Private operators dominate public schools in North Lawndale
May 10, 2014|By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune reporter
Robin Le Flore, right, walks her granddaughter, Serenity Tario ,11, to Dvorak Technology Academy in Chicago on Monday, April 28, 2014. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
In the long troubled North Lawndale community, Chicago Public has turned to private operators to solve the problem of failing schools more than anywhere else in the city.
But many parents and community leaders complain the shift has resulted in less choice while stripping the community of neighborhood schools in favor of privately run schools that have fared little better academically.
"It's depressing," said Valerie Leonard, a community activist and member of CPS' North Lawndale Community Action Council. "What we're seeing is a consolidation of our schools under private interests. For us as a community, we're the ones that are bearing the brunt of all this."
When school starts next year, nearly 70 percent of the in North Lawndale will be in private hands. Most of those schools were failing or under-enrolled when CPS turned the buildings over to charter operators, or fired staff and put the Academy for Urban School Leadership in charge. The shift has been attributed to everything from population decline to sporadic efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.
Test scores and other data show the privately run schools aren't doing much better academically and in some cases are performing worse than the schools they took over or the district-run schools that remain in the community.
The situation came to the fore last month with the board voting to turn Dvorak Math Science Technology Academy over to AUSL. With that, the number of district-run neighborhood schools in the community will have dropped from 16 to six over the past nine years. There are no open-enrollment, neighborhood high schools in North Lawndale.
By comparison, nearly 41 percent of CPS schools in Bronzeville are privately run and about 31 percent in Englewood. Citywide, more than 23 percent of district schools will be in private hands at the start of the next school year.
What's happening in North Lawndale mirrors the debate over school privatization that has long raged not only in Chicago but in many other major cities, including New York.
Supporters say private operators like charters have more flexibility to implement innovative teaching models and the money to provide students with and the academic and social supports they need. They say in struggling communities like North Lawndale with poorly performing schools, parents need better academic choices.
Opponents say privately managed schools often winnow out students with academic or disciplinary issues. Critics also contend CPS does not hold the schools accountable over academic and disciplinary issues to the same extent it does district-run schools and that parents have no local power over the schools as they do through local school councils at CPS-managed schools. Some parents say with CPS-run neighborhood schools disappearing, students are losing a guaranteed seat at a nearby school.
"The question about privatization is that people in the neighborhood have concerns about whether all of the children in the community will be adequately served," said Tracie Worthy, a program director at the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, which has worked on several revitalization projects in the neighborhood.
North Lawndale is a community that has struggled for decades with. Schools suffered, along with the rest of the community, through white flight, the riots of the 1960s and the departure of businesses like Sears, Roebuck and Co.
The community's population dropped from almost 95,000 in 1970 to just shy of 36,000 in 2010 with foreclosures brought on by the Great Recession accelerating the pace of decline in recent years. Today, the community is 92 percent African-American, with high rates of poverty still a constant.
Since 2005, CPS has shut down five grammar schools and a high school. During last year's mass school closings, North Lawndale was particularly hard hit, losing two elementary schools and a high school program.
AUSL, a contractor that takes over academically failing schools, will be running four elementary schools and a high school in North Lawndale after its takeover of Dvorak in the fall. District officials say new schools like charters and AUSL were brought in to provide better academic options for parents and their children.
"What happened in North Lawndale was a combination of population loss and low enrollment, coupled with a lot of low-performing schools," said CPS spokesman Joel Hood. "The district took action to try to bring some stability to that community and raise the quality of school choices, authorizing charter schools and implementing school turnarounds when necessary."
Some say efforts to redevelop North Lawndale might also have contributed to the growth of privately run schools. Those include the Homan Square development on the former Sears complex and on property around Douglas Park and along 16th Street.
David Doig, former superintendent of the Chicago Park District and now president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, said privately run school options are often used as part of efforts to revitalize a community.
"There's been a lot of effort to include charters or contract schools or turnaround schools as part of a neighborhood redevelopment strategy," Doig said. "You're looking for other kinds of school options."
Former Chicago Bulls forward Mickey Johnson, who moved back to North Lawndale and ran a basketball program out of Dvorak for years, said gentrification coupled with lack of economic and political power has left the community open to private groups who want to take over neighborhood schools.
"One of the reasons is because of gentrification," Johnson said. "Collins High School, Chalmers Elementary, Johnson (all AUSL schools) are on the border of Douglas Park — that's where all the changes are being made in the neighborhood."
