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Charter schools CPS wanted to close will reopen next school year

Three charter schools closed by Chicago Public Schools will stay open after a state commission unanimously overruled the district Tuesday night.

Because CPS essentially failed to grant due process and “broke the trust of our schools,” Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter Elementary School, 8 W. Root St.; Betty Shabazz’ Sizemore campus, 6936 S. Hermitage; and Amandla Charter High School, 6800 S. Stewart, will go on next year under state oversight with some recommended conditions, including finding their own facilities by July 1.

Even after acknowledging their own serious academic concerns at all three schools, all six eligible commission members voted to keep the three schools open. They said they didn’t think the schools had been treated fairly by the district overseeing them.

“We are tasked with ensuring that the process of obtaining and retaining a school charter is fair and transparent,” commission chair Deronda Williams said. “And I think our independent evaluators . . . found that CPS violated state policy and really broke the trust of all of the schools.”

This unprecedented overturning of CPS’ decision means a decrease in state money the broke district formerly received for each charter school student and a loss of any power over three more publicly funded but privately managed schools within the city’s borders.

And the timing couldn’t be worse for ongoing negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union. In its last contract offer, CPS offered to cap the number of charters but the commission Tuesday numbed the public schools system’s ability to control how many charter schools exist in the city.

After public hearings and site visits, commission leader Hosanna Jones told commissioners that none of the three schools met the commission’s standards for academic performance, yet she cited numerous legalities in recommending to keep the schools open — with conditions for academics and facilities.

These schools are the commission’s first to consider for a proposed closure. Previously, the appointed panel evaluated the denial of applications for schools that wanted to open.

CPS, which abruptly changed its charter school quality policy earlier this school year, stood by its decision, saying that all three schools have lagged academically for years and fail to meet CPS or commission academic standards.

But Forrest Claypool, CEO of the indebted district, called on the General Assembly in an email “to rein in this unaccountable commission and restore local control based on standards of accountability and quality. Charter schools that are failing to teach children basic math and reading skills should be closed, and the dollars reinvested in schools capable of preparing students for future life success.”

In general, state authorized charter schools, whose money comes right from the state, receive more funding than schools within CPS. It’s not yet clear how much CPS will lose.

CPS’ charter chief Mary Bradley admitted to commissioners, “CPS can do better” with its charter quality process but emphasized that poor performance is why the schools were to be closed. And she touted CPS’ transition plan, including guarantees of spots in magnet schools and transportation for at least one year to schools more than 0.8 miles away. But those offers only came Monday night, Amandla CEO Jennifer Kirmes charged, after CPS learned of the commission staff’s recommendations to grant the appeals.

She asked, “Can CPS be trusted to keep their word?”

Kirmes’ students were among hundreds from all three schools who packed a fieldhouse at Sherman Park, which the commission had chosen as a central location that could accommodate the many expected supporters who turned up in specially printed school T-shirts: “#SaveAmandla,” and “One Vision One Team One BLCS.”

Amandla junior Naomi Jackson, 16, couldn’t fathom having to start over in September, far from friends, for her final year of high school. She cheered with her friends at the news that she would be able to finish there.

Jackson takes three buses home to Roseland every afternoon. She transferred as a sophomore from another charter school where she didn’t feel supported or cared for.

“This is the place for me,” she said. “I really hope we stay open. You don’t feel bullied or unsafe or anything. It’s a very safe environment.”

Many parents and teachers spoke about the safety and stability their schools have been able to provide to students in neighborhoods that have witnessed violence and repeated school closures.

Sizemore teacher Jocelyn Mills said she polled her students to see how many have already attended a school that closed.

“Out of a class of 30, only 10 hands did not go up,” Mills told commissioners. “At some point we are going to have to address this issue and we are going to have to make decisions that do not harm children.”

She continued, “From the bottom of my heart, I really feel that our children and our families deserve much better than what they have gotten thus far.”

The parent group Raise Your Hand, which has called for a moratorium on charters until CPS can afford to fully fund its existing schools, tweeted: “Happy for these families but this process is wrong. CPS needs to fix lame closing policy. now these (schools) get more $, less oversight.”