Church symbols abound at 'public' Chicago charter schools... Charter school pushes 'security' guards to all-time-high elementary school ratios

When I decided to photograph the new “Chicago International Charter School [CICS] — Irving Park Campus” on November 1, I had no idea that the reporting job would result in what almost became a police incident — and at least two major stories. My main purpose was to see whether the newest CICS “campus” was surrounding itself with the religious symbols of its buildings’ former landlord, as it had on almost all of its other campuses. The recent debate in Illinois over whether the “moment of silence” in public schools seemed to provide the basis for an interesting story.

For the past several years, I’ve been photographing Chicago public schools — both regular schools and the fast growing number of “public” charter schools.

Charter schools, by law, are public schools, funded by taxpayers. Last year [February 2007], Substance reported on the expansion of the CICS schools, with photographs of those that were in operation at the time from Peterson and Pulaski to 115th and Prairie. The controversial “campus” claims have enabled CICS and other Chicago charter schools to violate the state cap on the number of charters in Chicago. CICS, for example, was operating nine schools by February 2007, but according to the CICS fiction, it was only one school with nine “campuses.” All of the CICS “campuses” at that time were housed in what had been Catholic schools until they were converted into “public charter schools.” All of them also retained the religious symbols, from massive statues to crosses and crucifixes, that were there when they had been parochial schools. CPS had obviously made no effort to enforce and separate of church and state in those schools.

CICS has continued to expand. Last school year, over objections from the community, the Chicago Board of Education voted to award another campus (or two) to CICS. The CICS “Irving Park Campus” (originally called “the “Avondale Campus” in the Board Report) was proposed to be established in the closed Immaculate Heart of Mary Elementary School at Byron and Spaulding on the city’s Northwest Side.

I was on my way to photographs closed schools on November 1 when I decided to update out photo files on CICS and get a picture of the CICS “Irving Park Campus” at Byron and Spaulding. What I found when I got there was more interesting than what I expected.

As I always do, I parked my car near the school and went to the main intersection to begin photographing. Within a minute after I began photographing the CICS signs on the corner of the building — and the prominent “Immaculate Heart of Mary” Blessed Virgin statue still in front of the building — a man in civilian clothes came up. He identified himself as CICS security and showed a badge of some kind. He said that I was not allowed to photograph the building. I was wearing press credentials and identified myself as a reporter. I told him that, indeed, I was allowed to photograph public buildings and public schools. He said that was not true and became angry and threatening, trying to block my photographs. He said, “But this is a charter school,” as if that were different from a public school.

When I kept photographing the CICS Irving Park building, with an especial eye towards getting photographs of religious symbols that were still all over the building, a second security guard came out. He also tried to block my photographs, both of the building and of himself. He was followed by a third person wearing the same badge, issued by some private security firm.

In each case, I told them I was press, and covering a story. I reminded them that they had no authority to tell me to get off a public street (I was generally standing in the middle of Spaulding), let alone to block photographs of a public building from a public street in the middle of the day.

By the time the CICS “security” team had deployed to stop my photographs, there were three security guards on Spaulding. The lead one, who identified himself only as “Roy”, said he had to call the “Dean.”

Within a couple of minutes, a young man who identified himself as “Ron” came out. Ron said they didn’t want me taking photographs, I explained how he did not have that right, and he said that I would have to discuss the issue with a “Ms. Torres,” who, he said, was “principal” of the school. They invited me into the main office, which I gladly accepted (taking photographs inside the building as I went with them).

Instead of “Ms. Torres,” I quickly was introduced to another man, who introduced himself as “Emmanuel” and said he was the on-site coordinator for “Victory Schools” which, he said, is the “EMO for CICS Irving Park.”

An “EMO” is an “Education Maintenance Organization”. EMOs are modeled on the concept of an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). Their explicit goal is to turn public schools into the kind of entities that have arisen in health care over the past 25 years. In Chicago, most EMOs are receiving more than 10 percent on the costs of each charter school. Most charter schools have EMOs. Chicago International uses several EMOs, including American Quality Schools, Victory, and Edison Schools, Inc.

