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A parent talks about one family's experience at 'Aspira Haugan'... An inside look at the problems behind Chicago's most expensive charter school

[Editor’s Note: When the Chicago Board of Education flipped the new “Haugan” school at 3729 W. Leland to the politically connected and highly controversial Aspira organization, Substance began covering the story. The newest public school building in Chicago had suddenly been privatized, against the wishes of the majority of people in the community (although with the support of the community’s powerful alderman, Marge Laurino). Built at a cost of more than $24 million, the “Aspira Haugan” building was opened as a charter school after the Chicago Board of Education approved the charter recommendation against community opposition. Now in its second year of operation, Aspira Haugan has proved even more controversial than its early critics believed possible. The following is an interview with Linda Moran, a parent who sent two of her children to Aspira Haugan during the 2005-2006 school year. This article is part of Substance’s “Charter School Experiences” series.]

Interview By Jim Vail

Linda Moran is the parent of two children who attended the Aspira Haugan Charter School last school year (2005-2006). Her children previously attended a Chicago Public School and they currently attend the Albany Park Middle School. She spoke to Substance about her family’s charter school experience.

Substance Question: Can you tell me a little about your children, who they are and where they went to school before Aspira?

Linda Moran: My son and daughter are Jasmine and Battle, and they came from Portage Park school. They are twins and were in different homerooms at Aspira, but shared the same teachers. They attended 7th grade at Aspira.

Substance Question: Why did you choose to send your kids to Aspira Haugan?

Linda Moran: We moved to the neighborhood, and I attended a meeting at Haugen Elementary in May that was the final public meeting regarding how Aspira-Haugan was going to be and what they were going to offer. Both of my kids are very bright and were bored in a traditional school setting. Aspira presented the Individualized Learning Plan (ILP), which made it sound like each child would be challenged to their highest ability. This is a combination of gifted programming and Montessori in the philosophy. But ILP was what clinched it. It didn’t help that the other school choices had bad reputations. [Thurgood] Marshall Middle School is said to be gang infested, and I had heard Volta Elementary was overcrowded and bussing kids elsewhere.

We were told that the kids would be assessed over the summer and given their plans and in the meantime, teachers were being trained to implement the plan. The kids were not assessed - ever.

Substance Question:: What happened in the beginning when your children started the school?

Linda Moran: On the first day of school, my kids were prepared to learn, and went with pen and paper. They had their uniforms. Back track here a little bit. Aspira held an open house one week before school started, on August 29, 2005. It was at the open house that we found out that we had to buy specific uniforms. During the meeting in May they said black slacks and white shirts and the kids would vote on a uniform by the end of the year. At the open house, Aspira made us buy polos as the “official” uniform and we had one week to buy navy blue pants. A supply list was not ready for parents at the open house.

So, my kids went in ready to learn and what did they get? Nothing. The teachers didn’t assign books, lockers or any other thing that is normal for a first week of school. At first, my kids were in the same homeroom with a math/science teacher. She taught them about limericks for three days. My son was attacked by a girl who poked him repeatedly with a sharp pencil in class. The same student drew over a book my son brought from home to read because that is all the kids had to do. The same child also drew all over my daughter’s limericks. The teacher was present, but not watchful.

I went in to the school to talk about this and spoke to the Dean of Student, Ms. Ortiz, and to the principal, Ms. Quintana. I also asked why the math teacher was teaching limericks and where were the books. I was told by Ms. Ortiz that the reason the teachers hadn’t started teaching was because there were still students on vacation and the school was waiting for them to come back before getting down to the business of teaching. I asked her why they didn’t wait to open their doors until everybody was there.

Substance Question: How was the school run?

Linda Moran: The school was chaotic, especially in the beginning. It was run by two principals who each had an “academy” — Science and Math and Technology. In addition to the two principals, Aspira has another person to oversee the principles and all of their campuses — Mary Ravid. Her title was, we believe, “Director.” This ended up creating a bigger mess since one principal wanted one thing, the other wanted another. They did what they wanted in their respective “academies,” so policy was not consistent.

Substance Question: What did you think of school discipline?

Linda Moran: The school was quick to suspend and have kids arrested. For what reason? Parents were never told what happened in the school to warrant arrest or anything else. The teachers were very much in control of their students though. Most of the issues that happened seemed to be in the “cages” or lunch under the supervision of the security guards and the paid parent volunteer hall monitors. The school also didn’t seem to care one way or the other about things that happened on school grounds or near the school. Despite the harsh discipline, this didn’t stop kids from doing whatever they wanted to do. They understood that they had to get caught first.

