Hundreds packed the gymnasium at Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School earlier this week for a public hearing that will help decide whether the elementary school should close in June.
At first glance, the meeting looked much like the ones held by Chicago Public Schools leading up to the historic 2013 school closures. Over the course of two hours, more than 50 people picked up the microphone to speak on behalf of the 10-year old Bronzeville school.
Kindergarten students recited a 1950s civil rights poem. Parents explained how the school had become an extension of their family. The assistant principal, Dana Lucas, said many students had already lived through a school closure and “we have seen from experience the devastation that closing so many options in one community can have.”
But front and center was one key difference: three members of the Illinois State Charter School Commission who could question CPS about the process that led to a School Board decision late last year to shutter Bronzeville Lighthouse and three other charter schools for poor performance.
Commissioners pressed CPS officials on why there had been no site visits prior to the decisions, how much academic growth was taken into consideration and how many students had already experienced a school closure. They asked how confident CPS was that it could find another high-quality option for all families that would be safe to attend, drawing applause from parents in the audience.
The questioning made parents optimistic that the nine-member commission — though there are two vacancies — would side with them on March 1 when they vote on appeals filed by three charter schools slated for closure.
“I felt very hopeful,” says Tierra Washington, whose 5th-grader attends Bronzeville Lighthouse. “At the end of the day, they came out, they saw the parents care about their students’ education, they heard the students.”
But Wendy Katten, of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, says the fact that parents felt heard by real decision-makers at the charter school hearings contrasts sharply with the hearings for district-run schools, where she says parents “felt completely ignored.”
“It was the typical CPS process,” she recalls. “You’re giving testimony but there’s no true interaction or exchange. It’s more of a show. You speak, no one responds and then you leave.”
Broader implications of appeals
The appeals — Amandla Charter High School in Englewood and Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore Academy in West Englewood also have cases — are the first the commission has taken up from existing charter schools.
Until now, the five-year-old commission had considered appeals only from charters denied permission to open from their local school districts. Of the 43 appeals the commission received, three were granted — though most were withdrawn before they made it to a vote.
They come at an interesting — and confusing — time for CPS. If the state commission decides to keep the charter schools open, it could undermine the district’s authority just as it’s made policy changes aimed at holding charter schools to a higher standard, with promises to close low-performers more quickly.
On Monday, the district will receive notices from charter school operators that plan to apply to open more schools in response to a district Request for Proposals — a move that’s drawn criticism from those who say the district needs a more comprehensive plan for opening new schools in a time of declining enrollment.
Some also have pointed out that the charters targeted for closure run a single site or are part of a smaller organization, while CPS recently gave permission to larger networks like KIPP Chicago and the Noble Network of Charter Schools to expand.
And on top of that, during contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, the district signaled support for a cap on new charter school growth.
Greg Richmond, a founding member of the state’s charter commission who heads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says some will point to “all this confusing activity” as the reason a state commission outside the CPS system is needed. Others will say it shows why the commission should be disbanded so districts like CPS can “control their financial destiny.”
Brian Harris, president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which has called for a moratorium on new charter schools, says the whole situation “is a mess.”
“I don’t think they should shut down schools, but I also don’t think the commission should have power to override the city,” he says.
If the commission grants the appeals, state funding that would normally go to CPS for the students would go directly to the schools, which would become their own districts overseen by the state charter commission.
The commission oversees four charter schools now, including two in Chicago operated by Concept Schools — which is under federal investigation for the suspected defrauding of a government grant program. Those schools receive $11,700 per student, which translates to about $10.8 million for the 922 students who are no longer part of the CPS system.
When the state commission evaluated appeals from new charter school applicants in the past, it based its decisions on factors such as community input and the charter operator’s finances, academics and ability to run a school.
In a December interview, the commission chair, DeRonda Williams, said the process would be similar for existing charter schools, adding that commissioners can also consider what schools the students would otherwise attend.
While commissioners will look at the district’s charter accountability policy, Williams said they put “everyone through our evaluation framework.”
Deciding what criteria to use to evaluate an appeal can be challenging. Richmond says it’s important to base the decision on the school’s history and how it performed in comparison to other schools. But he says there are different opinions about how far back evaluators should look and which schools a charter should be compared to.
“Some people will say you need to be better if you’re a charter… if you’re not, you’ve lost your reason to exist,” he says. “Others say it’s OK if you’re the same or a little worse. Parents chose you for some reasons and we want to respect the decision of parents.”
