After years of seemingly endless conversations regarding the quality of schools in the area, a small group of parents gathered last Wednesday to inform themselves on the potential of introducing a charter school option.
On Aug. 10, four Forest Park residents gathered at the Howard Mohr Community Center for an open forum exploring the possibility of a local charter school. Allison Jack, a River Forest resident and director of charter growth and support with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, hosted the meeting after advertising at the Forest Park Aquatic Center and Public Library.
Jack originally became interested in the opportunity for Forest Parkers after hearing community complaints about area schools and being dissatisfied herself with the public schools in River Forest. Her goal for the inaugural meeting was not to make solid plans for a charter school but simply to provide an avenue for outreach and see if the idea would resonate.
“In Forest Park, we know that, given the amount Forest Park spends [for District 91], the outcomes are not what you would expect to see,” Jack said. “Forest Park spends more than River Forest [per pupil] and we hear a lot of parents are dissatisfied. We’re very much at an early stage of trying to find groups of parents who are interested in doing something like this. We don’t know what the school would look like.”
At the meeting, Jack outlined guidelines for establishing a new charter school.
To start, a charter school would need to be governed by a nonprofit board since that is the law in Illinois. Then, applications would need to be put into area school districts to get formal approval for children from that district to enroll in the charter. If a school district says no, there is an appeal process that could take place through the Illinois Charter School Commission.
Additionally, charter schools do not have boundaries in the same way typical schools do. In Illinois, there are established district boundaries for charter schools. However, how the school would work would be determined once members from partnering communities got together, figured out what they wanted the charter school model to look like, and applied to include their desired school districts.
Regarding funding for charter schools, Jack said, essentially, the schools follow a model where the money follows the children. Because charter schools are public schools, children who come from individual school districts bring the amount of tax dollars that would have been spent on them at the regular public school to the charter school. While the amount may not be exact, it would reflect a rough per-pupil amount as the tax dollars allotted for each child in a school district and those dollars would then move to where the child is actually a student.
In order for children to become enrolled in the charter school, there would be an application process and enrollment caps in order to ensure reasonable class sizes and resources. Once a charter school reached its optimum capacity, families still looking to enroll their kids in the charter would be placed in a blind lottery or on a waiting list.
Because charter schools mean establishing a new physical building, it would have to be determined exactly where the charter school would be housed. Jack said that, sometimes, charter schools could be built from scratch or open in former school buildings or former commercial properties.
“[Charter schools] are a huge challenge wherever they land because there will be people who are closer and who are further,” Jack said. “If you say you’re going to put a school in Forest Park, that doesn’t mean you have to be a Forest Park resident. And we don’t know what the school would be like because an operator is down the road [in the process].”
With the vast difference in neighborhoods socioeconomically and culturally in the Forest Park area, Jack added, there would be a lot of challenges in bringing a charter school to serve such a diverse population.
“This is really asking people to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” she said. “How do you serve kids from very affluent families and very low-income families and be successful?”
One Forest Park resident interested in the possibility of a charter school is Kevin Leonard, the father of a third-grader in District 91, who is dissatisfied with the district.
“I’m irritated that I don’t think my son is getting the quality of education he should be getting at a public school that my tax dollars go to,” Leonard said. “We are thinking about options like a lot of people. I know this year at least 8-10 families who have moved out of this neighborhood to primarily pursue other educational options for their children because they are deathly afraid of sending their kids to Proviso East.”
Leonard added he feels voicing his opinions to the district have been unvalued and that other parents are worried their concerns will be treated the same.
“Either I go or my wife goes [to school board meetings], but people do not show up, and I know they’re pissed off about schools,” he added. “The district either has to step their game up to hold onto what they have or they’re going to try to fight [a charter option] to keep it out because they’re too lazy to step it up.”
Some residents are also worried dissatisfaction with the status quo won’t be enough to truly enact change.
Andrea Poole, a Forest Park resident and mom of a 1½ -year-old, is worried people will be scared about trying to bring a charter school for fear of a backlash from district officials and neighbors.
“We are worried about this getting politicized before it even grows legs,” Poole said. “People are coming here to be like, ‘What is a charter school? I saw this flyer and I’m kind of curious.’ And then it’s like, ‘Forest Park is going to get a charter school’ and it blows up in the newspaper before it ever has a chance for parents to be curious. That is a real fear of mine.”
Jack said her goal right now is to meet individually with the attendees to make it a grassroots effort before officially starting any process.
“What I’m really focused on is trying to meet people and determine if there’s interest here,” she said. “Nothing is going to happen in the next six months; there’s not enough community awareness or support. It’s not going to go anywhere unless there’s a core group of parents who are willing to say, ‘This is what I want.’ It really has to stem from the community.”
For more information about charter school opportunities, contact Allison Jack at 312-629-2063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.