CPS to move ahead with alternative schools plan

April 8, 2008 8:40:13 AM PDT
The Chicago school board says it plans to move forward with a controversial plan to open more alternative schools in the city. The initiative calls for 100 non-traditional schools to open in the city by 2010.

The proposed new schools range from a boarding school for homeless children to a CTA-backed school for students interested in careers in the transit industry. Not everyone believes these schools are a good idea.

Renaissance 2010 is a fancy name for the board of education's painful process of closing low-achieving schools and reopening them with new programs underwritten in part by the business community. 2010 is viewed skeptically in some circles as an attempt to bust the teachers union and ignore community groups. But top officials at the board of education say it's about thinking outside the box and giving inner city families choices after decades of failure in the "traditional schools."

The Urban Prep Academy, Chicago's first boys-only charter high school, has nearly doubled the number of students performing at or above grade level since it replaced one of the city's worst high schools, Englewood, in 2006. Now the founder of Urban Prep is thinking about opening one or two additional same-sex high schools under the board of education's Renaissance 2010 program, which is committed to converting failing public schools like Englewood into alternative, and in some cases experimental, public-private partnership schools by the year 2010.

"If we have accomplished this much within just two years think about how much we can accomplish with more years within more schools," said Israel Durley, Urban Prep freshman.

"There's a great opportunity to change things in Chicago and improve education," said Tim King, Urban Prep founder and CEO.

The traumatic process of closing failing schools, and reopening them with new players and new programs, has subjected Chicago school CEO Arne Duncan to angry criticism from the teachers union and some community groups. But he has already opened 55 Renaissance 2010 schools. Twenty-one more begin next fall and the application process is now under way for another 15 or 20 in 2009.

"Sometimes we get accused of trying to push too much change or doing too much. I don't think we can go fast enough," said Duncan.

The new applications may include a CTA transportation academy at transit headquarters west of downtown, a boarding school for homeless teens at the North Lawndale Charter Prep, and a Chicago branch of St. Hope, an alternative school that former NBA star Kevin Johnson opened in his hometown of Sacramento, California.

Chicago's business community will probably help pay for some of these programs after investing $44 million in Renaissance 2010 up to now.

"We want to send a message that choice and competition will drive change," said Phyllis Lockett, Renaissance School Fund.

The application process for the next round of Renaissance 2010 schools begins on Monday, and 25 low-income neighborhoods will get the first crack at same-sex programs, boarding schools and career academies. Some are staffed with union teachers, others are not, and the level of community involvement varies, which, according to Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley, provides enough flexibility to encourage innovation and creativity. Critics say it's a veiled attempt to privatize public education and push out the teachers union.


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