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Pilsen Charter School Move Challenged

The sudden news that CPS plans to relocate a politically-connected charter school to the building of a recently-closed neighborhood school in Pilsen has once again raised concerns over lack of accountability for school facilities decisions — and over charter schools getting resources that are denied to neighborhood schools.

The Pilsen Alliance, which works with parents in neighborhood schools, is mobilizing residents for the Aug. 26 school board meeting, where a decision is expected.

The board will consider an “emergency request” from the Octavio Paz campus of the United Neighborhood Organization Charter School to move temporarily into the building of the De La Cruz Middle School, which closed in June, according to a letter from board president Michael Scott provided by Alliance director Alejandra Ibanez.

De La Cruz was closed after being tagged “underutilized” although it had the largest special education student population in the neighborhood, Ibanez said. (Special education classes are limited in size by state law.) Last year De La Cruz won a Spotlight Award from the Illinois State Board of Education for educational success with low-income students.

“That’s the kind of school that should be a model for neighborhood schools,” particularly with its success with low-income, English-learning, and special needs students, Ibanez said.

Scott’s letter notes that De La Cruz was closed partly due to extensive repairs needed there, and says “some minor construction work” will be needed to accommodate the UNO charter school.

Ibanez asks why CPS would invest in the building if it’s really slated for demolition — and whether it will end up being a permanent home to the UNO charter. She also cites reports from former De La Cruz teachers that work was being done on the building as early as last June.

The repair of the De La Cruz building has another dimension. With the closing of the middle school in June, its feeder school, nearby Whittier Elementary, added grades 7 and 8. That’s the school where Pilsen Alliance has worked on a parent leadership project for several years, winning lead and asbestos abatement as well as community school designation and programming.

But the parents’ main focus for seven years has been an expansion of the school building in order to make the 100-year-old buildling ADA compliant and add a library, cafeteria, gymnasium, and parent meeting room — and now 7th and 8th grade classrooms. At Whittier, kids eat lunch on folding tables in the hallway, Ibanez said.

In contrast, when UNO opened the Bartolome de las Casas charter campus on West 16th in 2006, they got a new roof and ADA upgrades within weeks, she said.

De La Cruz and Whittier “are neighborhood schools that could be models” for mobilizing parents and communities to support schools that succeed in teaching inner-city kids, “but they don’t get the investment,” Ibanez said. “UNO gets the red carpet and a blank check.”

A new law passed this year over CPS opposition could end up limiting the district’s ability to make arbitrary facilities decisions, said Don Moore of Designs for Change.

“Decisions about where schools get built and which schools get repairs and which are closed” are “extemely inconsistent,” he said. A general school facilities plan — the goal of Rep. Cynthia Soto’s Chicago School Facilities bill — could “set procedures and standards for these kinds of decisions,” he said.

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