(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly state that Minuteman, a vocational high school in Massachusetts, is a public school and not a charter school. We regret the error.)
In the middle of a run for re-election to District 209’s school board, Claudia Medina is endorsing the creation a charter high school in hopes of elevating the public education system through healthy competition.
“I want to be part of the rebuilding of the district,” Medina said. “How do we make sure that happens? If there is competition, there is accountability.”
Medina said she was approached last fall by Patrick Degnan, a native of Chicago and current Oak Park resident. Degnan began his involvement in charter schools in 2001. He has served on the board of six schools, including Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy and St. Basil, Christ the King Jesuit College Prep, and The Montessori School of Englewood.
To move ahead the $40 million proposal would need four votes from the Proviso Township High School District 209 Board of Education, along with filling out a charter application, and holding a town meeting before a location could be scouted. If approved, Degnan said the group would purchase a facility in Proviso Township and work to open in August 2024.
Opposition from D209 board president Arbdella Patterson has already arisen.
“We have absolutely no interest in a charter high school at D209,” Patterson said Monday in response to a request for comment.
The proposed school would have a career and technical focus, using Minuteman High School, a public high school in Lexington, Mass., as a model for the structure of education offered. Along with vocational trades, an International Baccalaureate track would also be offered to meet the various needs of students.
By providing a vocational path, Degnan said they can bridge connections between students and future potential employers.
The project would cost approximately $40 million dollars to launch from beginning to opening, depending on how many vocational tracks are initially offered, said Degnan. He said they would hope to open with approximately 10 programs. Degnan has approximately $40,000 invested in the project and would serve on the board of directors for the nonprofit school.
The funding would be raised mostly through philanthropic efforts and grants, said Medina.
The proposal is expected to receive pushback from those who believe the charter would go against public education, said Medina. Politically, she said it can be “misrepresented” in what it can do for community growth.
“I have a feeling that if votes (on the school board) don’t go our way, we will be back in two years,” Degnan said. “We will see.”
While some might see the charter as potential competition, Degnan said past charter school studies have shown that districts where a charter school was introduced showcased an improvement in their public education.
A concern at the Proviso schools has been decreasing enrollment.
“If you look at the size of the two schools, East and West, their enrollment, slowly but surely, has been in decline, for a long time,” Degnan said.
According to Medina, West has seen a decline from 2,600 students to 1,700 from 2015 and East currently has 1,400 enrolled down from 2,100 students. The charter school would seek to enroll 800 students.
Medina, who is seeking reelection to the board of education in the April 4 election, said the new charter school would force accountability, essentially driving up the quality of education and therefore the interest of the community.
“It’s a public school, it’s not run by the District 209 board,” Medina said. “Now the district stops being a power play as far as I am concerned, in regards to the school board. The school board has to elect competent people who are going to come on board who are really wanting to work, who really want to address the student issues. They have to have competent school board members, not politically connected school board members because now they have to function. It forces the schools to be accountable.”
In recent years, Proviso Township has experienced student protests as well as criticism over Superintendent Dr. James Henderson’s leadership. Previous reports from the Village Free Press reported concerns from families of students at Proviso East High School in Maywood and Proviso West High School in Hillside at a listening session hosted by board member Amanda Grant in November 2021, mostly regarding student safety.
Despite these concerns, Medina is adamant the district can turn this around and be a model in public education, moving away from previous experiences.
“One of the things that people fear in coming to this area is that there isn’t a good high school but there is and there are great teachers, and we are not being able to address the needs,” Medina said. “This last strike wreaked havoc on the district.”
“We are out of compliance with Special Ed, we are out of compliance with our ESL students, we are now a Latino majority district, and we have no Latino leaders,” Medina said, adding that the concerns spread across various immigrant communities. “In general, all of the immigrant communities that have been moving into the area all want good education.”
Despite her involvement to this point, Medina said she would not be involved if the charter school is approved.
“I am not involved in the charter,” Medina said. “I am involved in ensuring there is the opportunity of the charter for the community. I think that the community wants this, and my focus is on Proviso and that Proviso rises. My work is in Proviso.”
In an effort to discuss how a potential charter high school could help create “educational stability” in the community, a town hall meeting is to be held on Thursday, March 23 with a location to be announced at a later date.