New School Fair: Field Report
So I actually hauled my butt out of the house, down to Soldier Field this weekend (grumbling the whole time because of the location.) It’s probably the only time I’ll set foot in Soldier Field, which is kind of sad. The Fair had lots of signs helping you find the free parking… then kind of dead-ended you in the parking lot. I finally made my way to the event, with the help of another family. I asked the mom why there were there and she said they were looking for a high school option for their daughter for next year — that their neighborhood high school (whose name I’ve forgotten) wasn’t a great option.
As we entered, there were many volunteers to lead us in, many nice signs declaring the schools as “among Chicago’s best” which I cynically noted is a vague phrase. We had to stand in line and were told that we had to go first to a waiting area to watch a video before entering the fair, which annoyed me and the other mom. The majority of the attendees were African American and most came as families so the place was very full/bustling. I’m sure there were at least 1000 people there throughout the day. Very busy, very noisy.
The video was very nicely produced and features news anchor Robin Roberston talking about the importance of eduction. It gave pointers on navigating the fair. It said that charters vary in how they do (but said the 70% of charter grads go to college) and that parents should ask about:
Is it a safe fit?
The video explained that charters are public schools run by independent non profits and are held to high standards by the city or they have their charter revoked.
They encouraged parents to talk to principals and visit the schools. They also encouraged parents to apply to 5-10 schools to increase their chances and they have an “increase your odds” program that families can sign up for to stay apprised of deadlines and be notified when schools are not full late in the season and still accepting applicants.
I entered the fair and was instantly overwhelmed. The first room was full of vendors like Sylan and others I wasn’t familiar with, nor did I want to spend my brain energy on. The room of school was also huge and loud and overwhelming and I didn’t really know where to start.
Some of the schools had students walking around, passing out postcards. I was immediately approached by 2 incredible boys from Quest, which as you may know, has been of great interest to me. They are both 7th graders in their 2nd year there and came from a Hyde Park school. They were incredibly smart and well spoken and answered every questions I posed to them like an adult would. I ended up meeting their parents later who were very forthcoming about the school and the progress that is being made there.
I made my way around some tables and chatted briefly with some of the charters,, such as KIPP and UNO. I asked some general questions. There were so many that I hadn’t heard of – most located on the south or west side. I sort of decided at that point to approach the fair from my own personal interests because otherwise I’d have had a brain aneurysm. It was just too much. A parent who was really looking for an elem or high school could have spent the entire day there if they really wanted to ask good questions and fill out applications.
So I talked to some of the current schools as well as some that were just approved:
The Orange School (will be an arts integration school)
The Montessori school in Englewood (principal came from Near North)
Chi Arts (after my detailed questions about the auditions/admissions I admitted that my son was in 4th grade and they looked at me like I was nuts)
Quest (they are still working out the discipline issues, but are making progress and the curriculum sounds incredible to me – super hands on)
Intrinsic Schools (a new charter that is founded by previous CPS teachers)
Academy for Global Citizenship (perhaps could be called a “hippy” school, didn’t print any materials but handed out seeds!)
Chicago Virtual Charter (very interesting! didn’t we see them at the top of some test score list?)
Another new charter whose name I can’t recall – 2 enthusiastic young teachers who said they’d had vast teacher turnover for the first 4 years but it was finally slowing down
OAE – always love these guys. BIG NEWS. I was told that CPS is looking to change the HS testing so kids will get test results BEFORE they apply for high schools. No idea when this will happen, but it is clearly being talked about. I inquired a bit about the IB process and asked if they publish score cutoffs. Stumped the guy! He asked and they told me that they do not because there are a serious of rounds of offers, so it’s not as clear cut as with the SEHSs. I scored a phone number in case there are questions.
CICS – one campus, I cannot recall… talked with a SpEd teacher who said they have a good SpEd program there. I’ll find the name of it.
So you walk around and talk and while there isn’t a lot of talk about performance, the schools state what it is about them that makes them different. Some are about discipline, some about small classes, some about method of teaching. In the absence of thinking about how charters affect the entire system, it’s hard not to get enthusiastic about the idea of offering parent a CHOICE about how their kids are taught. Especially parents who may not have a lot of other choices in privates – here is the chance to pursue a different way of learning for their kids. There is a lot of enthusiasm there and ideas that sound great and new thinking. (Similar enthusiasm when you go to the NPN fair among publics and private… most school sound good when you ask them questions.)
The new charters have people who seem to be on a mission to try a new way of educating kids – particularly lower income kids. In a perfect world, it’s nice to offer a choice to parents. I left there overwhelmed but impressed with most of what I saw. As I was walking back to the parking lot, I read HSObsessed’s email about the WBEZ article that 1/3 of the schools at the fair are Level 3. Jeez. Kind of like a slap in the face after talking to all these people with good intentions.
My assumption is that most of the people attending the fair come from a neighborhood with Level 3 schools. Maybe the fact that only 1/3 are Level 3 looks good, given that they have a 2/3 chance of not getting in a Level 3 school. Also of note, some of the best charters were not there. You know how at the NPN fair, schools like Hawthorne never showed up (because frankly, they don’t need your application.) I noticed that Namaste and CICS Irving Park did not attend – perhaps some of the other best scoring charters did not. Some of these school have to sell themselves to fill up.
I still think that having these education choices is a cool idea. But it brings me back to the inherent craziness that there really are very few “choices” in CPS. Many of these parents will apply to 5-10 school and take what the get. Be it Montessori (principal told me many parents the first year didn’t know what Montessori was) or Quest (parents wanted a charter, child isn’t really suited to hands on, open learning) or Urban Prep (guys looking so impressive in their suits) or the hippy school or the Orange arts school. It would be so much better if families and schools could match up a little better so a school could find families who support the mission.
I asked about discipline and “counseling out” at a few tables. I didn’t get many specifics and most of the schools say they work closely with kids who are falling behind or having issues to help them try to succeed.
I talked to a woman from the Edison Park neighborhood who was mad that she doesn’t have any charters near her. She understands that the school perform well, but didn’t love the CPS method of education and wanted some choices.
Yes, some of the tables had candy. They certainly were not bribing children with it by any stretch of the imagination. You know how when you go to a convention/fair and you’re going to be there for several grueling hours? Half the time the candy is eaten by the people who are working the tables. The only food available that I saw was hot pretzels/nachos/popcorn so the candy was sustenance for many people there, including me. No visible balloons either. We all got a free Walgreen’s shopping bag and a crap-ton of paper.
On the way home and since, I’m still pondering the role of charters. Should we be offering choice? If CPS hasn’t fixed the crummiest of the CPS schools, should parents have these options as a means of some hope? Why do the good intentions of some of these charters fail and end in level 3 schools? Can a charter high school take kids with low incoming skills and turn them around by graduation? What is the goal of some of these new charter founder? Doing things a better/different way? Making money? Both? One revealed to me the massive effort it’s taken for 5+ years to get the school going. It sounds arduous. But then the hope of college entry compared to the CPS dropout factories. Isn’t that worth something? And finally, am I so old now that I can’t tell teenage students from young teachers? Apparently so.