Penn Elementary versus KIPP... Public School Fights Back Against Charter Invasion

The invasion of charter schools began more than a dozen years ago in Chicago. Today there are over 100 Chicago charter schools and "campuses" (a technicality that has allowed Chicago charter schools to evade a legal cap on the number in Chicago) in the city. Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises 60 more in the next five years, and has singled out one charter school network claiming it has always surpassed the city's real public schools (when in fact, it has simply been dumping its low scoring or problem students). In its proposed budget for the 2012 - 2013 school year, Emanuel's school board is proposing to spend an additiional $76 million next school year on charter expansion, raising the total price tag Chicago is spending annually on its charter schools to nearly $500 million.

The front entrance to Penn Elementary School on Chicago's West Side was symbolic of both the schools pride and the neglect the school had suffered from CPS when the above photograph was taken by Substance in May 2008 as CPS, under Arne Duncan, announced that KIPP was going to "share" space inside Penn. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Charter schools have been the darlings of corporate education reform as they replace regular neighborhood schools with the promise of innovation and better test scores. Thanks to Bill Gates and other members of what critic Diane Ravitch calls "the billionaire boys' club" (Gates, Broad, and the Waltons all promote charters), the city increased money for charter schools even though they overall perform no better than the public schools they replace and have failed to provide the supposed "innovations" they were originally supposed to offer.

The onslaught of charter schools like UNO and Chicago International Charter Schools seems to be going full speed despite upsetting communities where neighborhood schools are being closed, consolidated or phased out.

However, Penn Elementary School on the Westside decided to fight back, in a powerful and intelligent way that could inspire other public schools threatened with closure.

Four years ago the Penn school community showed up in full force to a Chicago Board of Education meeting to protest its decision to allow KIPP Charter School to move into its building and take over the third floor. Penn’s local school council, teachers and the principal attended many board meetings to protest KIPPs expansion into Penn.

One day the Penn teachers noticed KIPP was throwing out a lot of school lunches, while demanding more rooms in the Penn School to feed its so-called growing enrollment, said Cielo Munoz, a Penn special education teacher and union delegate.

“We knew they were not giving a correct account of how many students they had,” Munoz said. “They would never tell us how many students they had, but they were throwing a lot of lunches out.”

Planning to improve Penn, demand the repairs the building needed, and thwart KIPP's plans to take over the building began early. Above, union delegate Cielo Munoz meets with (left to right( Kenzo Shibata, Kristine Mayle, and Jackson Potter of CORE on May 20, 2008 about the attack on Penn orchestrated by Arne Duncan and the KIPP charter school. In alliance with community and parent leaders, Penn teachers and students organized to demand that the school be repaired while KIPP continually tried to take over the entire building. Over four years, the Penn people began to prevail, but only after a lengthy struggle. Two years after the above photo was taken, CORE was elected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union, giving the Penn family a boost. Today, in 2012, Kenzo Shibata is editing the Chicago Union Teacher, Kristine Mayle is Financial Secretary of the CTU, and Jackson Potter is coordinator of members services at the union. Ciolo Munoz, still a Penn teacher, is also a delegate to the American Federation of Teachers and Illinois Federation of Teachers representing Chicago, Local 1 of the AFT. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.So Munoz and her principal again went to the Board to complain. One of the so-called marketing claims for the charter schools is that there are hundreds of students on waiting lists to enroll. However, this is mostly not true. Many charter schools are under-enrolled, like public schools, and resort to elaborate marketing campaigns to attract students, from offering free lap top computers to going door to door to recruit new students.

When Penn noticed that KIPP was not taking special education students, they also went to the Board to complain.

“Every time we complained, KIPP would correct it,” Munoz said. “When we complained about them not taking the special ed students, they then advertised for a special ed teacher.”

Why were the Penn teachers determined to fight KIPP? They likened the charter school to a cancer that was continually growing, with the intent to eventually take over the whole building.

