CICS ANSWERS TOUGH QUESTIONS TO ENSURE RESPONSIBLE GROWTH
In 2008, two new school projects, ChicagoRise and Altgeld Gardens, taught the Chicago International team an important lesson about expansionâ€”expanding school choice for families only works with careful consideration about how, when, and where to expand the organization. by Jennifer Kaiser | photos by Joshua Dunn
Responsible Growth An essential part of the Chicago International mission is to give families, who live in neighborhoods with limited education choices, the chance to attend an academically rigorous school. Chicago International is organized as a charter network in order to offer the choice of a high-quality education to many communities, not just one. What this requires, then, is preparing students for college by supporting their academic success in varied ways. That has been very clear from the beginning. What has been less clear, and is now apparent from recent expansion efforts—is that before opening a new campus—Chicago International must be sure it can support both individual student success and campus success within the neighborhood and the larger educational community.
Altgeld Gardens The Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the far south side of Chicago is where President Barack Obama started out as a community organizer. This community is home for families who are predominantly AfricanAmerican (97%) and have limited incomes. Isolated geographically by highways and lack of public transport, getting in and getting out of Altgeld is difficult. Only 50% of the homes in the 64-year-old Altgeld-Murray Homes public housing development are occupied currently, but the homes are under renovation. When restoration is complete in 2014, an estimated 7,000 residents will move back into the area. Neighborhoods thrive or stagnate, however, based on the quality of their schools. In June 2009, Altgeld Gardens’s best elementary school, Our Lady of the Gardens, will close its doors. Maryville Academy, a Catholic charity, operated Our Lady of the Gardens for many years until they recognized they could no longer underwrite the school. Rather than abandon the community, Maryville decided to find a charter school 14
to take over. Chicago Public Schools recommended a few organizations, and one of those was Chicago International.
As staff considered the idea, the positives were obvious. Here was a community desperately in need of quality schools. Here also was an established partner ready and willing to collaborate. Equally important, here was an available facility. But there were challenges, too, that required serious consideration. Challenge one is the short-term and long-term financial viability. Will enough children enroll in the early years to meet the budget? What is the long-term enrollment outlook? If the current student body remains at an enrollment level of 250 to 260 children, the cost-per-pupil ratio would be untenable. If instead, the building is enlarged to accommodate 340 to 350 students, the new Altgeld Gardens school qualifies as a “small school” in Chicago, receiving $300 in additional funding per pupil. At that level of enrollment and funding, the school does become financially viable.
Since Chicago International is accustomed to student waiting lists, the full enrollment question was a new one. As residents return to the neighborhood it should be easy to fill enrollment to capacity, but the current population of K-8th graders is low during the community transition. Also, because many of Our Lady’s children lived outside of the city limits, almost 40% of the current Catholic School students are geographically ineligible to attend a Chicago public charter school. Challenge two is the facility. Can Chicago International afford to renovate and expand the building? As is true for many of Chicago’s Catholic schools, the facility required updating of mechanicals, systems, and roofing. In addition, expanding enrollment to 350 is an increase of almost 60%; this site would need more physical space in the form of a significant addition to meet its needs. Challenge three is the timeline. When Our Lady of the Gardens closes its doors in June 2009, will Chicago International be prepared to reopen by August, less than three months later? This timeline demands a Herculean
effort. The building must be renovated and expanded, the community leadership and residents engaged, and an educational management partner must be selected to hire faculty and staff to educate over 300 students. It’s a big job.
Putting all assumptions aside, the answers fell into place one by one.
“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.”
2010 Announced in June 2004 by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the City of Chicago, the Renaissance 2010 initiative calls for the development of 100 high-performing public schools in communities at risk by 2010, using one of three models.
