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Stacking the Odds in Favor of Charter Schools

Charters unload problem students onto neighboring public schools - then reap the benefits.



On February 16, the Union League Club gave out its Democracy in Action award to deserving local high school students, and Mayor Daley was on hand to give a rousing speech—calling on regular public schools to make like the charters and transform ordinary neighborhood students into high-scoring, high-achieving, college-bound stars.

Specifically, the mayor was hailing Urban Prep High School, a south-side charter school. But his unspoken message to all teachers was "work harder and stop whining."

Consider it one last middle finger from Daley to the teachers and their unions because—well, why not?

Watching it all with a mixture of revulsion and disbelief was Eric Wagner, a social studies teacher at Kelvyn Park High School on the predominantly Hispanic northwest side. "I was there because one of my students—Jennifer Velazquez—had won the award," says Wagner. "I'm thinking, this is really inappropriate. There aren't even any charter school kids who won the award. Why is he ripping us?"

What Mayor Daley didn't say—what he probably didn't even know—is that just days before his speech eight students from Pritzker College Prep, a school just down the street from Kelvyn Park, unceremoniously showed up at Kelvyn's door, having flunked out, dropped out, or been kicked out.

"I'm sitting there listening to the mayor rip into regular public schools and public school teachers, and meanwhile these kids are showing up at our door 'cause the local charter doesn't know how to deal with them," says Wagner. "I don't want to start a fight with the charters, but after a while this stuff gets hard to take."

Before we go further, a word about charters. They are, as you probably know, publicly funded schools with special favors. They can pretty much take in whatever students they want and get rid of ones they don't. Plus, they can hire and fire teachers without regard to tenure and seniority.

They're the educational flavor of the day in the mainstream media, and they've got lots of friends in high places. It seems like just about every charter school success story is really an unveiled assault on teachers and their unions, as though every spike in charter test scores or every low-income charter student who goes to college is somehow proof that class, race, parental background, class size, and all the other usually cited impediments to academic success no longer matter. Because the real problem with education today—as the mayor was saying—is lazy teachers and their unions.

In reality, well, it's a little more complicated—which brings us back to Kelvyn Park and Pritzker College Prep, its neighbor down the street.

Pritzker is part of the growing Noble Street charter school empire. Created in 1991 by Michael and Tonya Milkie, the empire began with one school, at 1010 N. Noble (hence, the name) and has since expanded to nine other campuses. In September, U.S. Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan—an old Noble fan from his days as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools—awarded a $10.8 million grant to Noble, which the Milkies say they will use to expand five of their existing campuses and add six new ones by 2015. By then, Noble will enroll roughly 10,000 students—10 percent of the city's high school population, according to a press release on its website.

Noble's City Hall ties will likely outlast Mayor Daley, as mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel remains a strong advocate, naming Michael Milkie to his education transition committee. In addition, the Milkies are well connected to the city's corporate movers and shakers. The Chicago Bulls sponsor one school; Bruce Rauner, who heads the GTCR private investment firm, sponsors another.

In addition, Rauner's wife, Diana Rauner, is also on Emanuel's education transition team. Bruce Rauner has even been bandied about as one of Emanuel's leading candidates for CEO, at least by Michael Sneed, the Sun-Times columnist.

Pritzker College Prep is, of course, backed by the Pritzkers—in this case, Penny, who helped them raise money to renovate their school building.

"Penny Pritzker is on our board," says Pablo Sierra, Pritzker's principal. "She's been a great supporter of our school. But Penny does not cut me a check to pay our operating budget."

Instead, like all charters, Pritzker's budget largely comes from public money—state and local property tax dollars. For every child enrolled—about 700 this year, say Sierra—the school gets about $9,519, according to state educational officials. It works out to about $6.6 million a year.

The secret to Noble's success is discipline, according to Sierra. The organization has a strict code of conduct that controls what kids wear and how they behave—black dress shoes, dress pants for boys, dress pants or skirts for girls (knee length or longer), no tattoos, gum chewing, heavy makeup, jeans, etc.