Substance Question: What did you think of the teaching and curriculum?

Linda Moran: When the teaching materials finally starting coming in about 6 weeks after school started, I thought the material was about the same as any other school, which surprised me. Project-based learning never fully got off the ground in some subjects like math and science, and was not used 100 percent in any class. My kids didn’t have a math and science teacher after the teacher quit suddenly in September — and she was not replaced until December. I don’t know the name of the math publisher used, but it was no different from Saxon Math — repetitious for the most part. What should have been challenging was not for either of my kids. They didn’t work at their own level or at their own pace.

Substance Question: What were the major problems?

Linda Moran: Safety and security was a major problem. The security guards were not ever outside, so we had issues with our students as well as outsiders coming to harass our students. We saw gang recruitment going on outside; one parent witnessed an adult attack a child and threaten to come back with a gun, and yet nothing was done. A rumor surfaced that a girl was raped in the bathrooms, and the school refused to validate that using the child’s right to privacy as an excuse. They only said that something did happen, but not as bad as rape.

The cages were a big issue too. The kids were put into empty rooms after lunch. There were no chairs or tables. Nothing to do at all. This was what Aspira promised as the “structured non academic” time that warranted a longer lunch period.

Communication was terrible, too. They didn’t send home newsletters, for example. They changed the Wednesday dismissal time in September from 2:30 to 1:30, and sent home a letter the day before to inform parents. They also changed the general dismissal time without consulting parents — from 4:30 to 3:30, but that time they gave one week notice.

There was a meeting called by (Aspira CEO) Jose Rodriquez to discuss the issues at the school, but the school didn’t inform parents about it, so only a handful who all knew each other showed up. The library “grand opening” in April was also an event that was kept hush hush. There was no LSC (Local School Council), no PTO (Parent Teacher’s Organization) or any other parent groups, so there were no parent activities or involvement. An Aspira promise was that the kids would have after-school activities, but they didn’t offer anything until March, and then only through parent demands.

Substance Question: I heard you started a blog about the problems at Aspira — can you tell us about that?

Linda Moran: I started the blog out of sheer frustration. I had attempted to lodge a complaint with Beatriz Rendon’s office in CPS (Office of New Schools), and spoke to an investigator who was fully concerned at first. Yet, when she finally sent me a copy of the investigative report, the principals had lied blatantly to her about various serious issues. For example, they stated that they had parent community meetings and they denied most of the safety issues that I had brought up. I found, too, that the Aspira higher ups didn’t feel that they had to respond to parents’ concerns. I really felt and still feel that the truth has to come out. This particular charter is a major money sucking hoax. Last year, they did not accomplish one thing that they said they would in their charter proposal. Not one thing.

Substance Question: What is the racial ethnic make up of the teachers and students at the school?

Linda Moran: I would say that most of the students are Hispanic and a small handful of African American and some of Somalian decent. You could count the white kids. The teachers were mostly white. There were no African American teachers except for substitutes and a special ed teacher who worked only for a short time. A Hispanic teacher replaced the art teacher, the computer teacher was Hispanic.

Substance Question: What was the school’s disciplinary policy in terms of suspensions and expulsions?

Linda Moran: They used the CPS hand book as a guide. There was no Aspira policy.

Substance Question: How did the different races of students get along? Was there heavy gang activity among the students and anything done to combat that?

Linda Moran: There was heavy gang activity from rival gangs. The mode of recruitment was through leaving notes in the lockers of selected students. The bathrooms were tagged over and over again. Nothing was done to combat that.

I called and spoke to Ceasfire (an anti gang organization) and they promised to call the school and see if they can get permission to run gang intervention for the students, but I assume that they were denied because nothing ever happened. They did put a ‘Stop the Killing” poster up at their main entrance, though, and Ceasfire did get involved at Jensen Park. Jensen Park, a Chicago Park District Park, is adjacent to the school. Part of the school is located on the park grounds.

One parent came to school one day to drop off her kids only to be met by gang members waiting to harm her son on school property. She went to the office for help, but they made her call the police from her cell phone. She and her son had to be escorted home from school every day by a security guard. Finally, she moved away. She had stated that the school told her it was her problem. The school denied that there was gang activity in the school.

The kids generally got along, but there were a few kids who were racist as can be expected anywhere. Racism as an issue was not dealt with in this school and it seemed that if it was dealt with, it had to do exclusively with people who they claimed didn’t like Hispanics. Yet when a white kid had a comment thrown at him, it was overlooked.

