Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday January 27th, 2014, 7:37pm

Action Now Protests Against 'By The Hand Club' Over Plans For New Austin Charter School

About 20 Action Now members and education organizers protested outside the By The Hand Club For Kids' location on the West Side last week to push back against the non-profit's involvement with plans for a new charter school in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. 

The charter school operator Chicago Education Partnership (CEP) won conditional approval by the city's board of education to open a new Austin elementary campus in 2015. The effort to open the new charter is a partnership between CEP and By The Hand, which operates a "Christ-centered" after school program in Austin at 415 N. Laramie Ave.

CEP's design team includes By The Hand leaders, explained Dwayne Truss, an Austin resident with the Raise Your Hand education coalition. And By The Hand's Executive Director Donnita Travis is CEP's board chairperson.

"She's leading both of the organizations," said Action Now spokeswoman Aileen Kelleher. "I would say there's a conflict of interest there."

Travis declined to be interviewed for this story, but she did provide Progress Illinois with a statement:

By The Hand Club For Kids has proudly been a members of the Austin community for the past seven years. During that time, hundreds of Austin children have gone from failing in school to succeeding, some of whom have even gone on to college. By partnering with out local schools and their principals, we have identified children who would otherwise fail in school and likely drop out, giving them a second chance through tutoring, counseling, spiritual guidance and an opportunity to have an abundant life. We are partnering with Chicago Education Partnership to give more children in Austin a chance to succeed in school and to live successful lives.

Last week, the Chicago Board of Education approved seven new charter campuses, including the proposal from CEP, which was approved with several conditions. Eleven proposals for other charter campuses were voted down and four were withdrawn.

The proposed CEP school would serve grades K-8. Grades K-6 would be located at a new site at 400 N. Leamington Ave., while grades 7 and 8 would be located at 415 N. Laramie, By The Hand's current Austin location. The proposed school would open in 2015 serving kindergarten and first graders. A grade level would be added each year after that to accommodate up to eighth-grade students. The school's full approval is contingent upon CEP providing more details on its curriculum and other educational data. Following the board of ed meeting, CEP Executive Director Mike Rogers said the conditions would delay their construction schedule, but the school's officials plan to work with CPS to get full approval as quickly as possible.

But some residents in the Austin area do not want to see the school set up shop in their neighborhood. Zerlina Smith, a Austin resident and Action Now member, said the community does not need any new schools, including charters. Austin already saw four of its neighborhood elementary schools shuttered last year due to reported "underutilization" and CPS' $1 billion budget deficit. Many of the schools that didn't close in the area saw their budgets slashed this school year to help plug the district's budget hole.

"If they can prove to us that bringing a new charter school to the community is beneficial, not just to the children but also the parents and the community members of the Austin community, then I can see it being beneficial. But right now, they cannot give us any information on the actual proposal or what's going to be inside the school," Smith said. "I'm upset, personally, because it doesn't benefit the family, as CPS schools supposedly state they do."

The education activists are also worried that the CEP charter campus will drain resources from existing traditional schools in the neighborhood, especially since CPS faces a more than $900 million deficit next school year.

"(CPS) used every criteria they could think of as a basis for closing (schools), but now with the lack of money that they said was one of the driving reasons for closing schools, now they're supplying money to open charters, and it doesn't make sense," said Tammie Vinson, a special education teacher at Oscar DePriest Elementary in Austin. "Charter schools are not outperforming public schools. Charter schools have uneven discipline. There are so many reasons that they're not a good idea, and it's a waste of taxpayers' money."

Also, if district-run neighborhood schools lose students to the new charters, they will receive less funding due to CPS’ per-pupil budgeting formula.

"As soon as you lose a student, you lose the budgeting," Vinson added. "So you lose positions, you lose all sorts of money that would come into that school."

Organizers also questioned By The Hand's affiliation with the Moody Bible Institute.

"You're blurring this whole line between church and state, because you got Moody who is a big supporter of By The Hand Club," Truss said. "Don't get me wrong, we appreciate the wraparound services and what (By The Hand) does outside of that context, but if you look at their annual report, they're blatantly saying that kids that come to their after school program, they encourage them to go to church on Sunday."

Stay tuned.

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