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Science charter school gets zoning approval after heated debate

Updated: June 2, 2013 6:29AM

Concept Charter School got the go-ahead Tuesday to open a new charter school in a McKinley Park industrial building but not before a heated debate about the wisdom of opening charters while closing public schools.

“I understand there’s a lot of hot debate with charters and CPS. But don’t hold hostage a decision that has nothing to do with the merits…This benefits my community,” said local Ald. George Cardenas (12th), whose ward includes the vacant warehouse at 2245 W. Pershing.

Prior to the Zoning Committee’s 7-to-3 vote, Cardenas lashed out at Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd), James Cappleman (46th) and Ameya Pawar (47th) for opposing a charter that will relieve overcrowding in Southwest Side schools and give parents the educational choice they deserve.

“You may choose to do your politics, my colleagues. But the same will be said and the same will be done for you when you want to be heard and want to represent your community,” Cardenas said.

In August, the Chicago Board of Education rejected Concept’s application to open two charter schools, prompting the company to do an end-run at the state level that denied CPS its 15 percent funding share.

Last week, Concept’s application for a zoning change for the McKinley Park school also was removed from the Zoning Committee agenda under pressure from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, only to be put back on the agenda after Cardenas made a public stink.

Sources said Emanuel was concerned about the political timing of opening new charters at the same time that the Chicago Public Schools is closing 53 elementary schools and one high school program.

Fioretti seemed to agree.

“Charter schools are, I won’t say a lightning rod because that’s not true. But they are an issue that some of us believe [is] undermining the neighborhood schools,” he said.

“Why did CPS say `no.’ To me, maybe CPS made the right decision once.”

Cappleman said he’s a former teacher who opposes charters because they “take away the resources needed to create good public schools.”

He added, “The struggle I have is that CPS did not support this and you went up the chain-of-command. I need to get a really clear understanding of why CPS did not support it. To say the application wasn’t filled out correctly — I’m not gonna buy that. I want to hear what their concerns were and what’s being done to address those concerns.”

Pawar branded charter schools a “sugar pill” that perform no better than public schools, adding, “I don’t know when charter schools became synonymous with education reform.”

Then, he put Salim Ucan, vice-president of Concept Schools, on the hot seat for going around CPS.

“Given what’s happening citywide, you don’t think there’s an issue with end-arounding Chicago Public Schools? We’re closing 54 schools. You don’t see this, at a minimum as an optics issue?” Pawar said.

Ucan replied, “This is a successful organization with a successful track record. More than 1,000 parents signed up. They want the school. Why would you make us wait for another year?”

Concept Schools currently operates the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park. That school, which has a good rating according to CPS, opened in 2004.

The organization needed the zoning change at 2245 W. Pershing so the vacant warehouse could become Horizon Science Charter School Academy McKinley Park in September.

Concept also is trying to open a second school in Lincoln Square to be called Horizon Science Charter School Belmont also set to open for the start of the next school year. They’re still looking for a building for that one; their original choice was too close to a neighborhood school the district seeks to close.

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