Tour shows charter school variety
Chicago trip was used to see different public school models.
By Cathy Bayer
CHICAGO — Students spill into the hallways for group work at Chicago International Charter Schools’ Bucktown Campus.
Naturally, kids make noise, especially when working in pairs. There’s a tolerable buzz around the school — both in classrooms and the hallways of the kindergarten-eighth-grade building.
“That’s learning,” said Beth Purvis, executive director at Chicago International Charter Schools.
Across town at Rufino Tamayo, another K-8 school, it’s nearly silent. The school, part of the United Neighborhood Organization network, is very organized, structured, disciplined and quiet.
The silence means something else for Juan Rangel, UNO’S president: “That’s learning taking place.”
The two schools were on display as part of a three-school tour Nov. 21 for about 50 Rockford residents, civic leaders and educators interested in bringing another education choice to Rockford — charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools funded by the state. These schools are generally smaller and can bend public school rules, like length of the school day and having longer school years.
Charter schools have only been around in Illinois since 1996, and if a charter school fails to meet goals, it’s closed.
The tour schools all have a lottery system where students are chosen at random after they apply. These schools give preference to younger siblings of students already enrolled in the school and give preference to school employees’ children. Several districts try to keep families together.
Chicago International Charter School Bucktown Campus is a K-8 college prep school; Rufino Tamayo is another K-8, and its population is almost 100 percent Hispanic; and Youth Connections Leadership Academy, part of Youth Connections Charter Schools, is a high school that focuses on dropouts and off-track students.
Any one of the models could come to Rockford. CICS and the Leadership Academy plan to submit proposals to the Rockford School Board; Legacy Charter School of Excellence submitted a proposal, and School Board President Nancy Kalchbrenner announced the proposal at the Nov. 18 board meeting.
“Not all great minds learn alike,” said Laurie Preece, executive director of Rockford Charter School Initiative.
The goal of the tour was to get a feel for some different public education models to see which would address Rockford students’ needs, she said.
Members of the charter school initiative have been keeping a database of people interested in charter schools, and announcements were made through the media about the trip. Anyone interested was allowed to go, space permitting.
Chicago has 30 charter schools, and that’s the maximum for the city. The collar counties have two, but can have up to 15, said Mary Ann Fergus, communication specialist with the Illinois State Board of Education.
The rest of the state can have up to 15 schools; seven have opened so far, leaving eight charter licenses up for grabs. Rockford could claim them.
The Rockford Board of Education decides how many to approve — it could approve all eight available if there are eight proposals, Fergus said. If the board doesn’t approve a plan, the proposer can appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Rockford School Board member Dave Kelley said he’s encouraged by all the work that’s gone into charter school research and he’d like to weigh each proposal’s advantages before committing to anything, just like with any new program or idea.
“I think we should stick our foot in the water first,” he said.
Mike Williams, board vice president, said the kind of school — K-8, K-5, high school — doesn’t matter.
“The grade configuration isn’t what’s key,” he said. “The key is the curriculum that’s offered, the instruction.”
Any kind of configuration would be established to create “innovative approaches to education,” he said.
Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey doesn’t have a particular quantity in mind for charter schools, but he and Adam Smith, the city’s director of education and lifelong learning, have worked closely with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, and also have invited several charter school operators to tour Rockford and speak to city representatives.
Kalchbrenner is open to the idea of a charter school coming to Rockford.
“They meet a need that we feel we’re unable to address,” she said.
Schedule flexibility and ability to go outside a union contract is appealing, Kalchbrenner said. She’s also curious to see if test scores and graduation rates would be different.
“I think that we need to allow some different options to come into the city,” Kalchbrenner said.
She wants board members to remember that the board isn’t advocating for any specific program. She pointed out the importance of keeping some distance from the project as the governing body that is supposed to choose a potential program.
The board plans to hold an open forum before Christmas about Legacy’s proposal, Kalchbrenner said. And area residents are anxiously waiting for news of charter schools and a potential change to come to Rockford.
“Charter schools have a good success rate and kids want to be a part of it,” said Alex Woods, a Realtor with Whitehead Inc. Realtors, who was on the tour. “As a Realtor, the first thing people ask is ‘How’s the school?’ ” he said, and he doesn’t always give them the answer they want to hear.
A charter school might help change that, he said. “Our School District isn’t bad, but it has that reputation.”