After years of charter school expansion across the city, the lone applicant to open a charter school next year in Chicago Public Schools’ territory is a 500-student school for at-risk boys from some of the South Side’s most violent neighborhoods.
If approved, the proposed Kemet Leadership Academy would open next year inside the former Garrett A. Morgan Elementary in Auburn-Gresham, which was among the 50 schools shuttered in 2013 in a controversial cost-cutting move by CPS. Backers say the school, which will cater to boys in grades five through eight, who are most likely to drop out as teens and join gangs.
But neighborhood residents at a public hearing Monday on Kemet’s application voiced concern that enrollment at the school would draw students and funding away from struggling schools — as competition from charters did to Morgan Elementary.
“My child, and the children of that community, are not guinea pigs,” an emotional Auburn-Gresham resident, Anthony Jackson, said on Monday night at CPS headquarters. “I understand that y’all are trying to target a demographic . . . but that demographic would never have been created if funds had been available to the regular school system.”
The climate for charter growth has grown chilly in recent years, as declining enrollment at CPS schools has drained money from the district, even as CPS hiked taxes to pay down massive pension costs. And the district last month reached a deal on a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union that stipulates there will be no net increase in the number of charters over the next four years.
J. Michael Johnson, a Simeon Career Academy alum who has been one of the organizers in the 2-year-long effort to launch Kemet, seemed wounded by the attacks on the planned school. Johnson said he and members of Project Simeon 2000 are working to open a school that will provide intensive mentoring and leadership training for boys ages 10 to 14, when they are most at risk of being recruited into gang life.
Johnson said the group was inspired by the killing of Simeon graduate Demarius Reed, who had gone on to college at Eastern Michigan and played football, but was killed in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 2013, despite doing “everything we asked of him.”
“We’re talking about that kid the pulled the trigger. Not the kid that’s doing everything else that we asked him to do. Nobody’s talking about that kid,” Johnson said. “Kemet is about saving the lives of our children. Now, not later. Not when you’ve got enough money. Right now. Our needs are now.”
The CTU contract would bar the district from allowing a net increase to the number of charter schools or net enrollment in charters across the city for the life of the four-year deal negotiated last month. Since a handful of charters close or are shut down each year, that doesn’t bar new charter schools from opening.
Early last year, 16 charter school operators submitted letters of intent to open new campuses in the 2017-18 school year, but all but Kemet withdrew from the process in the ensuing months. Last year, two new charter schools were approved by CPS, and nine charter campuses closed.
In 2014, CPS received proposals for seven new campuses, approving only two, and later rescinding their permission to open. In 2013, the district approved seven new campuses out of 20 proposed by charter operators.
If approved, Kemet would enroll 250 at-risk students, all boys, in 2017-18 and total enrollment would peak at 500, with students drawn from Auburn-Gresham, Chatham, Englewood, Roseland, Washington Heights and Grand Crossing. The group backing Kemet also is looking at using the former St. Benedict the African School building, 6547 S. Stewart, owned by the the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.