New charter school opens Tuesday in Altgeld Gardens

September 3, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Staff and parents have high expectations for the new charter school.

Most students live in Altgeld Gardens, the same public housing community President Obama helped mobilize as a largely unknown community activist.

Now, a group of educators is hoping to offer some of the children of Altgeld Gardens better educations and brighter futures.

If you travel south to the edge of Chicago, you'll find Altgeld Gardens tucked next to the Bishop Ford Expressway at 130th Street.

Residents of the isolated public housing neighborhood live with poverty, crime and gangs, but there is excitement for something new at the Gardens.

Larry Hawkins will be a Chicago International Charter School.

"I just want her to have a great education - I'm her first teacher, so I expect for her to get the best care, you know, the same care - a little more because they're actually teachers," said parent Lynissa Wilbourne.

"It's good - I need more activities, and it can be a new experience for a lot of people in the Gardens - Altgeld Gardens" said eighth grader Myshawn Rollins.

Their building is being renovated for 500 seventh through twelfth graders.

As a charter school, it operates independently from Chicago Public Schools.

Any Chicago student can be enrolled, and some were enrolled from outside Altgeld Gardens to avoid the alternatives.

"Fenger, Corliss: I didn't want her going to those schools - I think this will be a better choice for her," said parent Vonetta Lambert.

Several parents mentioned concern about nearby Fenger High School which had an honor student beaten to death off campus and intense security issues at the end of last year.

"Hopefully that will help those children who don't have to cross the gang lines and things like that - maybe they can focus more on their education," said Theresa Hollins.

Security is among the many issues for the staff of Hawkins to prepare, but with the rooms empty and all things possible at the beginning of the year, they are focused on providing quality education.

"What I hope will set us apart and make our staff a great staff that we have taken that time to make those connections with our students so they'll understand the importance of education," said Hawkins School Executive Director Thomas Anderson.

As a father of young children, Anderson hopes to create a model school that he would be proud to have his kids attend.

"For me, it has to be as good as- I'm not going to expect anything less of their teachers and I'm not going to expect anything less of a teacher that's teaching one of our students here," said Anderson.

Teachers are gearing up to meet those expectations.

"I'm nervous, I'm not gonna lie," said teacher Sherene Awong.

Awong had taught in parochial schools previously. She realizes this will be a change.

"We're gonna try our hardest," said Awong. "I'm gonna try my hardest to see if I can reach out to them."

"The fact that this school is brand new, it's gonna be a challenge on all of us, and that on top of this is my first year teaching," said teacher Allison Fifolt. "The first year of teaching at any school is difficult. So, it's just gonna be a lot."

Adults know the stakes are high and that they won't have long to capture the attention and imagination of the students.

For the some students, there are much more immediate issues, like going into a school with high schoolers.

"It's gonna be different, real different with the big kids," said seventh grader Kyandria Jones.

The grades will be separated, but no doubt intimidating for any 12-year-old.

ABC7 will follow the students, teachers and parents of Hawkins through the school year, including concerns about funding charter schools, teacher turnover rates for charters and some of the academic success at some other local charter schools.

In the meantime the first day at Hawkins is next Tuesday.

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