“They would ask for four rooms, then after that they would ask for another four rooms,” Munoz said. “Every time they asked for it, they got it.”

One of the complaints regular public schools have about charter schools is the unfair better treatment they receive. While KIPP told the Board they could not house their students in the basement because of unsafe conditions, Penn elementary kids were put there instead because they had no more room upstairs, Munoz said.

“We told (the Board) we have no more room, they took our teacher’s lounge, and we ended up in the janitor’s closet,” Munoz said. “Even though we have 200 special education kids at Penn, they took our case manager room where the IEPs (Individual Education Plan) are done.”

Then Penn got political. In addition to protesting at many Board meetings, they went to the alderman’s office. They helped campaign to get Michael Chandler elected in the 24th ward, and Chandler in return agreed to help Penn.

The former alderman Sharon Dixon told the Penn community it was their fault that the charter school was there, Munoz said. Despite Dixon upsetting Chandler on a reform platform, Dixon upset many in her community, such as supporting the corporate charter school agenda in Lawndale where Penn is surrounded by many charter schools or campuses (a legal maneuver to get around the city’s charter school cap).

“We helped get Chandler elected by passing out information,” Munoz said. “And we kept going to board meetings to complain and we got back our first and second floors.”

KIPP eventually waved the white flag and agreed to move its four kindergarten classes and first and second grades to Lathrop Elementary School a little further east for the next school year. Lathrop closed due to low enrollment three years prior.

Another form of discrimination was busing. While KIPP bused in many of its primary students, Penn had a hard time getting busing for its students, Munoz said.

“We had a lot of students who wanted to come,” Munoz said. “They would move the kids to other schools, and then the parents would move them right back. They liked Penn and they liked the teachers.”

Perhaps even more dubious, was the fact that while KIPP was demanding more rooms while at Penn, they had rooms that were empty on the third floor that they were originally given, according to Munoz.

“So the question was, why were they asking for more rooms,” Munoz said.

The obvious answer to that is the Chicago Public Schools plan to privatize as much as possible – close the public schools and open the charter schools, despite there being any need for one in the first place.

Which meant that in addition to the fight against KIPP, the Penn community had to fight to increase enrollment, which has dwindled over the years due to the proliferation of charter schools on the Westside.

Penn implemented a plan that netted almost 100 more students to increase its enrollment to over 400 students, Munoz. How did they do this? Promotion, just like a charter school.

Munoz said they first made a website. They passed out flyers and the principal worked with the parents. They promoted their after school programs and Penn’s test scores went up. They went to the day care centers and flyered the community. They had after school care. And they would teach art, culinary or sports classes for the community.

They also built a relationship with key community groups like the Reverand Robin Hood, a powerful activist minister on the Westside who once sat on the Ren 2010 commission with the Chicago Teachers Union as part of the CUE coalition.

Hood worked with the teachers union to stop the privatization of public schools and worked with Ald. Chandler who sponsored in 2006 the “Chandler Resolution” to put a moratorium on school closings and charter takeovers. However, the alderman fled the scene when it came time for him to put his resolution forward in the education committee of the City Council, despite the fact that 40 aldermen at the time signed on in support of the resolution.

Today, Chandler and Hood are once again on the same side working to keep Penn Elementary school safe. 


July 26, 2012 at 11:29 PM

By: John kugler

More stories needed

Good coverage Jim. What most people, even many teachers, do not understand is that Chicago charter schools are in the business of business rather than public education. Just imagine what was reported was only half the illicit activity this charter operator is engaged in. We need more stories about these charters schools and how they rip off students and taxpayers.

July 27, 2012 at 11:44 AM

By: Kimberly Bowsky

Penn Elementary v. KIPP

This article bespeaks the need to constantly organize and fight for all children. KIPP can't fight for all children, because its premise is elitist. Beefing up its figures and pushing children out of rooms they need in order to learn? KIPP and other corporate schools don't care about all children if they throw out lunches they order just to get more public funding; if they move a majority of public-school students out of their space so they can install a very few semi-private school students.