Substance Question: How did the school treat parents?

Linda Moran: If a parent was aggressive and persistent, the school responded somewhat politely. Otherwise, parents generally had complaints about being treated rudely. It was sort of like this: if I as a parent said the sky was blue, then the school automatically said it was red. If they said the sky was red, then it was red. They had no respect in reality, but the way they treated parents depended on if you were capable of standing up for yourself or if you knew your rights as a parent.

Substance Question: I heard there was a student reported missing from the school. What happened?

Linda Moran: A girl had disappeared for 10 days before I found out about it. The mom had gone down to the school to tell the principal to see if they could help, and the school said she had 16 unexcused absences, but her parents were completely unaware of this. The girl’s step father was dropping her off at school every day and waited until she went in. They told her that her daughter was possibly in a gang. They basically told her they couldn’t help her, and it wasn’t their problem. Eventually, a private investigator was hired and the girl was found.

Substance Question: Now you are attending a regular Chicago Public school. How is this experience different?

Linda Moran: My kids are happily attending a wonderful public school APMA (Albany Park Middle School Academy). I was surprised to find that everything that Aspira promised as far as curriculum is done at APMA. The school has the same demography and a small faculty. They also moved into a new building and had a new principal to boot, over the summer. Yet they managed to have the school up and running on day one, and the activities started by the second week. It can be done, if the commitment and experience is there. This school makes Aspira’s excuses look even worse to me. My kids and I feel that we came out of a war zone and are finally safe again. You just can’t compare these two places.

Substance Question: What role did money play at Aspira Charter School?

Linda Moran: There was never ever a question about money. I asked once why they didn’t have the computers or books they promised — and they never said it was because of money. They said it’s been ordered, and they’re just waiting. It was clear that money was not an issue. But I also know that the principals do not deal with the budget — that is done by Aspira, (the parent organization that runs several charter schools in the city).

Substance Question: What else was promised in addition to the Individualized Learning Plan that Aspira never delivered on?

LM: They said that all the incoming 6th graders were supposed to get laptops, but they got PCs instead.

Substance Question: Wow - all the 6th graders did in fact get their own computers?

Linda Moran: Yeah — but they were just cheap Dells. They used them as an incentive to get students to come to the school. One time at the Janurary meeting, we asked for extra security guards to resolve the security issues. Mr. Rodriguez (Aspira CEO) said he couldn’t afford it, and yet he later hired three more.

Substance Question: Have many kids transferred out? What problems do the other parents complain about?

Linda Moran: I see familiar faces at APMA. I know some kids went to Volta and others moved to the suburbs. The problems were universal: safey, communication, lack of parent groups and not having promises met. Some parents didn’t like the curriculum and they felt their children’s teachers were not good teachers.

Substance Question: What was the best thing about the school?

Linda Moran: My children had great teachers who were talented and committed to teaching and to the children. Mr. Larson, Ms. Zane and Mr. Gabler are names worthy of mentioning that I can think of. I really felt that these teachers kept a good eye on the kids because their commitment included the safety and well being of their pupils.

Substance Question: What kind of sports and after school activities does the charter school have?

Linda Moran: They had a boys basketball team that nobody ever heard about once tryouts were over. Then in March they started after school activities like Yearbook, which never produced a yearbook, yet the school did take money for the yearbooks and one parent is still waiting for a refund. And they had “Robotics,” which ended up being some poor teacher teaching algebra while the club waited for materials that never arrived. Softball was popular and did well. There were a few other activities, but the one consistent one was the Aspira club.

Substance Question: How were the special education and bi-lingual programs?

Linda Moran: You could see the special education kids in their classroom from the street. They always came to the windows and screamed obscenities at anybody passing by. I watched once as the special ed kids got ahold of the teachers purse and were tossing it back and forth while she was trying to get it away from them. It was sad to see, for the kids and the teachers. I don’t know why it was like that, but it was. I don’t know about the bilingual ed. I know they got an experienced teacher from Haugen Elementary to teach it.

Substance Question: What was the worst thing about the school?

Linda Moran: The worst thing was the worry that something was going to happen and that nothing would be done about it. Parents used to say, “I guess we need a dead body for anybody to care about this mess.” I hated having to fight for normalcy and that is all I really wanted from that school.

Substance Question: I know you wanted to sue the charter school. What happened with that?

