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Devoted parents seek top schools

Updated: March 1, 2012 9:50AM

Dressed in a green T-shirt emblazoned with the Gary Comer School Logo, and standing in a sea of kids wearing various school garb and colors, Danielle Johnson looked like a kid herself.

But Johnson is a 37-year-old mother who is so excited about the school her daughters attend, she got up at the crack of dawn on a blustery day to take part in the 5th Annual New School Expo last Saturday.

An estimated 8,000 people attended the event at Soldier Field that was designed to inform parents about the network of charter schools that are now available across the city.

“What grade is your child?” Johnson called out when she spotted me weaving my way through an army of school boosters.

Despite recent negative reports that concluded only one of the nine charters with multiple sites beat district-wide averages of all Chicago public schools for the percent of students passing state tests on every campus, thousands of parents flocked to the Expo hoping to enroll their child in a charter school.

“This is a no-nonsense school,” Johnson said, rattling off the virtues of the Gary Comer schools, the charter her two daughters attend. Her eldest daughter was in the school’s first 6th-grade class. She currently attends the Gary Comer College Preparatory on the South Side, where she is taking AP Classes and has a 3.5 grade point average, the mother said.

“They do not tolerate any conduct that is not good,” Johnson said proudly. “They make demands on students, and students are rewarded for things they do well.”

Johnson’s daughter, D’Myja Ames, was also trying to engage parents at the Expo. The 6th-grader boasted that she beat state averages in reading and math.

“Teachers don’t just give the work to you, they walk you through the process,” she said.

Although the balloons, freebies, and costumed mascots gave the event a carnival flavor, it was serious business.

Staffers and teachers affiliated with more than 100 charter campuses across the city were eager to explain what their school had to offer and how the admission process works.

“Parents have a really hard time trying to understand the new school options,” said Phyllis Lockett, president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, the organization behind the Expo.

Lockett is the daughter of two Chicago Public School teachers. She graduated from Lindbloom High School, one of the city’s early magnet schools.

“I know all about choice,” she said. “This is close to my heart. I want to make sure our neighborhoods have choice. We work with parents directly to help them access the options that are available so they don’t feel like they have to settle.”

Of course, Johnson is one of the lucky parents. She was able to get her child into the school of her choice without a hassle.

The process frustrates others, like Regina Lampley.

She has been trying to get her 8-year-old son into Owens Scholastic Academy since he was in kindergarten. The family put their name in the lottery, and her son ended up No. 9 on a waiting list.

“I tried first and second grade as well as the third grade. I have a friend who has children at the school, and she went up there on my behalf,” Lampley said.

“I am only 500 feet away from the school, and I still can’t get him in.”

Lampley went to the New Schools Expo hoping to learn how to improve her chances for the next school year.

“I have talked to other parents who are also frustrated, and they gave up,” she said,

“At least I have to try. I want my son to have the best education there is.”

Lockett feels her pain.

“Unfortunately, if you are living on the South and West Sides, and you are not lucky enough to get into a magnet or charter school, you are going to be relegated to a underperforming school,” she said.

“That is why New Schools for Chicago is around.”

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