Most Chicago charter schools are operated under complex contracting and sub-contracting procedures starting with the charter holder and then extending to the EMO and often (as it appears to be at CICS Irving Park) sub-contractors for other services as well. None of the financial arrangements made out of the charters are disclosed to the public in the CPS annual budget. Instead, the charters are all lumped under “contractual and other services.” EMO contracts for the charter schools, which now total in the tens of millions of dollars, do not require Board Reports and are effectively kept secret from the general public.

CICS Irving Park acknowledged that “Victory Schools” was the “EMO contractor.” The CICS Irving Park security work is subcontracted to a security firm. That firm was apparently was the employer of the three security guards who had tried to stop me from photographing CICS Irving Park’s Virgin Mary and other external views.

I asked “Emmanuel” to call me so that I could come to the school and get answers to all of my growing list of questions, and he promised to do so. That was on November 1.

After I left CICS Irving Park campus, it struck me that I was not certain whether I had talked at any point with a person who was actually working for CICS. I knew that I had talked with Emmanuel Caulk, who said he worked for “Victory Schools.” And I had spoken with three security people, who said they worked for a private contractor, but would not say who that contractor was.

In addition to the financial and contract angles, I wanted to know more about the security angle. I called the Chicago Board of Education’s Communications Department with one question: How many students were officially registered at CICS Irving Park this school year. (CPS pays charter schools based on an allotment per pupil).

According to CPS spokesman Malone Edwards, this school year CICS Irving Park has 203 students.

I’m still waiting to find out whether it is legal or constitutional for CICS to leave all of those religious statues in and around all of its “public” schools.

Last year, Substance reported that CICS seemed to be ready to take over (at public expense) any Catholic school that goes out of business. At all of the sites we had observed so far, they left all of the Catholic icons at the building, making it very difficult for the public to realize that they are now looking at a public school.

On October 24, 2007, Arne Duncan, CEO of CPS, told the Board of Education that a large number of students attending CPS charter schools are “new to CPS.” Duncan said that 1,700 students, not including kindergartners were “new to CPS.”

What has not been made clear is whether those charter schools that are subsidized by CPS to renovate and occupy former Catholic schools (leaving up all of the religious iconography in the process) are marketing themselves are semi-parochial schools to some of their clients. For more than a year, Substance has been photographing Chicago’s supposedly “public” charter schools, and it has been clear, as we reported visually in February 2007) that at least nine of those schools still look like the Catholic schools they were. This September, CICS “Irving Park” can be added to that list.

The new CICS “Irving Park” charter school has another distinction. It also has the largest ratio of security guards to students of any elementary school in the city. As of Substance press time, Emmanuel Caulk, the EMO coordinator at CICS Irving Park, had not contacted Substance for the interview. 


August 22, 2009 at 1:41 PM

By: Concerned parent


CICS Irving Park is a very good school and personally I would not have like to have come to pick up my child and see someone looking around and taking pictures. I would have assumed that they would want to take pictures of my child or do harm. I wouldnt care if they were in a uniform or in scrubs. Its out of respect for parents to be informed when photos are going to be taken out school. I would not want my child's picture to have been taking and used for any type of reporting. The reporter was just wrong and the security guards did there job.

August 22, 2009 at 4:19 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

Editor, reporter

Wrong. I was wearing a press ID issued by the Chicago Police Department. You are seriously wrong, and you can defend CICS, but you can't defend private security guards who are interfering with a reporter taking photographs of a public building that is displaying a statue of the BVM in front. That's a public school, not a Catholic school, and the statue should have been gone. First Amendment and all that (which also applies to press freedom).

August 24, 2009 at 7:21 PM

By: Dan Priest


After reading the "concerned parent" letter, I now know what has been the problem with Chicago schools. These people actually vote, pay taxes and chew gum .Never mind the subject, just do not change the status quo

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