Kudos to Ms. Munoz and the Penn community.

KIPP for our children is like the kudzu growing in the Carolinas. The trees in the forest are all struggling for light and ground. The vines are taking up ground, grabbing onto the trees, climbing their length,spreading, and ultimately, suffocating them. Corporations should not control public education.

July 27, 2012 at 2:22 PM

By: Rod Estvan

Penn story and the bigger picture

I think that there is an important subtext to Jim Vail's story on Penn Elementary School. There are a number of elementary schools similar to Penn in Chicago with extremely high percentages of students with IEPs, that are formally listed as non-special education schools. In 2011, Penn school had a special education enrollment formally of 29.8%, but based on the number of disabled students Jim cited in his article (200) that percentage may in fact be higher (probably because of the large early childhood special ed program at Penn).

There is no question that the crowding out effect that Jim's article mentions in relation to KIPP Charter School's move into the building and its take over of the third floor of the building is bad. It is simply wrong and doesn't help the significantly disabled students who are sent to Penn by CPS.

But Penn School is not alone in the situation it finds itself in. I had some of my very earliest special education cases against CPS for children attending Penn with what was back then called "mental retardation," now we correctly no longer use that crude term and identify these students formally as cognitively disabled or impaired. Penn was very early on a location for the placement of students with cognitive disabilities and it remains so today with around 20 staff working with these types of students. The reason Penn was originally selected as a site for these programs was because there was space in the building.

Most of the cognitively disabled students and early childhood special education students attending Penn are not intake area students, they are placed there by the district. Ultimately that is how I came to have special ed cases involving the school because there were parents who objected to the placements and asked for representation. I have not had a case involving Penn for many years, but to be honest because of my past cases I have steered families away from placements at Penn over the years.

One of the issues facing Penn School is the fact that its specialization has been in cognitive disabilities and there has been a decline in the identification rate for that disabling condition and an increase in the rate of identification of students as being on the autism spectrum. As far as I can tell based on formal programs in the current CPS budget Penn does not have a formal autism program. But there are other CPS elementary schools that have housed programs for more severely disabled students and they too have been impacted by both school closures and conversions because CPS has put these programs in schools that historically had physical space in them. This is a district wide issue and to be honest also a charter school issue.

I am sure some readers of Substance will not like what I am going to say next, but the truth is what it is. Both I and other advocates for students with disabilities have been pressuring charter schools in general to open programs for students with more significant disabilities and in general we have supported CPS giving more money to charters to pay for certified special education teachers. Up to now we have not gotten far on the issue of getting charters to open programs for more severely disabled students. These issues were discussed at a conference last year sponsored by Loyola's Childlaw and Education Institute where I was on a panel.

The reality is every year advocates are getting more calls from families that have students with more severe disabilities that are seeking admission to charter schools and find even when accepted that the schools do not have the capacity to serve their children. The disability advocacy and legal services community is largely netural on the issue of private services vs. public services for students with IEPs.

The entitlement to services at the expense of the school district is legally the same under the law in either situation unless the parent has unilateraly enrolled their child in a private school. Normally, these public vs private school placement issues are for the most disabled students, privately run charter schools are treated as though they are traditional schools for legal purposes.

Jim's article just touches on the tip of the iceberg relating to the complex issue of what I call the "corralling" of more disabled students into ever fewer schools because of CPS's refusal to force charters and contract schools to create programs for these students. According to data I have received from CPS sources next year CPS schools will have around 51,350 students with IEPs and in charter schools there would likely be about 5,350 students with IEPs. But traditional schools are serving the more complex and more expensive students with disabilities with charters only occasionally enrolling a few such students.

I am glad Jim wrote this article about Penn, because there is a very big problem out there and with the coversion and closure actions CPS has been taking it is getting worse.

Rod Estvan

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