12-7-2001 The Academy of Communications and Technology located at 4319 W. Washington Street, formerly St. Mel's, is one of three charter schools coming up for renewal. Co-founders and co-directors Michelle Smith, left, and Sarah Howard state their case and give a tour to Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times) digital image
Updated: March 5, 2014 6:02AM
Sarah Howard thought Bruce Rauner was an angel who would rescue her financially troubled, academically struggling charter school in East Garfield Park.
Instead, the would-be Republican candidate for Illinois governor took control of the Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School that Howard started, dumped her as executive director, suspended operations for two years, then turned it over to a national charter school operator.
“Bruce was coming to us, saying he was going to help us strengthen and improve our campus,” says Howard, who now works for the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success. “And instead what happened is he approached it like it was a turnaround that needed to be wiped out, sort of like a venture capital deal — come in, put in new leadership and change everything around.
“We were a little bit at his mercy,” she says. “He indicated to us one thing, and then, two months later, he said, ‘Before I write a check, I’m going to want my own person.’ ”
Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist, took over as chairman of the ACT board in the fall of 2008, saying he hoped to turn Howard’s school around.
“It probably didn’t end up the way that she would like or, frankly, the way that I would like,” Rauner says. “ACT was a struggling, poor-performing charter school. The scores were low. The students were not growing. And I got involved to try to remedy that. And they were struggling financially, and I was willing to donate to help them financially. But they were also struggling in a horrible school building
. . . old, decrepit, cold, leaky, expensive and . . . I was hoping I could help them find a better location, as well as restructure their operations and recruit better teachers and really turn it around.
“We made the tough decision that we couldn’t really turn this school around . . . So we made the tough decision to suspend operations for a year or two.”
Howard and a business partner started ACT in 1997 at a former Catholic elementary school at 4319 W. Washington, offering classes to seventh- through 12th-graders. But ACT’s test scores lagged behind those of many public schools. That led the Chicago Board of Education to deny ACT’s application to renew its charter for five years. The board gave ACT a two-year extension, then two more extensions, through June 2011.
“With the exception of high school test scores, we were outperforming our neighborhood school on every other metric and, in some cases, beating the CPS average,” Howard says. “I’m not saying we were knocking it out of the park, but we were serving the neighborhood well and were improving.”
But Howard didn’t have the money for repairs needed at the old Catholic school. A leaking roof forced her to move into a nearby CPS elementary school for the 2007-08 school year. She met Rauner and hoped he would give her $500,000 to refurbish her old school.
Soon after Rauner joined her board, Howard says he started talking about shutting down ACT, which had about 350 students. Eventually, he got permission from the Board of Education to suspend the school for two years.
Rauner’s board reopened ACT in the fall of 2012, not as a high school but as an elementary school with about 80 fifth-graders at 4818 W. Ohio. Rauner turned over management to KIPP Charter Schools, which has 141 charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Rauner since has merged ACT with KIPP, which has four charter schools in Chicago. Each KIPP school pays a management fee of about $30,000 a year to the KIPP’s foundation.
Rauner’s foundation had donated $370,560 to ACT before it closed. He gave KIPP $100,000 last year.