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Chicago Board of Ed OKs two new charter schools, but two deferred

Micki O'Neil talks about Foundations Prep Charter it's place as future new charter school Chicago Public School Board meeting Wednesday

Micki O'Neil talks about the Foundations Prep Charter and it's place as a future new charter school at the Chicago Public School Board meeting on Wednesday, December 19, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: January 21, 2013 3:33PM

The Chicago Public Schools approved two new charter schools Wednesday but surprisingly deferred the approval of two more that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had recommended, saying she wanted more time for a “gut check.”

Despite CPS’ own claims that the district lacks enough children to fill existing classrooms and the public outcry about potential closings, the Board of Education voted unanimouslyto approve Intrinsic and Chicago Collegiate charter schools as the 10th and 11th new charters opening in the fall.

It also greenlighted an alternative school, Camelot; the charter conversion of Frazier Prep, and added grades to Disney II Magnet School, Rickover Naval Academy High School and Marine Military Math and Science Academy.

“I remain, and I will say this again, agnostic to the type, but I am very committed to the quality,” Byrd-Bennett said. “What I care about is the quality and ensure that each child in each classroom each day has access to that high quality.”

Byrd-Bennett pulled back her recommendations for Orange School, an arts charter, and Foundations College Prepjust before the vote. CPS Communications Chief Becky Carroll said Byrd-Bennett wanted more time to review the two charters, adding, “It’s a gut check for her.” She did not yet have a timetable for any new vote. She also had no further explanation, though board member Andrea Zopp questioned the operating experience of the Orange and Foundations leaders.

“New schools by definition have no track record of running schools,” Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools said Wednesday evening, adding that hecouldn’t recall any previous deferrals.

All the charters submitted their preferred neighborhoods: Intrinsic on the Northwest Side, Foundations and Chicago Collegiate in the Roseland-Pullman area and Orange in Rogers Park. No locations are set in stone.

That proved problematic for some board members concerned about public outrage stemming from the district’s plans to shutter neighborhood schools it says are too empty — most of which are in poor South Side and West Side neighborhoods.

Andrea Zopp, head of Chicago’s Urban League, demanded to know where the new charters would go: “How can we approve them if we don’t know whether we need them?

“It’s hard for me in the environment we are currently in . . . to vote on a charter you’re standing there and telling me is going ‘somewhere.’ ”

Zopp, who recently accompanied Byrd-Bennett to Springfield, also asked the Byrd-Bennett for more specifics about targeted schools so parents and community groups can respond. Many, she said, are convinced that CPS, which must publish the names of schools it intends to close by March 31, already made its list.

CPS faces a $1 billion budget shortfall by summer. It says some 330 of its 681 schools are under capacity.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the group of 330 “will become a much more narrow pool” during ongoing work carried out by a commission she appointed to make recommendations.

Addressing allegations in the Chicago Tribune that CPS planned in September for political fallout from closings, Byrd-Bennett insisted the plans belonged to the previous administration run by Jean-Claude Brizard.

“Whatever my predecessors have proposed does not reflect what I endorse or what I support,” she said.

The internal memo described as a briefing to the Board of Education outlining a strategy for how to handle school closings did not sit well with African-American aldermen whose wards have lost population and so stand to lose the greatest number of schools.

“CPS could avoid a lot of this mistrust if they would work with community people who are steeped in education genuinely,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said. “I don’t support the opening of new charters or any school. You fix up your house first before you start adding new additions.”

“You can’t rationalize the closing of neighborhood schools without rationalizing the closing of charter schools,” she said. I have charter schools in my community that are under-utilized and under-performing.”

In November, CPS disclosed plans to review charter schools and not renew schools that fail to measure up to their contracts. The board could vote as soon as January’s meeting, Byrd-Bennett said Wednesday.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus and a member of the mayor’s school-closing commission, said he had no idea that CPS had a strategy memo on school closings before he read about it. But he acknowledged that, now that it has been made public, the commission’s already difficult job has been made even tougher.

“We’ve got a lot of credible people with reputations on the line. Hopefully, the public will know we’re serious and credible people who wouldn’t be part of a conspiracy to shove a pre-determined conclusion down their throats,” Brookins said. “But we’ve got our work cut out. We kind of knew that going in. We just didn’t know it would be made more difficult” by the memo.

But, he said, “We don’t have any particular marching orders. We are actively trying to come up with criteria that, if this is done, these are the circumstances under which it should be done. That’s why we’ve all taken the job seriously. We are not gonna just rubber-stamp or be the scapegoat for CPS or school closings.” .

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