Collins sits on the north end of Douglas Park. Plans announced in 2006 to close the school under then-CPS chief Arne Duncan sparked community outrage. Eventually, AUSL opened a high school in the building.
The results have been less than stellar. Duncan, now U.S. secretary of education, said Collins needed to be closed because only 8.6 percent of students met or exceeded standards on the Prairie State Achievement Examination. Last year, only 3.3 percent of the school's students met that measure.
AUSL took over what is now the Johnson School of Excellence in 2009. The number of students meeting and exceeding state standards jumped from 17.9 to 38.7. But last year, taking into account CPS' recalibration of test score because of tougher benchmarks, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test composite dropped to 21.9 percent, only four percentage points better than when CPS was in charge.
AUSL spokeswoman Shana Hayes defended the company's record and said AUSL in North Lawndale and elsewhere in the city have seen striking improvement in student scores.
"Working in some of the district's most challenging environments, AUSL has had a profound impact on academic performance and school culture," Hayes said. "Some of our schools, which have shown intermittent declines, go on to improve dramatically."
Overall, performance by charter schools in North Lawndale has been mixed.
The Catalyst Schools, a charter network, occupies part of Howland Elementary School of the Arts, which was closed by the district in 2005 because of failing academic performance. Last year, students at Catalyst-Howland were below district averages on state test scores and only 2.2 percentage points higher than students in the last year CPS ran the school. CPS has put the school on academic warning.
One of the first charters in the state, North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, opened in the community in 1998. Students at its two campuses still score below the district average on state standards but the school says 90 percent of its students graduate and 85 percent of those graduates go on to college.
Two charter elementary schools in North Lawndale have done well. Both Legacy Charter, which occupies one of the buildings on Mason Elementary's campus, and the stand-alone Learn-Butler school have students performing better than the district average, with 62.4 percent of Learn's students and 56.3 percent of Legacy's students meeting or exceeding state standards last year
Greg White said Butler elementary is not only successful in getting solid test scores but landing eighth-graders at some of the city's best selective-enrollment high schools. The school addresses student behavioral issues with a roster of four social workers — two full time and two part time — working on both student and parent issues.
Learn's promise of academic success is what led Javier Degante to enroll his daughter at Butler. She's doing well and going to Westinghouse College Prep in the fall.
"To me the difference is the curriculum," Degante said. "They're constantly pushing the kids. They challenge them."
The Steans Family Foundation, which has funded many education efforts in the community at privately run and district-run schools, was in on the startup of North Lawndale College Prep. Robin Steans, a trustee with the foundation and executive director of Advance Illinois, said North Lawndale has "been a challenged community for a long time" and there are no quick solutions for local schools.
CPS' Hood said some of the privately managed schools brought in ended up being "higher-quality options for students and provided some stability for schools in the neighborhood."
For parents, sometimes that option has meant rejecting CPS' privately run schools in favor of existing neighborhood schools. After Pope Elementary was shut down last year, were directed to AUSL's Johnson Elementary. But parent Lisa Pugh saw that Johnson was performing only a tick better than Pope, so she chose to send her daughter to Plamondon Elementary, which is run by CPS.
"The CPS-run school was better, so that's why I chose it over Johnson," she said.
Nivia Simmons pulled her daughter out of Legacy's elementary school last year because the girl did not perform well on standardized tests, even though her grades were decent. Her daughter now attends CPS-run Kellman Corporate Community Elementary School. Simmons said the girl's test scores have gone up.
"There's so many kids in the area and there's not enough schools. When they closed down schools, sizes went up. And for parents who have to work or they don't have a car, their options have been taken away," Simmons said.
Robin LeFlore is among parents who say they can't understand why CPS keeps funding private options instead of putting more into improving existing neighborhood schools.
LeFlore said she won't be sending her granddaughter back to Dvorak Elementary once AUSL takes over, which she thinks was doing better this year despite cuts to its budget.
LeFlore will send her granddaughter on a CTA bus to Penn, about nine blocks away but even that school's future remains uncertain.
Parents and area school officials note the last remaining school under CPS-control on 16th Street is Penn, which is a building with KIPP charter and because of low enrollment is under threat of closure or a turnaround too.
"We're surrounded by charters and AUSL and they're not doing any better than Dvorak," LeFlore said. "I don't want (my daughter) to go to a school where her scores will drop. I don't want to take a chance in the sense that she'll be losing rather than gaining."