In responding to coronavirus shutdowns, Chicago charter schools go their own way

Diego Garcia, a senior at Mansueto High School in Brighton Park, was in a discussion group about an Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope,” over Zoom this week. Garcia, who attends a Noble charter school, said it made him nostalgic for sitting in class.

“I’d rather be learning in school than have to jump on Zoom or YouTube live,” Garcia said. “I honestly don’t feel very productive at home, especially during a pandemic.”

Three weeks since Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered schools closed, some Chicago charter networks and schools like Mansueto have Chromebooks and detailed spreadsheets of Google lessons by grade and subject. Other networks are still tinkering with remote learning plans and have not delivered hard copies of assignments, leaving some students sitting at home, without activities and little communication from their schools.

A lot could ride on how well charters prepare for the state of virtual school. While the state has waived annual tests for school districts, charter schools’ success or failure with e-learning raises the question of who is accountable for student learning at the publicly funded, but privately run, schools.

By law, charters are free to design their own plans while hewing broadly to state guidelines. Among Chicago’s 97 charter schools, which educate about 14% of children in the district, it appears that networks that had centralized curriculum in place quickly pivoted to launch e-learning after schools closed March 17. 

 “Even if a curriculum wasn’t online, those schools were able to move it online pretty quickly,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Her team is compiling a database of remote learning plans from schools around the country. Among charters, she said, “those that were much more decentralized have struggled.” 

In this uncertain period, charter schools are concerned about a range of issues from accreditation to funding, said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. 

One of the most common questions from charter schools in Chicago, Broy said, has been how this could affect the district’s review of their quality. But as standardized testing has been waived this year around the country, the district also is putting its school ratings on hold. 

Charter schools will get a portion of the $569.5 million Illinois anticipates in federal emergency school funds for, among other things, transitioning to e-learning.

Day to day, much like district-run schools, charter schools are both battling to get students the basic things they need for remote learning, often a device, internet access or both, while trying to keep their attention during a particularly trying time. 

At three schools managed by Chicago International Charter Schools, more than 2,000  students in grades K-6 can log onto the Google Classroom web tool for two-hour lessons with teachers, and then drop in to online office hours to get any additional questions answered. 

Stephanie Crosier, chief learning officer, said her team sent out a survey to families the week before schools closed to see how many needed devices, and since remote learning started, have been able to adapt quickly to new needs from families as they learn them.

For example, she said, they have opened a support line for families to help with, among other things, navigating technology to access online classes. 

“Overall the transition has been really smooth,” said Crosier, who admitted that not all schools in the network, some of which are managed by other management organizations, have the same level of access to devices to hand out to students. “Our parents have a ton of interesting feedback.” 

The network learned the hard way that even if a family said it had a Chromebook or other digital device for remote learning, a student might be sharing it with multiple siblings. 

So now the network allows students to take a picture of their work on paper and share it with a teacher, in addition to spending time on an online platform, or log into a Google Classroom account. 

Noble, the city’s largest charter network with 12,500 students, took two weeks to assemble a centralized remote learning plan that will give students the option to watch recorded lessons or engage in virtual discussions. 

Until now, the network has left remote learning plans up to principals, while the central office assessed networkwide needs. It deployed its plan to principals this week. 

Teachers, meanwhile, said they are putting together activities, homework, and offering online office hours that sometimes become individualized instruction, but also just are spending time directly getting in touch with families and seeing what needs they can fill. 

Some Noble parents told school leaders they are pleased about the work their students have been given. 

David Turner, whose son attends Noble Street College Prep, said he is in communication regularly with teachers and counselors from the school — who even called to help sing a birthday song to his son. 

“They have been really communicative, and making sure he receives everything he needs,” Turner said. He estimates that his son does about four solid hours of work a day, the amount recommended by the district. 

Sylvia Garcia, whose child attends Noble’s UIC College Prep, also said she was impressed by from teachers and administrators at the school. “This has been the best communication I have had,” she said. 

Acero, Chicago’s second-largest charter network, has moved to digital-only lessons that don’t rely on teachers. Instead, the district relies primarily on an online learning platform that students move through at their own pace, with material created by instructional leaders in “professional learning communities” that are responsible for putting together lessons on an online portal. 

The network provided computers this week to its students, who largely come from immigrant, Latino communities.

Families without computer or internet access can pick up learning packets each week at Acero schools, which also distribute food, but the network says it has not found a safe way for families to get feedback on paper-and-pencil assignments. For digital assignments, the network encourages families to email with questions. 

“Teachers who have connections with families are great, but what if they, or a school principal, gets sick? In the event any of us get sick, the work can still continue,” Matthew Rodriguez, the network’s chief learning officer, said.

Acero is also working on enabling English learners and others needing special attention to access social worker support via a Google voice number.

It’s a struggle, Rodriguez said. “We are asking ourselves: How do we do right by our students?” he said. 

The foray into virtual learning at some charters precedes that of district-run schools, which have been offering  “enrichment” projects. The district required them to have a virtual learning plan in place this week. They will start school in earnest on April 13 with mini-lessons, virtual office hours and pass-fail grading for the hundreds of thousands of students learning from home. 

Crosier, at Chicago International Charter School, said some students who didn’t regularly show up to school are now logging in for virtual learning. The network has learned, she said, that “there are barriers to kids getting to our physical building if they are showing up for hangouts.” 

The varied approaches among charter schools amount to a big experiment in how children can learn outside a classroom. Researcher Lake said the new environment created by the coronavirus threat has pushed schools, including charters, into unprecedented positions. 

That has made it tricky to assess remote learning rollouts. “It’s hard to make a rash judgment on how quickly folks should be getting to learning, because making sure kids are OK has to be Job 1,” she said. “This is uncharted territory.”