Several parents complained that the School Board voted to close their charter schools without visiting first.
Even Board member Mahalia Hines — who was absent during the charter closure votes — has agreed with this sentiment, noting that neighborhood schools were visited before the 2013 closures, and that charters should be given the same chance.
“It was like a slap in the face,” says Hollis Patterson, whose 7th grade daughter attends the Betty Shabazz Sizemore campus. “They haven’t been to our school… [but they] tell us we’re not performing, we’re not having an impact.”
Richmond says his group’s standards don’t require an authorizer, like CPS, to visit before a school closing, though he says many school boards prefer to do so. The concern about site visits, he says, is that “often times they become a poor substitute for objective information” that’s outlined in the school’s contract.
CPS officials say the charters appealing the closure decisions haven’t met academic expectations for multiple years and haven’t presented strong improvement plans.
The charter schools say the district was unfair in moving to close them shortly after unveiling a new accountability policy with different standards. (Richmond concedes: “That’s not a good practice to be moving the goalposts in the middle of play.”)
But the three schools that have filed appeals have struggled in more than just academics, according to a Catalyst analysis of data charter schools reported to the state for the 2013-14 school year, one of the years CPS considered in its decision.
That year Sizemore ran a $100,000 deficit and had a student transfer rate among the highest for all charter schools. Bronzeville Lighthouse’s teacher retention rate was among the worst for all charter schools. And Amandla ran a $380,000 deficit with higher than average student transfer and suspension rates and lower teacher retention rates compared to other charters.
Lina Fritz, a founding teacher at Bronzeville Lighthouse who’s being paid to help rally community support, admits the school hit a rough patch a few years ago when it faced leadership issues. But she says there’s support for the new principal, who’s trying to “engage with parents and staff and rebuild a culture of achievement and respect.”
“If CPS had tried to close the school three or two years ago when everything was terrible, I don’t think I would have had as strong a conviction,” she says.
Many parents say the numerical rating the school received under the district’s policy — which was used to put charters on an academic warning list — matters less to them than school culture, safety and after-school offerings.
“I don’t believe in the 3s, 2s, 1s,” says Washington, the Bronzeville Lighthouse parent. “The school might not test well, but it’s doing academically great.”
According to the Education Commission of the States, about two dozen states have some kind of appeals or reconsideration process for schools whose charters are revoked or not renewed. Most appeals go to the state board of education, arbitration or an administrative court, while a handful of states have separate commissions like Illinois.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s special appeals board granted one appeal for a non-renewal over the last three years. The school that prevailed, one of Philadelphia’s first charter schools, had faced complaints about academics and finances for years, but was allowed to stay open after the appeals board considered “the school as a whole,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The closure reversal came at a time when the Philadelphia district planned to open new charters after saving money from closing existing ones. But because the closure processes dragged on, the new schools will cost millions more than had been expected, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports.
Across the country, school districts have entered lengthy legal battles over charter school renewals and appeals.
In Chicago’s north suburbs, Woodland Elementary District 50 is trying to take a two-year-old case to the Illinois Supreme Court over the Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, whose contract was narrowly renewed by the state commission.
And a few years ago, CPS threatened to sue over the two Concept schools that gained permission to open through the state charter commission, though the district never filed. If these appeals are granted, CPS again has that option.
CPS officials say if the appeals are denied, they will work with families to find other options for students. The open-enrollment deadline to apply to magnet and selective-enrollment programs was in December. The district held meetings to help parents fill out forms and answer questions, but many parents said they didn’t receive adequate guidance about their options.
Mary Bradley, who oversees charter schools for the district, said during the Bronzeville public hearing that while CPS can’t guarantee placement for every student, it will hold office hours with families beginning in March.
There is also talk of holding a school fair with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools for families from the closing schools. And Noble — already the largest charter network in Chicago — has offered to take high school students from the closing charters, which include the Chicago International Charter School’s Hawkins campus in Altgeld Gardens.
Several parents from the schools slated for closure said while they have looked into other schools for their children, they are waiting for the appeals decision next month before making any moves.
Christian Davis, whose 11th-grade daughter attends Amandla, says she toured Robeson, the neighborhood high school, but was disappointed with what she saw.
“She was hoping to apply for colleges and now we have to look for another high school,” Davis says of her daughter. “I think that’s really kind of getting her down.”