Chicago Public Schools is recommending that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide that is making the city appear less hospitable to the independently operated public schools.
CEO Janice Jackson recommended in a news release Monday closing two underperforming charter schools, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, both for poor academic and financial performance.
“The recommendations made today follow comprehensive reviews of school performance, applicant quality and need,” Jackson wrote in the statement, “and we believe it is in the best interest of our students to deny all new school applications this year and close the two poor performing charters who have failed to provide students the quality education they deserve.”
The surprising recommendation comes just weeks after the state elected a new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, who said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters. The issue has also surfaced in Chicago’s mayoral race, with candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declaring last month in a union-sponsored forum that she did not support opening new charters. Other candidates who attended the event did not say where they stand.
Eight charter operators had originally submitted proposals to open next school year, but five later withdrew. The three proposals left on the table included a charter middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood called Kemet Leadership Academy; a citywide high school operated by the established management group Intrinsic; and an elementary campus in Austin run by a small operator called Moving Everest. Moving Everest currently operates one other school in Austin.
At least two of the groups, the nonprofit organizers behind the Kemet proposal and the executive director of Moving Everest, said they plan to appeal the district’s decision to the state charter commission, which has the authority to reverse school board decisions in charter cases but rarely does so.
Political momentum has gathered to curb the authority of the commission, but legislators have not been able to gather enough votes.
“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” said Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director of Moving Everest, who said he was not surprised by the decision. “I know CPS well through the whole process at this school, and I think they look at what they are doing with an objective eye. But I also think there are other forces that come into play. Politics plays such a huge role in this, that it becomes the easy route, or the safe route, to deny.”
District staff recommended denying the Moving Everest proposal because district officials visiting the operator’s current campus found results “insufficient” and doubted the program’s ability to serve English language learners. That campus, which serves 444 students, is rated a Level 2-plus. The highest rating in Chicago schools is a 1-plus.
Donnie Brown, a project manager with Kemet Academy’s operator, Project Simeon 2000, said that Chicago has opened up new schools, including charters, in recent years, but they “have not impacted black boys and their grad rates and made any significant differences.”
The school district’s release said the Kemet proposal should be denied because the proposed curriculum “is incomplete and unproven” and the applicant had not “developed a clear instructional approach.” The recommendation also raised concerns about leadership capacity and finances. Project Simeon 2000 leaders appeared at board meetings earlier this year to make passionate pleas for their project.
Brown told Chalkbeat that parts of Kemet’s curriculum come from area colleges and universities: an accelerated literacy program developed with the University of Illinois and a math program from professors at Chicago State University. The model also stresses the value of male teachers and mentoring for improving outcomes for at-risk Chicago boys.
“Our model is to keep kids engaged and change the paradigm for success,” said Brown, who said he believes the model apparently challenged district thinking, since it was not something you can “pick up off the shelf and put in place.”
“We feel like all the pieces are in place, and we are ready to go,” he added.
In a release, the district said location problems and an inability to to meet a need for high-quality education contributed to the recommendation against Intrinsic.
Enrollment has plunged in Chicago schools in recent years, and the district started the school year with 10,000 fewer students than the previous year.
In more frank language than usual, the district’s release Monday said that concerns about finances led to its recommendation to close Urban Prep West and Kwame Nkrumah.
The district cited Kwame Nkrumah’s Level 3 status — that’s the lowest rating in the district — for two years, financial and operational concerns and the school’s failure to follow a mandatory improvement plan.
“Additionally, the district’s site visits suggest that the school lacks the capacity to provide students a high quality education, and higher quality school options exist for students in the community.”
The district cited “financial concerns” as the reason why it was recommending the revocation of Urban Prep West’s charter. The school, which serves 213 students and is rated a Level 2, had not been able to get off its academic warning list, the release also said.
Its operator, Urban Prep, has garnered attention for its approach to education for young black men and runs two other campuses in the city that are also rated Level 2. But during a site visit to the University Village campus, the release said, “the school did not demonstrate a capacity to deliver a high quality education to students.”
This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools.
In October, Chicago issued warnings to five other charter schools and one contract school tagged as underperforming. The district announced Monday it will keep the contract school, Plato Learning Academy in South Austin, open next school year and will review it again next fall. This year, Plato merged two campuses in an effort to centralize operations.
“The district believes it is appropriate to provide the school an opportunity to demonstrate significant progress under its new structure before it is considered for potential closure,” the release said.
The Board of Education is set to vote on the recommendations Wednesday.
Yana Kunichoff contributed reporting to this story.