Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday September 30th, 2013, 12:12pm

Albany Park Residents Want Local Aldermen To Oppose Northwest Side Charter School Expansion

Albany Park students and parents who gathered for an education meeting late last week want their local aldermen to publicly oppose the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) plan to expand charter schools on the Northwest Side.

The more than 50 residents at the meeting, held at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, said they plan to visit the offices of Northwest Side Alds. Deb Mell (33rd), Rey Colon (35th) and Margaret Laurino (39th) this week to urge them to sign a pledge to support neighborhood school investments and speak out against new charters in the area.

CPS issued a request for proposals (RFP) in mid-August for new charters in a number of "priority communities", primarily on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, as a means to help alleviate neighborhood school overcrowding. The charters are slated to open in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years. 

Those at the meeting said it's unacceptable that CPS released the RFP at a time when Albany Park neighborhood schools are grappling with more than $5 million in budget cuts.

"These budget cuts left us with huge high school fees, not enough teachers or books for our classes, and our neighborhood schools are struggling to give us [an] education we deserve, but still, the mayor wants to open new charter schools," said Jamie Adams, a Roosevelt High School sophomore and leader with Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools (CSOSS).

The student organization as well as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council and Communities United for Quality Education sponsored Thursday night's meeting and are leading the rally cry for more neighborhood school investments and no new charters.

Over recent years, CPS has opened two charter schools in Albany Park, including Aspira Haugan Middle School and CICS Irving Park. Residents noted that Aspira was initially built to help relieve overcrowding at Helge A. Haugan Elementary School, but since the charter is lottery-based, Haugan Elementary students aren't guaranteed a seat. The charter school is also the only middle school in the immediate area with the lowest Level 3 academic rating, Adams noted.

"Mayor Emanuel and CPS should be putting back money [in] our neighborhood schools that need the resources, not spending on new charter schools," said Minerva Quiroz, a William G. Hibbard Elementary parent. "We’ve been through this with the opening of Aspira Haugan in Albany Park, and that has been a disaster. Our public officials need to learn from their mistakes."

The meeting's organizers said it's a myth that Albany Park's neighborhood schools are overcrowded. As part of CPS' RFP, eight different communities were combined and labeled as the Albany/Irving Park area, which CPS says has a utilization rate of 113 percent. Residents said that's a flawed analysis, and by their research, Albany Park schools are not nearly that crowded. They said CPS purposefully used such a broad geographic area in order to inflate its overcrowding figures.

Additionally, if new charters come to Albany Park, residents said students could be lured away from neighborhood schools, essentially setting them up for closure. The neighborhood schools over time may become "underutilized" due to the charters. That is particularly worrisome, they say, because underutilization recently drove the district to close a record-breaking 50 schools in one fell swoop.

Tim Meegan, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School and a 35th Ward resident, said he visited Colon during ward night on Monday, and asked the alderman to oppose the charter school RFP. Colon reportedly said he would not do so, saying he supports charters. Nonetheless, organizers said they would keep the heat on Colon, as well as the other aldermen.

Both Colon and Mell signed on to an ordinance that would use unencumbered tax increment financing (TIF) funds as a means to temporarily stave off the recent school budget cuts. At a "meet your representative" meeting Wednesday night, Meegan said he asked both Colon and Mell, who were in attendance, what they were actively doing to move the bill out of the city council's rules committee.

"And you know what they said," Meegan asked the crowd. "They said nothing."

Roosevelt lost $1.2 million in funding due to budget cuts, Meegan said, and 11 teachers were let go.

As a result, a U.S. history class at the high school now includes 33 students, over 20 of whom have special needs, including two autistic students, Meegan said. At the moment, these special needs students are not working with an aide in the class, Meegan said, because the high school's officials haven't received an OK from CPS to hire the teachers, which he said are required by law. CPS has not responded to requests for comment in response to the allegations. 

Adams added that CPS is setting its public students up to fail by forcing them and their parents to choose between under-resourced neighborhood schools or charters.

“We need to hold our aldermen, CPS, and the mayor of Chicago accountable to what they’re doing to our schools,” she stressed.

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