Linda Moran: We wanted to file a lawsuit but we instead focused on getting out of that school. The parents have to step forward and demand an end to this stuff. The main allegation in our suit would be fraud. Their marketing and literature is filled with false advertising. They write that the students follow an individualized learning program, they provide a holistic approach to guide students and parents, and the students are challenged with real world applications. In technology, they state that students will learn to build a computer, display digital portfolios on their own web page, and teachers and parents will communicate through the Internet. They write that they have a Local School Advisory Council of parents and community members who advise the governing board and workshops on parenting, communication and other services. The Computer Science and Technology Academy will have computer assembly and game design, as well as a Chicago River Wetlands Project, Project NASA, MARS Rocket Project, Science Fair, Algebra Fair and the students will receive ISAT and high school entrance exams and will visit colleges and college preparatory high schools. None of this happened. All lies!

Substance Question: Why did you stay a full year and not get out earlier?

Linda Moran: I left because it was not worth staying. I would have left sooner if Volta were not overcrowded. I called them in mid year and they referred me to Marshall Middle School. Aspira people always said, “It is our first year. It is a learning process. Next year will be different.”

That is fine if the community was invested in the growth of the school and the leadership was also invested in the same thing, but the community was locked out and the leadership, well, let’s say they got a paycheck like any average Joe. We were not learning or growing together.

Also, I don’t feel that kids should be educational guinea pigs and I don’t think that a school should be run by people who need to learn how to do their jobs and who in one year made no progress whatsoever. I witnessed lies and complacent failures for a year, so where is the faith that this particular group of leaders can rise above these very serious flaws? The commitment is just not there, and there is no incentive for things to change since there is no apparent accountability to CPS or any other entity, so nobody has to move forward at all.

The bottom line is that I value my children as people and I value their intelligence and potential. As such, I am much more diligent now when it comes to exposing my children to situations in which they see “authority” figures do a shabby job and hold their heads high as if they have something to be proud of and then demand respect from the parents and students who they treat like mere subjects. Academics are not the only thing that is taught in schools such as these. 



Comments:

June 30, 2010 at 6:31 PM

By: Rosaura Alvarado

Aspira Haugan Parent

This article is very old, and should be removed from this page, it makes reference to a lot of obsolete things, that did not happen.

July 1, 2010 at 5:29 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Aspira corruption worse today...

Thanks for your thoughts, and for bringing us back to materials we have kept on the website and will continue to keep. The article is still relevant, because the corruption at Aspira's charter schools has gotten worse since Linda Moran and others tried to correct it. We look forward to resuming our coverage and expanding it in the near future, especially now that Aspira faces growing criticisms for its management of the Aspira charter schools and the fact that a former Aspira charter school teacher (Liz Brown) is now on the Chicago Teachers Union transition team.

July 1, 2010 at 10:53 AM

By: John Whitfield

"I'm stickin to the Union !"

ASPIRA Chicago charter school teachers join IFT. (Illinois Federation of Teachers)

The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff is now the collective bargaining representative for 98 teachers at four charter school campuses operated by ASPIRA, Inc. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) certified the bargaining unit for the teachers at ASPIRA’s Haugan Middle School, Mirta Ramirez Computer Science High School, Early College High School and Antonia Pantoia High School. In a media statement, IFT President Ed Geppert, Jr. said, "We pledge to work with them to enhance their careers as professionals and to promote the best interests of their schools and students."

April 22, 2011 at 10:25 PM

By: John Daley

The potential new aspira school at milwaukee and central park

I just attended a meeting last night for the proposed Aspira high school at Milwaukee and Central Park. The test scores are low, they have issues with diversity, and the graduation rates are low. They try to tell us that they are better than the neighborhood schools. How? I wouldn't send my kids there and it doesn't seem like they are building this for the neighborhood kids. They plan to ram this through the community so they can funnel school money towards Aspira. The community is standing up against them. Aspira is incapable of running a good school and the community deserves better.

February 9, 2019 at 8:37 AM

By: Sharon Schmidt

Anonymous comments

It has been a long-standing policy that Substance does not publish anonymous comments.

Today, someone wrote the following without signing his or her name: "I have been substitute teaching with Charter Schools these past several months and I have never seen so much neglect academically. I have seen students in 3rd or 4th grade that can't read, students that are just told to get on their ipad instead of being taught, high school students just left in rooms with no work to do and no one in the office caring. I would never ever send a child to a charter school here in Chicago. So much neglect and poor education. And as a sub, most of them don't even provide so much as a cup of coffee for their teachers."

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