Break a rule, you get demerits. Rack up enough demerits, you go to a three-hour detention. Go to detention, and pay $5 to help cover the cost of having a teacher watch you. There are also fines for failing ($140 to take a makeup class). Mess up enough and the money adds up—special incentive to stay on task.

Wait, wait—I'm not done. All students must pass a physical test, which requires kids to finish a half-mile run (girls in seven minutes, boys in six).

In other words, it's hard work. Hell, I'm exhausted from just from writing about it. "I'm not saying this is for everyone," says Sierra. "Is it hard? Yes. Is it disciplined? Yes. But it works for our students."

The average ACT score at Pritzker is about 20. The average CPS score is 17.3, and the maximum is 36.

As Sierra points out, their incoming students are not necessarily high-performing test takers. The school's open to anyone who applies. If there are more applicants than openings—as there are every year—the school holds a lottery. "We're an open-enrollment school," says Sierra. "We're open to anyone who wants to apply."

And it's about here where Wagner and his colleagues at Kelvyn say, enough! "I don't have anything against Pritzker," says Jerry Skinner, an English teacher. "But stop pretending that 'open-enrollment' means we're all the same. 'Cause we're not."

Yes, both schools serve the same largely Hispanic working-class communities of Hermosa and Belmont Cragin. But after that, the similarities stop. Kelvyn's special education population is 18.4 percent, and that "includes kids with traumatic brain injury, autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, behavioral problems, etc," says Skinner.

Pritzker's special education enrollment is 7 percent, according to CPS figures.

At Kelvyn Park, 13.4 percent of the students speak limited English, compared to about 5 percent at Pritzker.

Pritzker may be open to any student who applies, but clearly not every type of student is applying in the same numbers. In addition, the students who show up at Kelvyn score lower on achievement tests.

Why the difference? Because not all working-class Hispanic kids are the same kinds of students just because they live in the same neighborhood. As most teachers tell me, there are roughly three categories of students in CPS these days:

There are the high achievers, who score exceedingly well on standardized achievement tests. By and large, they go to Whitney Young, North Side Prep, and the other selective-enrollment high schools.

Then there are the open-enrollment charter students who score below the highest achievers. In the days before the spread of charters, selective-enrollments and contract schools, they'd have probably gone to their local high schools, like Kelvyn Park, because that's where the school system sent them. That is, if they didn't go to a Catholic school. But now there are far more choices and many of them go to charters. Nothing wrong with that. So save your letters, charter school boosters. Choice is good. Glad we have it. Give me more!

The third category is everyone else—those kids who go to a neighborhood school because they didn't score high enough to get into a selective-enrollment school, didn't win the charter school lottery, or, more to the point, because they or their parents never really thought about going anywhere else.

Oh, yes—there's also the kids who bounce out of the charters for whatever reason. In February, eight former Pritzker students enrolled at Kelvyn, along with one student from Noble's Rauner College Prep School and another from Noble's Chicago Bulls High School. According to Kelvyn Park's counselors, they get at least 20 students a year from Pritzker. "The kids tell us they were falling behind and they couldn't catch up, or they couldn't afford to pay for the makeup courses—that's a big reason," says Julio Umana, a counselor at Kelvyn Park.

In addition, each year between 20 and 30 Pritzker students wind up at North Grand High School, another neighborhood public school, according to Adrienne Isla, a North Grand counselor.

Sierra says he and his teachers work hard to keep kids from leaving Pritzker—offering after-school tutoring—but many just can't handle the school's rigors. "We don't kick kids out. They may choose to leave on their own," says Sierra. "We don't apologize for who we are. We're demanding. For some students we're too demanding. They're probably the students who didn't want to come here in the first place."

But is it fair that Kelvyn Park, or North Grand, has to take them?

"Look, I don't like this us-versus-them attitude," Sierra says. "I want to work with Kelvyn Park. I want to reach out to Kelvyn Park. They might not believe me when I say this, but we're all in this together."

Fair enough. But I'll make a prediction: The us-versus-them attitude will start to change when charter school teachers finally get around to joining a union. And, trust me, that will happen as the charters continue to grow.

Then the charters will discover that their old friends in City Hall, the media, and the business community won't really be their friends anymore.

But that's a story for another time.

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at

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