Parents line up to push back against Chicago’s cold shoulder to charters

Already a tough week for charters in Chicago, the city’s school board unanimously voted on Wednesday to deny all new charter proposals for the 2019-20 school year. It also voted to close two underperforming campuses, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, with one abstention from Vice President Jaime Guzman.

Poor academic performance and shaky finances were among the reasons CEO Janice Jackson gave in recommendations made public earlier this week to close the schools.

Meanwhile, outside the board meeting, teachers from the nation’s first charter strike formed a noisy picket line that visitors had to cross to access district headquarters. Now in its second day, the strike against one of the city’s most entrenched charter networks, Acero Schools, has uprooted 7,500 children who attend 15 schools.

Propelled by their fear that the city is increasingly turning a cold shoulder to the privately run, publicly funded schools, a parade of charter parents from networks across the city weaved through sign-toting Acero teachers to speak to the school board Wednesday.

The parents voiced support for their individual networks’ charter renewals and, more broadly, countered the week’s prevailing anti-charter narrative with personal stories of college perseverance, tailor-fit solutions to chronic problems, and warm “open door” policies to families.

Speakers represented several charter schools and networks, from the 18-campus Noble Network to Intrinsic, which manages a 1,000-student combined middle and high school in Irving Park. An Intrinsic proposal for a citywide high school located near the Loop was among the three that the board denied.

“Let’s support any school that’s doing well, and let’s support those that aren’t doing well,” said parent Michael Nash, whose children attend CICS Avalon, a Level 1-rated, mostly black school in a Far South Side neighborhood where parents often lament the lack of quality options. “A great school attracts great residents to any neighborhood.”

“What’s the essence of your message?” board President Frank Clark asked Nash, one of the morning’s first public commenters.

“The essence of my message is that these schools are lacking support across the board,” Nash replied.

Ebony Williams, the parent of three children at Noble Network’s Johnson College Prep, gave one of the day’s most heartfelt pleas, describing how a village of educators and counselors at the Englewood campus rallied around her daughter after Williams’ husband was killed.

“My daughter was drowning, and I didn’t know how to get her a lifejacket,” said Williams, describing how one-on-one counseling and attention for her daughter’s depression “exceeded her expectations.”

This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools. That comes out to slightly more than 20 percent of all public schools.

Acero is the district’s second largest charter operator. The largest charter network, Noble, is still reeling from its own shakeup: the sudden departure of its co-founder, Michael Milkie, after complaints surfaced that he acted inappropriately toward alumni.