Proposed charter school rankles Oak Park residents

River Forest mom wants to open area charter by 2019

September 26th, 2017 3:02 PM

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

A movement led by a River Forest woman to start an elementary charter school somewhere in the western suburbs has drawn considerable backlash among Oak Park residents in opposition to the proposal. 

As the director of charter growth and support for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Allison Jack gets paid to help start charters — a fact that many of her critics say makes her efforts less than genuine. 

"It's clear as a bell that her job is to grow charter schools — that's her interest," said Steve Krasinsky, an Oak Park resident who is one of the founding council members of a group called Oak Park Call to Action, a progressive activist organization that sprouted in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's election last November. 

The group is battling on many fronts, Krasinsky said, with the fight against this most recent charter proposal being just one of them. The group is hosting a screening of Backpack Full of Cash, on Sept. 30, at the Lake Theatre. Narrated by Matt Damon, the film explores "the real cost of privatizing America's public schools," according to a summary on the film poster. 

Jack, however, countered that she's just getting paid for what she'd do for free. She believes a charter could succeed in eliminating the stubborn racial equity gap between black and white students that has persisted in Oak Park for generations. 

"This came out of looking at different parents' experiences that the needs of all kids aren't being met," she said in an interview on Monday. 

Jack has two children in public schools but said she would send them to the charter school she's working to establish through a group called the Western Educational Community Action Network (WeCan). 

According to its website, WeCan is apparently designed to be the vehicle for driving up grassroots support for the idea of a charter school somewhere in Forest Park, River Forest, Maywood, Melrose Park, Broadview, Bellwood, Berwyn and Oak Park. 

The school would "have a racially conscious/culturally proficient faculty and leadership team to provide our students with a robust and culturally relevant curriculum that includes restorative practice/restorative justice, social-emotional learning [and] project-based learning," among other features listed on WeCan's website. Jack said her goal is to open the school in the fall of 2019.

Erin Fountain, a WeCan member and Oak Park mother of four African American sons, ranging from adults to middle-school students, said she was attracted to Jack's charter model based on her frustrations putting her children through Oak Park public schools. 

"I've experienced it at all levels," Fountain said, referencing what she described as the segregated nature of Oak Park's public school system. "I've had frustrations with the school system from the very beginning." 

My Tang, the mother of a 3-year-old who lives in Forest Park, said she would "absolutely consider sending my kid to this charter." Tang said she's attracted to the project-based learning concept that Jack has been proposing but stipulated she isn't against public schools.

"I'm a product of traditional public schools," Tang said. "I'm not against public schools whatever. It's just that all kids learn differently." 

Jack said she's currently in the phase of gauging community support for the school and has been holding informational meetings and "family meet-ups" in area suburbs over the last few months. So far, she said, no defined location has been identified for the charter, but Jack said that she isn't ruling out locating it in Oak Park. 

She's looking to get parents who currently send their kids to public school to basically commit to sending their children to the proposed charter, which would select students based on a lottery system. The per-pupil funding that would have gone to the public school district would follow those students to the new charter. 

Jack, however, would first have to get approval from local school districts in order to receive that per-pupil funding. If a school district votes against allowing part of its budget to go the charter, Jack could appeal the decision to the Illinois State Charter School Commission.  

According to documents related to a decision made by the commission to deny the appeal of a proposed charter in nearby Maywood, the commission "may reverse a local school board's decision to deny a proposal to establish a new charter school when the commission finds that the proposal (i) complies with the Charter Schools Law and (ii) is in the best interests of the students the charter school is designed to serve."

The law requires that charter proposals "demonstrate a high level of local pupil, parental, community, business, and school personnel support," that it set levels of student achievement which are "rigorous" and "feasible," and that it's "designed to enroll and serve a substantial proportion of at-risk children." 

Both Jack and Fountain have conceded that the opposition to a charter from community members in Oak Park has been stronger than they expected. 

"This may or may not happen," said Jack. "We're looking for commitments from between 40 and 50 parents. It's pretty hard to get parents to stand up and say, 'I want to send my kid to a charter.'" 

Karen Yarbrough, an Oak Park parent of three Oak Park Elementary School District 97 students and a board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said instead of taking money from public schools, Jack should work on improving them.

"I'm not happy at all about the prospect of a charter school," Yarbrough said. "The people I'm talking to feel the same way. Charters have really devastated the Chicago Public School system. I wanted to get away from that. I get it. Oak Park schools aren't perfect, but we need to work to make them better for all kids in our community." 

Cassandra West, a 25-year resident of Oak Park and a freelance journalist who once wrote regularly on education issues in the Chicago area, said that Jack's proposed charter is the first time "I've seriously heard about a charter school" attempting to make inroads in Oak Park. 

West said that she once applied for a communications position with the INCS, but didn't get the job. She said that, at the time she applied, she didn't know very much about charters. But knowing what she knows now, West said, she's relieved.

"Looking back, I'm glad I didn't get the job," she said. "I've read too many stories where across the country many districts have gone to all charters and they're not what they cracked up to be. There are too many reports that go against the idea that charters are great and that they're this panacea. They often don't help students of color, even though they say they do." 

One study in particular, a report releasead this summer by the NAACP's Task Force on Quality Education that Krasinksy and Yarbrough cited, stated that charter schools "were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas and creativity into the traditional public school system. However, this aspect of the promise never materialized." 

Last year, the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution "calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion until there is accountability and transparency in their operations," according to the report. 

Jack, however, said that her charter proposal would model the best practices of non-traditional schools with stellar academic track records, such as the Austin, Texas-based Acton Academy, where staples of conventional education, such as homework and standardized tests, are de-emphasized in favor of techniques like the Socratic method, in which learning is embedded in open dialogue and continuous questioning. 

Critics of the proposal, though, said that the problems with Oak Park public schools aren't so intractable that they can't be addressed and fixed without dismantling the notion of public education. 

"Why put taxpayer money into a privatized school?" West said. 

Krasinsky and Yarbrough said that they're relieved that Jack hasn't gained much traction with her proposal in Oak Park, but they expressed some concerns with what they considered to be holes in the community's armored stance against the charter.

"I don't hear any parental support for this charter, which I was pleasantly surprised about," Krasinsky said. "We had people passing out flyers at Oak Park Farmers Market and, to a person, they were generally against it. And the meetings [Jack has hosted] haven't been very well attended, which is telling. At the same time, however, we're still concerned because we know there's a tremendous amount of money behind her."

Other critics of the proposal said they were worried by the fact that the president of INCS, Andrew Broy, is married to District 97 school board member, Keecia Broy. 

When reached by phone on Monday, however, Broy said that she could not speak on behalf of the entire D97 school board or INCS, since she isn't an employee of the organization. She added that any questions about people's reservations over the relationship should be directed to INCS. Andrew Broy could not be reached for comment.

Chris Jasculca, D97's senior director of policy, planning and communication, emailed a formal statement from the school board on the matter. 

"We are aware of the proposed plan by WeCan to open a school in the fall of 2019 that would seek to draw students from several suburban communities, including Oak Park," the statement reads. "We will continue to monitor this situation, and also use this as an opportunity to further educate ourselves about the charter school application process and the role that public school districts play in it."