Charter school’s religious affiliation raises questions

Written By BY BECKY SCHLIKERMAN Staff Reporter Posted: 02/23/2014, 02:36am
Array Donnita Travis, founder and executive director of By the Hand Club for Kids, interacts with 2nd grade students Lave Harrison, left, and Dayshawn Oaks on Tuesday, January 31, 2012. A privately-run after school program, operates at several sites around the city, including this old Cabrini Green location. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

The students would arrive in the morning, eat breakfast and go to class. It would be a regular school day with lots of technology used in instruction.

In the afternoon, the program would switch, and a nonprofit, faith-based, after-school program affiliated with Moody Church would take over — helping the kids with homework, feeding them dinner and teaching them about the Bible.

That would be the arrangement for a tentatively approved charter school in Austin set to open in 2015.

The school’s deep partnership with the faith-based group raises questions about how a publicly financed charter school can comply with the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, especially when both groups share some leaders.

But officials with the nonprofit By the Hand Club for Kids, and with the charter school group, Chicago Education Partnership, said they won’t cross any lines, and children and parents can have a say if they want to be involved in religious classes.

“We want to be clear, transparent, open and make sure everyone realizes that we understand the faith-based part of things doesn’t enter into the school day,” said Michael Rogers, executive director of Chicago Education Partnership and a leader at By the Hand. “It’s only into the after-school hours, and kids can opt out.”

As for By the Hand, “We’re already doing a lot of homework and talking with counsel and making sure that we don’t do anything that would cross that line,” said Donnita Travis, the founder and executive director of By the Hand and the charter’s chairman of the board.

A Chicago Public Schools spokesman said CPS, which conditionally approved the charter last month, and the Illinois State Board of Education will “ensure that the educational plan and curricula meets the district’s and the state’s standards.”

“State law specifies that charter schools must be nonsectarian and nonreligious and requires all new schools to submit a copy of their curriculum in order to be certified by the Illinois State Board of Education,” CPS spokesman Joel Hood said in a statement.

But to those protecting the barrier between church and state, the partnership doesn’t seem appropriate.

“This sounds constitutionally questionable at best,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Dwayne Truss, a community activist in Austin who has been an outspoken critic of the charter, said he worries that oversight from CPS won’t be diligent. “They’re blurring the line, big-time.”

The yet-to-be named charter school in Austin wouldn’t be the only such school group in Chicago with ties to religious groups.

Catalyst Schools was founded, in part, by brother Ed Siderewicz and former brother Gordon Hannon, and the school follows in the tradition of the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

The Concept Schools have ties to organizations affiliated with the influential Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, records show.

The issue of faith-based groups and their connections to charter schools hasn’t been a common concern in Illinois or Chicago, said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

It’s not uncommon for religious groups to want to extend their mission of service by opening a charter school, he said, and many religious groups work with public schools by hosting after-school programs.

That’s what By the Hand does.

The after-school program serves more than 900 children in four Chicago communities.

Last week, hundreds of energetic kids rushed through the doors of the group’s new facility in Austin.

Students got help with homework; they read books and ate hot dogs, baked beans and fruit. Some visited a dentist who came in a mobile office.

The kids also went to chapel.

In a clean, bright room, they danced, learned about the Ten Commandments and said a prayer.

Some classrooms have religious posters on the walls, and the group tracks how many kids in their program attend church — 24 percent last year, a 12 percent increase from the previous year, according to By the Hand’s annual report.

It also tracks how many students in their program passed all their classes: 73 percent last year, which was a 5 percent increase over the previous year, according to the 2013 annual report.

The group claims 100 percent of the students it serves get a hot meal and dental and vision care, which helps them do better in school.

“When you start looking at the academic needs of kids, the physical, the emotional needs of kids . . . it’s really looking at the whole child and saying how can we eliminate the barriers to learning that these kids have? Because they’re not always academic barriers,” Rogers said.

The charter, in a community that lost schools in the closures last year, has received some big-name support.

In December, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., urged the Chicago Board of Education to give Chicago Education Partnership the charter because his church, New Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, is involved with By the Hand.

The congressman, who said he normally isn’t supportive of charters, later told the Sun-Times that the church asked him to speak on behalf of the charter.

CPS officials haven’t fully approved the charter group, which seeks to open a K-8 school beginning in 2015.

Last month, the Chicago Board of Education conditionally approved the group and asked it to find a principal with a “proven track record of driving student academic achievement with similar student populations.” CPS officials also want more curriculum details.

There’s no mention of the charter’s partnership with By the Hand, which is overseen by the Moody Church’s elders. The elders, with the group’s board of directors, must approve major decisions, and the church provides the group with some administrative services, according to tax documents and the group’s annual report.

Travis said By the Hand was founded in 2001 as a ministry of the Moody Church, but since 2005 it’s been a separate nonprofit group.

The charter school would be housed in a new building adjacent to the current $6 million, 26,000-square-foot Austin facility, and the charter would lease its space from the nonprofit for $750 per student, officials said. It plans to enroll 90 children per grade and would initially open with just two grades.

“My faith motivates me to do more,” Travis said. “The idea is going deeper with our kids. Having great impact in their lives and serving more kids.”


Twitter: @schlikerman

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