CPS Trying to Force Charter School Despite Community’s Opposition... Battle Lines Drawn over Northwest Side Christopher House Charter School

The battle line is set in the Belmont-Cragin northwest "Network" between the mayor’s goal to force more charter schools into communities that do not want them and the communities and teachers who oppose the expansion of charters and the destruction of real public schools. Christopher House, a social service agency, proposed to open a charter school last year. But the community protested against it, saying what they wanted were social services, not another school in an area already filled with five neighborhood schools.

When the Board of Education resumed its attempt to force a Christopher House Charter School on the Northwest Side, the protests resumed immediately. Substance photo by Matt Luskin.The Board of Education agreed and decided to not grant the charter.

However, Christopher House came right back with the same proposal this year to build a K – 8 elementary charter school right next to Northwest Middle School.

“We were totally taken aback,” said Diana Ruiz, a non-teaching member of the Northwest Middle School Local School Council. “They never told us of their intention to bring a charter school here.” Ruiz said in 2007 there was a proposal to move Christopher House’s corporate offices to a vacant building that used to be Weber High School. In 1999, the Board of Education bought the school from the Catholic archdiocese, Ruiz said.

Entire families are protesting. Substance photo by Matt Luskin.“The Belmont-Cragin area was like a desert for social services, so we wanted to inject some life,” she said. Christopher House offered early childhood, emergency fund assistance and crisis intervention, she said.

“We said great, it’s something we’ve been waiting for, for years,” Ruiz said.

The community was then informed last year in August that Christopher House had applied for a charter school, “leaving us totally discombobulated,” Ruiz said.

It looked like the classic charter school switch — where the Board promises to help a community, but the solution turns out to make the problem even worse.

Ministers from the Austin community supported the destruction of Austin High School as a real public school and its changeover into a bunch of charters inside the building. The first clout-heavy politician to lay claim to the Austin building was Michael Bakalis, former Illinois Schools Superintendent, whose American Quality Schools put the "Entrepreneurship Academy" inside Austin in 2006. Above, at the November 16, 2005, meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, Bakalis presents his entrepreneurial proposal to the Board supported by Rev. Lewis Flowers (second from right) and Rev. David Livingston (far right, almost out of picture). Bakalis's school was a complete failure, and the security problems became worse while AQS complained about the quality of students it was receiving from the surrounding community's elementary schools. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The story is nothing new to the broader community, which includes the Northwest Side and the Far West Side's Austin neighborhood. Several years ago, in 2004, the Chicago Teachers Union helped form a report about the security problems at Austin High School. So the Board agreed, then closed Austin and opened a charter school, forcing most of the students to travel farther distances to school. This created even more problems — increased violence in the high schools that received many of the Austin students, for example. The Austin High School building was turned over to a couple of charter schools, one of which (operated by former Illinois Schools Superintendent Michael Bakalis) turned out to be a chaotic disaster, and the residents of the community were told they had to go all the way to Manley High School, three miles away, to attend a real public high school. A similar ploy ("security" concerns) was used to close Calumet High School on the South Side and give its renovated building to the Perspectives Charter Schools.

It appears the Board is ready to do it again. It makes no sense to the community that another charter school would set up shop in a neighborhood dotted with surrounding neighborhood schools. Real public schools in the community are: Northwest Middle School, Hanson Park, Schubert, Lloyd and Prosser High School — all in a 1.5 mile radius, Ruiz said.

Northwest Middle had to lay off five teachers due to a drop in enrollment, said Northwest Middle School delegate Michael Bildares. “The Office of New Schools said they will need 1,600 spaces for kids,” Bildares told Substance. “We just lost five teachers, and we had to cut our arts program.”

The Christopher House proposal would put the charter school at 540 students in K-8 once at capacity, which would be phased in over several years, opening with 120 students in K-1, according to CTU organizer Matt Luskin. CPS held a community forum on the charter proposal at Prosser High School October 12. The community was clearly against the proposal, according to those who attended.

Luskin said the Board did a terrible job of outreach to inform the community about the forum. There was no leafleting, the local school’s LSC’s were not informed, and the day of the meeting information about the forum was removed from the CPS website, Luskin said, leading people to think it was cancelled. Still, over 200 people showed up to voice their opposition, observers said.

Alderman Emma Mitts has not taken an official position on the charter school, her spokesperson Andre Smith told Substance.

Alderman Emma Mitts (37th Ward) has long been an opponent of unions and a supporter of charter schools and other forms of anti-union privatization. Above, on September 12, 2006, Mitts (far right) was one of a handful of aldermen who turned out on the far South Side to support the push by then Mayor Richard M. Daley for Wal-Mart in Chicago. One of the aldermen supporting Daley, Wal-Mart and charter schools at the time was Arenda Troutman (center, in hat) who has since been sent to prison for corruption. On the left above is alderman George Cardenas, also a charter school supporter. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.However, her comments at the forum made it clear she does not support public education. “Alderman Mitts gave the opening remarks at the meeting, throwing the public education teachers under the bus,” said one Northwest Middle school teacher present at the meeting, but preferring to stay anonymous. Mitts said children grow up not learning how to read, schools and textbooks are outdated and that’s why contract and charter schools are opening everywhere, Luskin said.

Her opening remarks were followed with loud boos from the crowd, the Northwest Middle School teacher said.

According to Luskin, while Mitts made it clear that she does not oppose charters schools, she did not support the Christopher House charter proposal last year due to the community uproar over Christopher House’s failure to communicate with the local schools, parents and even the alderman’s own office.

How politicians work both sides of the aisle is interesting to note. For example, alderman Latasha Thomas, who was endorsed by the CTU, preferred to wait until the community spoke about keeping Guggenheim School open last year, which she then astutely agreed and spoke forcefully against closing the school. Thomas was a big supporter of mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 Plan to close many public schools and open charter and "turnaround" schools. She said she now supports neighborhood schools.

The Northwest Middle School teacher said he was surprised to see Mitts bash the teachers because he remembered she came to the school in the beginning of the year for the ringing of the traditional bell and asked him and other teachers to pose in a picture. He said he did not know it was the alderman.

Christopher House used most of the two hour forum to present the charter school proposal, which includes tearing down the existing building and building a new one, Ruiz said.

But many questions were still not answered. For example, if there is a lot of asbestos in the building, tearing it down would affect Northwest Middle School next door, Ruiz said.

“Everything is kind of like cloak and dagger,” Ruiz said. “We never hear anything about this.” Ruiz said the next step should be a public hearing at the Board of Education headquarters before the Board of Ed trustees vote on the proposal. One Northwest Middle School teacher said he did see land surveyors outside taking measurements.

The Board has already agreed to lease the building to Christopher House for $1 a year for 99 years, Bildares said. The same deal has been offered to other charter schools, such as Aspira Charter Schools which have also met a lot of opposition from those in the community.

In fact, Christopher House looks like a mirror image of the situation at Haugan Middle School in the Albany Park neighborhood. Haugan Middle School was built to relieve the overcrowded elementary school, and it was assumed that the successful neighborhood school would move its teachers to the new public school up the street.

But then a dark cloud swooped in, backed by the local politicians against the wishes of the community, and wa la – it became the Aspira Haugan Charter School.

This time, however, it appears the same conclusion for this charter school is not guaranteed. The public schools are lined up to fight, mirroring their Occupy Chicago colleagues downtown who are still fighting for a home despite the new mayor’s determination to stop them. 


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