Neighborhood Schools vs. Noble

The charter school controversy on the Southwest Side

On Thursday, April 7, several hundred students, teachers, and administrators packed into the auditorium of Curie Metropolitan High School in Archer Heights. They came from fifteen schools across the Southwest Side of Chicago to celebrate the formation of the Southwest Chicago Public Schools Coalition (SWCPS Coalition), an organization dedicated to advocating for greater funding of neighborhood public schools, and to protesting the establishment of new charter schools on the Southwest Side.

The event was a culmination of a movement that has been campaigning to stop Noble Network, a charter school organization, from opening a new campus in Brighton Park. The proposed Mansueto High School has been the subject of contentious debate in the neighborhood since Noble Network announced it in April 2015, and especially after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) approved it on October 26 of last year. The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a local neighborhood organization that helped organize the SWCPS Coalition, gathered over 6500 signatures from residents opposed to the school, while Noble Network gathered over 1800 signatures for a letter of support. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has criticized Noble Network for several years, and CTU organizers spoke out against the new campus at city meetings last fall. Supporters of the project have included Alderman Edward Burke (whose ward encompasses the proposed site), state senator Antonio Munoz, and the CEO of CPS, Forrest Claypool. Mansueto has also been endorsed by the Sun-Times, which cited overcrowding and poor performance by local neighborhood public schools.

Noble Network, which operates seventeen campuses across Chicago, has been a divisive presence in the city for years. It has been criticized for expelling too many students and harsh discipline, and a recent campus proposed for Uptown was scuttled after community opposition organized over fears that the campus would threaten existing public schools in the area. But the organization has also been praised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and was featured in The Economist for its success in student outcomes: of the top ten non-selective public schools in Chicago, ranked by ACT scores, seven are Noble Network campuses.

“The coalition started out of a reaction to Noble Network of Charter Schools’ proposal to open up a new high school on the Southwest Side,” said Patrick Brosnan, Executive Director of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which organized the SWCPS Coalition. “When we heard about that, we started talking with principals and LSCs [local school councils] at different schools in the area who would be affected by the development.”

Brosnan argued that the public school leadership was undercutting its own neighborhood schools to push for acceptance of charter schools. “The [Chicago Public Schools] District operates under this guise that there are no quality options on the Southwest Side. I was in a meeting with [Forrest] Claypool when he said that. I mean, you’re the CEO of the district, for Christ’s sake. If there are no quality options, take responsibility for that and work with us to try and improve options on the South Side.”

Neighborhood schools, Brosnan argued, serve a critical role in their local communities. This was a fact that he thought was well-understood in suburban districts but that “twenty miles east,” in Chicago, “you forget everything. You forget that schools need resources; you forget that teachers are pillars of the community; you forget that neighborhood schools are essential to the strength and stability of the neighborhood; that they should be pillars of pride.”

Although Noble Network has not publicly attacked the local neighborhood public schools, supporters of the charter school have noted that the major public schools serving the Southwest Side have struggled to improve student outcomes. Kelly High School’s college enrollment rate, at fifty-six percent, is well below the average rate for the district (sixty-four percent) and the state (seventy percent).  The other two neighborhood high schools in the area, Curie and Kennedy, do somewhat better, with enrollment rates at sixty-nine and sixty-six percent, respectively.

Cody Rogers, Director of Communications for Noble Network, claimed, moreover, that Noble Network had achieved a level of success virtually unprecedented in the CPS system. He pointed to Noble Network’s 96.7 percent matriculation rate to four-year universities and argued that convenient access to such a system would be a boon to large, underserved sections of the city.

Amid the ongoing debate, SWCPS Coalition has argued that the specific way Chicago funds its schools means that any charter school expansion would threaten traditional public schools.

“This is not a win-win,” said Brosnan. “There are costs associated with expanding those seats and privatizing those seats.” In 2013, CPS adopted per-pupil budgets, which allot funding to schools based on a fixed rate for each student projected to enroll. If neighborhood students opt for charter schools over local schools, the local schools lose an amount of money proportional to their change in enrollment. But it can be difficult for schools to scale down their operations proportionally: if each class loses just a few students, Brosnan pointed out, the school can’t feasibly lose a teacher.

Rogers, addressing worries about the effect on funding that Mansueto High School might have on the local neighborhood public schools, argued that Mansueto would be largely comprised of students who currently make substantial commutes to Noble Network sites from the Southwest Side. According to Rogers, the Southwest Side sends a greater fraction of its children to Noble Network schools than any other part of Chicago, as it’s the largest area in the city without a Noble Network campus.   

“Wouldn’t it be great if these twenty-four hundred students, kids that had to leave their neighborhood every day, were able to get the same kind of college prep in their own neighborhood?” said Rogers. Students from Brighton Park or Archer Heights currently have to travel at least as far as Englewood or Pilsen to attend a Noble Network school; both neighborhoods are about forty minutes from Brighton Park by public transportation.

Rogers also argued that the existing public schools on the Southwest Side are already overcrowded, a case that has also been made by CPS administrators. Claypool has said that seven of the nine schools in the area are above “ideal enrollment,” and pointed to the possibility of unmet demand as well.

The core Southwest Side around the proposed Mansueto site—stretching southwest from McKinley Park through Brighton Park to Archer Heights and south to Gage Park—is served only by the three large neighborhood high schools, Kelly, Curie, and Kennedy. According to a January utilization report from CPS, all three schools are over-utilized: Kelly and Curie are considered at “efficient usage,” while Kennedy is formally overcrowded. But the Southwest Chicago Public Schools Coalition has claimed that the schools are not overcrowded, and the principal of Kelly High, James Coughlin, has argued that Kelly actually has room to accommodate more students than it currently serves.

Ultimately, with Mansueto High School projected to open this coming fall, it remains to be seen whether the campus can win over its opponents in the Southwest Side and how the local public schools will be affected. If Brosnan and the SWCPS Coalition are right, Mansueto could pose a serious threat to Kelly High School and other neighborhood public schools on the Southwest Side. Alternatively, if Noble Network and CPS are proved right, Mansueto will bring high-quality education to thousands of students who currently are forced to travel across the city for it.

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