Overturning Chicago’s denial, Illinois Charter Commission offers Urban Prep West second chance

Despite voicing concerns about the financial management, academics and declining enrollment of Urban Prep West school, the state Charter Commission approved the all-male Chicago charter school’s appeal to allow it to stay open next school year.

On a 6-2 vote, the Illinois State Charter School Commission on Tuesday took the first step in overturning the Chicago district’s plan to shutter the high school of 176 students.

“I’m very excited that the board recognized the appeal of the school, and the fact that the commission recognizes Urban Prep West as being in the best interests of the students is really meaningful to me,” said Tim King, founder of the Urban Prep network.

The commission also approved a new citywide school run by charter operator Intrinsic, which wants to replicate its Level 1-plus campus.

Commissioners rejected an appeal from Chicago Educational Partners, and thus will prevent the group from opening a second Moving Everest campus.

The Chicago district blasted the commission.

“It’s time for the state legislature to take action and return charter oversight to local educators who will actually hold schools accountable for their performance,” said Chicago schools spokeswoman Emily Bolton.

The commission staff recommended that Urban Prep West’s appeal be approved because of the unique nature of the school, which is one of only three male-only high schools in Chicago, as well as its recent efforts to improve enrollment. The school is based in the Near West side of Chicago; 97 percent of its students are African-American.

Between glowing parent and students testimonials on one hand and Chicago Public School’s dire allegations about mismanagement at Urban Prep West on the other, two vastly different portraits of the school emerged at Tuesday’s meeting.

Mary Bradley, director of the district’s Office of Innovation and Incubation, said the school had been academically underperforming for four years, and that 87 percent of its students didn’t meet college readiness benchmarks.

She also listed financial concerns, including that the school ended the past fiscal year with only nine days of cash on hand, is in litigation over debt to the teachers pension fund and has submitted only 22 percent of its required documentation on time. Bradley called the school’s appeal to the Charter Commission “a clear attempt of an operator to dodge charter accountability.”

But Urban Prep students and parents pleaded with commissioners. “Our young men call home some of the deadliest neighborhoods in Chicago,” said Ajoyoi Mazerat, whose son is a sophomore. “Urban Prep is changing the narrative. These black and brown boys need and deserve Urban Prep.”

They also questioned how schools serving minority populations are judged in the district. Dennis Lacewell, a founding principal of Urban Prep Englewood campus, said that when compared with schools serving a similar demographic, Urban Prep West was a top-performing school. “We work with an at-risk population, and not all CPS schools are that,” Lacewell said.

Commissioner Bill Farmer, an instructional coach and science teacher at a high school in Evanston, was the only commissioner to vote against both Urban Prep West and Intrinsic.

“The school is not set up to be successful, and we are potentially just delaying a school closure because they’re not going to be able to do the turnaround that needs to happen,” Farmer said. “There needs to be a bigger systemic approach to infuse areas with the appropriate resources they need.”

The commission will help schools obtain both a license and funding. The next step is for the schools to enter into negotiations with the commission on a charter agreement.

Before signing an agreement, Urban Prep West must meet several conditions, including leasing a new school building, certifying enrollment of at least 155 students and creating a strategic plan to address its financial and organizational challenges, all by the summer.

If Urban Prep West doesn’t meet minimum standards under the commission’s guidance, it could face a corrective plan and perhaps even closure. One of the schools previously approved by the commission, Amandla Charter school in Englewood, closed last summer.

Carlos Perez, a member of the commission who voted in favor of Urban Prep West’s appeal, said he felt it was important to support the school’s work helping young black men. But, he said, he hoped the school’s administrators took seriously the initial charter denial from the district and would improve the school’s performance.

“The expectation ought to be higher on the adults supporting these men,” Perez said. “Being OK does not correct the reparations that need to happen.”