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Union sees problem with charters being closer to under-capacity schools

Principal Hattie King Cather Elementary School 2908 W. Washington. Friday December 21 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Principal Hattie King of Cather Elementary School 2908 W. Washington. Friday, December 21, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:22AM

Charter schools are on average several blocks closer to elementary schools that Chicago Public Schools considers under capacity, a Sun-Times analysis shows.

As CPS seeks to close traditional schools based on how empty or full they are, resulting in public outcry at a series of hearings, the district is going ahead with plans to open more charter schools.

Union officials say the numbers bolster their claim that charters leach students from neighborhood schools; charter operators, which draw about 70 percent of their students from the surrounding neighborhood, say they only set up shop where they’re needed.

So the Sun-Times measured the distance between each neighborhood school and its closest charter and found that elementary schools deemed by CPS as under capacity are on average 4,422 feet from the closest charter school, compared with a distance of 7,190 feet for efficient or overcrowded schools.

That’s an average 2,768 feet — or about four blocks — closer to the nearest charter than efficient or overcrowded schools. Schools considered to be “less than half full” are even closer — 1,885 feet or not quite three blocks — to the nearest charter at the elementary level.

Of the 12 neighborhood grade schools located a block or less from a charter, 10 are under capacity — six of them deemed by CPS to be less than half full. Expand the distance to two blocks and 15 of the 21 neighborhood schools are under capacity, eight of them less than half full. Sixteen of those 21 within two blocks also have lost students since 2010, according to CPS data.

Calhoun North is one of those schools — under capacity and losing students since 2010, and since 2009, around the corner from LEARN Charter’s Campbell campus, 212 S. Francisco Ave.

Mona Conway enrolled her son and the goddaughter she cares for at Calhoun, her alma mater.

But a bunch of her nieces and nephews are at LEARN. She knows other Calhoun parents who started sending their younger children to the new charter, too.

“That only happened when LEARN first opened because they were telling the parents they had more computer technology, which we understood because they were a new school,” she said. Some came back, Conway said.

Calhoun is ranked by CPS as a level 2 school, according to its standardized test scores. That’s one level better than the LEARN campus.

“All we can do is tell them, ‘Go on the Internet and compare the grades, your kid is learning here at Calhoun but it’s your choice,” said Conway, 44, a longtime member of Calhoun’s Local School Council.

300 schools under capacity

She worries that Calhoun could be in trouble since its enrollment has declined some 18 percent since 2010.

“The parents have lost their jobs and moved with relatives — more like economic reasons, not because of learning reasons,” she said.

With any luck, Calhoun might get new kids if other area schools are shuttered.

“We’re fine with that,” she said. “Calhoun is an upstanding school. We don’t have the bullying problems, we don’t have the gang problems, none of those issues.”

CPS says some 300 of its 681 schools are under capacity and cannot all remain open, though it won’t announce how many are to close for several more months. An independent commission will make recommendations to school CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who faces a $1 billion deficit by summer.

In a highly unusual move last week, Byrd-Bennett asked the board to defer votes on two new charter schools her staff had already vetted and recommended, saying she wanted more time to consider them. But the board also voted unanimously to approve two more charters, bringing the total number of new charter schools opening in the fall to 11.

That angers supporters of neighborhood schools, including the Chicago Teachers Union, who argue the district is adding classroom spaces it does not need.

The Chicago Teachers Union says the charters skim students away from traditional schools in poor neighborhoods like Englewood that already have lost population.

“CPS wants to pretend that charter growth is a natural byproduct of parents choosing with their feet,” said CTU researcher Sarah Hainds, who co-authored a recent report called “The Black and White of Education in Chicago Public Schools.”

“You have it set up so that choice is more tantalizing,” leading kids to move to a “shiny new charter down the street,” she said. Since money [and teachers] get allocated per student at the neighborhood school, “there is a real economic issue where losing enrollment means declining resources. You lose your special ed, you lose your resources, which makes it less attractive.”

CPS, she says, has instituted policies — changed attendance boundaries, shuttered academic programs — that have led to falling enrollment at some schools.

Charter schools account for just 18 percent of schoolchildren who’ve left neighborhood public schools in areas of the city that have lost at least a quarter of their population since 2002, according to demographic data released by CPS last week.

Declining population

The bulk of the enrollment declines stem from population lost throughout the city.

“What you’re seeing is just by looking at the location of these charters, more are located in areas that are underutilized than over capacity, but they are not the main driver of underutilization,” Chief Communications Officer Becky Carroll said.

That’s population decline, Carroll said. CPS has cited census figures showing a loss of 145,000 children ages 0 to 19 between 2000 and 2010.

At Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, board member Andrea Zopp demanded locations of the new charters before she cast her vote. Byrd-Bennett said she’d present specific sites to the board for their approval, once the charters found homes. And she said she’d be working with the operators to make sure their schools were needed.

“We’ve made it pretty clear to charters,” Carroll said, “you’re going to have to look at areas where there’s overcrowding.”

Of course charters are located close to schools with falling enrollment, charter advocates say.

“The charters locate there because it’s where school options are the weakest. That’s what’s driving location,” said Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “Charter schools aren’t locating in Lake View and the Northwest Side,” home to strong public schools.

“It’s not that we’re causing the draining of the schools,” Broy said.

Principal Hattie B. King has taken the Willa Cather Elementary School, in East Garfield Park, to the top CPS ranking during the 10 years she’s been in charge. She had 500 bodies in the building when she started because Cather hosted children from a nearby elementary school. They left. So did charter schools that once called her empty second floor their temporary home.

Now her school hosts barely 250 children from Pre-K to eighth grade. She has just 10 second-graders this year, her smallest class ever.

CPS says she’s at just 30 percent capacity, one of the worst rates in the district. Yet her test scores, growing steadily under her tenure, have placed her school in CPS’ top level: Level 1.

The number of schools keeps growing in the neighborhood around Cather, King said, though the population itself is shrinking.

LEARN Campbell is close by; the Alain Locke Charter School opened back in 1999.

“I think there are just so many schools, period, that are in our vicinity,” King said, “and with this neighborhood, there’s been a lot of re-gentrification in the last several years and so we just have a number of schools that are pulling the same students.”

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