-H. Fred Ale
The only other elementary school serving the area is not a quality option, so Chicago International took the initiative to inform local parents about the new charter school. As a result, Day-One enrollment is projected to be close to 340. Maryville agreed to pay half of the $1.2 million facility expansion cost. Edison Schools has stepped up as the Educational Management Organization (EMO). Meetings with the alderman, police commander, and Chicago Housing Authority have garnered promises of support from within the community. After all the hard questions were asked and answered, it turned out to be a match. So, on August 17th, CICS Altgeld Gardens will welcome children to Chicago International’s 13th campus!
CHARTER SCHOOL An independent public school operated by a nonprofit organization with complete jurisdiction over facilities, staff, curriculum, and financial management under Illinois Charter Law.
CONTRACT SCHOOL Also called a “turnaround school,” an independent nonprofit organization employing a new principal, teachers, programs, and culture to turn an existing low-performance into a high-performance school under contract with CPS in accordance with Performance Agreements and Illinois School Code.
PERFORMANCE SCHOOL A CPS school employing its own staff to operate with more flexibility and freedom under district guidelines.
ChicagoRise Chicago International’s charter school network is an important part of the Renaissance 2010 initiative in Chicago. Its model demonstrates a number of best practices for high-quality public education. In 2008, the “turnaround school” or contract school model, seemed a natural growth avenue.
The problem became clear only at the very end of contract negotiation. Apparently, initial conversations between Chicago International and CPS had missed many of the legal hurdles remaining before contract turnaround schools could function in a way that is aligned with the mission and vision of Chicago International.
Both contract and charter schools are managed by nonprofit organizations. The difference between them is similar to the difference between building a new house and renovating an old one. Many Chicago International charter campuses are a kind of “renovation,” established in former parochial school buildings and serving the same neighborhoods. Academically, it seemed that a contract school would fit comfortably into the charter school model, with some modifications.
If Chicago International moved forward with ChicagoRise, it would no doubt have advanced the cause of school reform in a powerful way, but the board and staff were unsure of the end cost to Chicago International, its campuses, and its students.
Therefore, Chicago International established ChicagoRise to manage its first contract school in fall of 2009. While still hammering out the contract with Chicago Public Schools, Chicago International hired ChicagoRise’s leadership team, posted a website, sent announcements, and even featured ChicagoRise on the back cover of FocalPoint.
Twenty-four hours before signing, however, Executive Director Beth Purvis made the difficult choice to pull out of the contract. At the eleventh hour, she discovered that contract schools do not fit the Chicago International model and could in fact jeopardize the organization’s larger mission. Though similar in some ways, charter schools and contract schools are governed differently. Charter schools operate under Illinois Charter Law. Contract schools are a new creation by the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and operate under the CPS contract and Illinois School Code.
The answer was simple: it would cost too much. Chicago International’s mission is to provide a high-quality education to today’s students, making it an organization that is both missiondriven and mission-constrained. Creating quality school options now and preparing today’s students for college this year are what Chicago International teachers and staff do every day. What works for Chicago International is the charter school model. While the organization might have produced a high-quality turnaround school, it could not have done so by replicating its proven charter model, forcing the organization to develop different models of education, governance, and business. Indeed, some educational organizations exist to operate in ways that invite actions that lead to policy change. As Beth Purvis says, “Reform at the legal level is important. But that’s not what we do.” In the end, Dr. Purvis and the Board of Directors made the very dramatic but necessary choice to withdraw Chicago International from the turnaround school project. “Our primary responsibility,” Purvis concluded, “is always to the students already enrolled in our schools.”
LESSONS LEARNED Ask the difficult questions to make the right choices for expansion. 1. What is the short-term and long-term financial viability of this expansion project? 2. Will the community support it? 3. Will the budget and facility allow us to conduct our activities and meet our goals? 4. Will the expansion project be self-supporting or will it require cutting other projects and programs? 5. Is this expansion mission-driven under the current mission statement, or does it require reconsideration of purpose and identity? 6. How will this expansion affect the future of the organization?
As CICS has increased the number of schools in its network, we have learned invaluable lessons about expanding successfully and responsibly.