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CPS rejects charter school relocation to Albany Park, cites potential harm to neighborhood school

The move would have put ASPIRA Early College High School school less than half a mile down the street from Roosevelt High School.

Parents, teachers, students and community members protest at Jensen Park over the expected decision by Chicago Public Schools Board on ASPIRA Early College High School relocation, Tuesday, May 18, 2021.
Parents, teachers, students and community members protest at Jensen Park over the expected decision by Chicago Public Schools Board on ASPIRA Early College High School relocation, Tuesday, May 18, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials are blocking the proposed relocation of a charter high school to Albany Park, a Northwest Side neighborhood where families and staff at a district-run high school worried the controversial move could hurt their enrollment.

Students at the charter school, ASPIRA Early College High School, have advocated for a different building for years in hopes they would have newer and bigger facilities for improved academic and extracurricular opportunities.

This proposal would have moved ASPIRA Early College from 3986 W. Barry Ave. in Avondale to share an Albany Park building at 3729 W. Leland Ave. that currently houses a sister middle school, ASPIRA Haugan.

That would have put the charter high school less than half a mile away on Leland Avenue from Roosevelt High School.

“At the core of this decision is what the impact could be on neighborhood schools, which is a critical priority for this district,” Bing Howell, CPS’ school portfolio chief, told the Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday.

Howell said ASPIRA schools are a valued part of the district that provide “valuable supports to amazing CPS scholars and communities, and our recommendation does not negate any of this.” CPS’ assessment of the proposal found the move would in fact benefit ASPIRA students.

“As a system of schools, though, we can’t make these decisions in isolation on their impact on surrounding schools and school communities,” he said.

Analysis of the relocation’s impact on Roosevelt High School found it would have a “potentially negative impact on neighborhood high school enrollment.” There are more than 1,300 available neighborhood high school seats in a two-mile radius of the proposed Albany Park location, Howell said. He also noted “significant opposition” from the Albany Park community.

The school board did not vote on the proposal since it wasn’t recommended by the district.

Teachers, students, parents and local officials held a news conference last week calling for CPS to reject the proposal because of fears it would siphon enrollment from Roosevelt to the charter.

Brenda Leyva, a student member of Roosevelt’s Local School Council, told the Board of Education on Wednesday that she was concerned her school would be hurt. She said the building’s empty space would better serve North River Elementary, an Albany Park school located in a church building. North River students use a teacher parking lot for recess and a basement for P.E. class, and often are told to quiet down because funerals are held in the building, she said.

“We have witnessed that when a high school plans to relocate blocks away from a neighborhood high school, the neighborhood high school usually suffers,” Leyva said.

School board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said she appreciated the sensitivity of the issue because both schools were looking out for their students, and it’s a delicate balance between the best interests of a single school versus the broader system.

“I want to honor the great personal respect that I have for ASPIRA as a community-based organization — and I understand the value that students and families and educators have derived from the support of ASPIRA — while also respecting and honoring the history of how we got to where we are with our current under-enrollment crisis,” Todd-Breland said.

“Opening charter schools in proximity to neighborhood schools is part of how we got to where we are today.”

Proponents of the move have pointed to the Albany Park building offering students a bigger and newer space with more opportunities for quality academics and extracurriculars, and more green space and improved science labs. Students at ASPIRA have had to take P.E. classes at a Planet Fitness across the street, leaders said.

Ulises Rivero, a teacher and father of a 9th grader at ASPIRA Early College, told the board that students at the school should be rewarded with this opportunity for better facilities.

“When I heard members of the community defending how harmful it can be, that move, I just want to remind you that our students also deserve a good school,” he said. “The current building wasn’t designed for a school.”

Oscar Martinez, an ASPIRA board member and alum, said he was disappointed to hear ASPIRA “depicted as part of the problem of public education in Chicago.” Martinez said there would be no intention to expand ASPIRA, and that “our application to move students from one building to another should have been routine. Instead, the discussion has snowballed into a political campaign.”

“I know this district because I am one of the kids who benefitted from the support I received from ASPIRA and the fine tradition of education they instilled in me, which led me to become an educator,” he said.

Matt Major, a policy manager with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, told the board he viewed the proposed move as “the right thing to do for students and families.”

“We urge you to put politics aside and recognize charter public school families as part of the CPS community and listen to authentic community voice while committing to fair, transparent and public processes,” he said.