Chicago families plead for a second chance for Hope Institute Learning Academy, which is set to close

Families and teachers asked the Chicago Board of Education to keep their school — which serves students with special needs alongside general ed students — intact.

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Chicago Board of Education members listen to public comment at each monthly meeting, including on Wednesday when parents spoke out against the closing of the Hope Institute Learning Academy. 

Chicago Board of Education members listen to public comment at each monthly meeting, including on Wednesday when parents spoke out against the closing of the Hope Institute Learning Academy.

Pat Nabong /Sun-Times file photo

Parents and teachers begged the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday to keep their school intact after a school operator abruptly announced they were closing it.

Hope Institute Learning Academy opened in 2009, promising to create a unique community where students with autism and other disabilities would be catered to in an environment with students without special needs.

It is run by Hope Institute, a nonprofit headquartered in Springfield, which provides programs for developmentally disabled people, including a residential academy and a vocational school. Hope Institute has a contract with Chicago Public Schools to run the school.

“Black and Brown and special needs ... students are being pushed out,” said Daquisha Johnson, a mother who spoke at the meeting. “I am filled with so much sadness and anger and even trying to keep my composure from crying.”

Another parent said her daughter who has autism came to the school struggling and non-verbal but has blossomed there. Hope Learning Academy currently has 220 students, grades kindergarten through fifth, nearly 36% receiving special education.

Teachers said CPS should take over the school and keep it open, but school district officials said that was not the plan. CPS officials said Hope families will be given many school options to choose from, and individual meetings have been planned.

The teachers also accused the organization of closing the school just weeks after they voted to unionize.

Hope Learning Academy spokesman Jodi Ogilvy refuted that. She said since 2020 the organization has been concerned about the viability of the school. She said they wanted to expand, but CPS would not allow it. At the same time, enrollment was declining from a high of more than 400 students to about 220 now.

Ogilvy said the organization put $2.8 million into the school over the past decade and the relationship with CPS administration was not good.

“We [are] deeply saddened by the outcome,” she said. “Hope felt there was no way forward for us to provide services to the families.”

CPS Chief Portfolio Officer Alfonso Carmona said the school district was also surprised and frustrated that Hope was pulling out. Hope’s contract was renewed in February.

He said the school district is focusing on trying to “do right” by the students and families at Hope. Many students will be offered spots at Brown Elementary School, a magnet school less than a block away from Hope. Others will be able to go to Wilma Rudolph Learning Center, a special education program located in the same building as Hope.

Because many of them get special education services, Carmona said some of the students will need to be evaluated to make sure their placements can meet their needs.

He also said all staff at Hope will be guaranteed a job.

“We have been working to maintain as much as possible that community feeling for not only the students but also the staff,” Carmona said. He said there will be an open house on Thursday for families to get questions answered.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ.

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