re not leaving. Then people at the office started making phone calls and said someone will come to talk to you and they took everyone to the basement so no one would know they were there. Someone said to call Channel 66 and I emailed them. After they said there was no one available to meet them, then within an hour Mr. Rodriguez, (Chairman of the Aspira Board of Directors), Sonia Sanchez, and (Aspira Chief Instructional Officer) Mary Ravid showed up. They wanted to know why the parents are here. So we said we want to know what’s going to happen to our school. The seniors spoke up and said we are supposed to take ownership of our education.

Substance: So the building would no longer be available after the school year ended?

Angeles: Exactly. This building had numerous fire code violations. It was only supposed to be temporary, but they’d been in it for four years. We didn’t know the building was going to be shut down. When I look back on it, we looked like fools. We were told they were looking for a place. There was Carpenter School, but the community said they didn’t want Aspira in their neighborhood. (Aspira management) said at the meeting that every time we go to a neighborhood, they don’t want older kids in their elementary school. The communities don’t want us. Why don’t you help us?

Substance: So Aspira was trying all along to find another Chicago public school where it could share space with the Mirta Ramirez Charter High School? Angeles: Yes. Later they had a meeting at Moos school (currently Mirta Ramirez is located in the Moos Public School building). The Moos parents didn’t want the high school kids there. Some Aspira parents went to hear first hand and we heard they didn’t want us. We don’t want high school kids, they said, and I wasn’t surprised. I wouldn’t want high school kids mixing with little kids either. You have gangs in the neighborhood start hanging around the younger kids, recruiting kids and the little kids get stuck in the middle. I thought, they don’t want us here — why is Mirta Ramirez forcing us down their throats? My daughter said I don’t want to go to a school where they don’t want us. Moos is in Humboldt Park. Aspira is trying to take over a school. Moos has a declining enrollment and the parents are afraid it’s the beginning of a takeover. I couldn’t believe the blatant lies — Aspira promising that they would have a lot of security guards and cameras all over the school. They promised workshops for parents and computer classes for parents. Hearing all these promises was unbelievable because they never did any of that for us. I thought it was incredible the amount of things they were promising the Moos parents just to win them over. The parents were very upset and went out furious.

Substance: What else did Aspira do to convince Moos to share their school?

Angeles: Aspira had invited the parents to say something positive about Mirta Ramirez. It was funny. Some of the parents who spoke on behalf of Aspira didn’t know what the meeting was about. But I never heard about this meeting. Also, when we formed the PTO, there was a parent who had a son at Mirta Ramirez and a daughter at the Aspira Haugan middle school. She was an active member of the PTO. But then she suddenly stopped — she stopped answering emails, phone calls, everything. She finally called us back at the end of the year and said she didn’t feel comfortable any more. I get the impression they put the squeeze on her. The PTO went from ten members to eight to six and we didn’t know why. Maybe they were given special favors or they owed them something.

Substance: Did you notify anybody else about the Mirta Ramirez problems?

Angeles: I called the New Schools department at the Chicago Public Schools all the time. I also contacted the Alderman Manny Flores. I spoke to him and I could see it in his face that he did not like what he was hearing. He asked, “Is your daughter doing well?” And I said, “Have you been in the building? We need our alderman to step up to the plate to get a decent building.” The alderman then started telling me his parents came here as immigrants and were afraid to voice their opinions. But I said I can complain because I know I won’t be deported. I also have immigrant parents, so he couldn’t pull that stuff on me. He then asked me, “What is it that you want?” I said I want a good education for my kid. I said you should contact Aspira and tell them to get their act together.

Substance: It’s interesting hearing this, because parents we interviewed last year about problems at the Aspira Haugan Middle School in Albany Park had the same complaints about broken promises and lies. How do they get away with this?

Angeles: They prey upon the parents who are maybe not the best parents but who don’t want to send their kids to the neighborhood school where they could get shot. They especially prey upon the immigrants, those who are afraid to speak out because of their situation. They show them a glossy brochure and they believe it. It’s your only hope and so you’ll believe it. I think that’s the biggest problem for us Hispanic parents is that we hear what our educators say and we believe them. In Chicago I learned if you’re not aggressive as a parent, your kid will not get a good education.

Substance: Where is your daughter now?

Angeles: She is now at a Catholic school. We had to beg to get her in. After I faxed her grades and test scores, they accepted her. My daughter was desperate — she said, “I’ll go anywhere.” She said, “Mom, I just can’t go back to (Mirta Ramirez) with all the chaos.” Nobody knew they even had a school to go to up to the beginning of the current school year. School started August 20 and the Board of Education approved the new school site (Moos Elementary School) August 22. My daughter said she’s never been so happy to know she’s going to a school. 

This article originally appeared in the print edition of Substance for January 2008.


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