Charter school debate grows in South Loop

Alice Epstein, founder of Chicago Classical Academy Charter School, argued in favor of Chicago Classical at a Feb. 20 hearing.

By Blaise Mesa

Chicago Public Schools officials and local residents continue to debate a proposed Chicago Classical Academy charter school in the South Loop. 

If approved, the open-enrollment charter school would serve the surrounding neighborhoods with class sizes projected to be 50 per grade. The school would be public, require no testing to enter and would educate students tuition-free, according to Alice Epstein, founder of the Chicago Classical Academy. 

Classical academies offer a distinctive curriculum that teaches students about the U.S. Constitution, historical court cases, Latin and grammar.

“The South Loop is a fast-growing, family-oriented neighborhood with a strong need for elementary and high school seats,” Epstein said during a Feb. 20 Illinois State School Charter Commission hearing. “The diversity of the neighborhood, the surrounding communities and the accessibility to the city as a whole make it an ideal spot to open an open-enrollment classical school that will add choices to families without straining the resources to any existing local schools.” 

The K–8 school currently has approximately 150 intended enrollees and was scheduled to open by fall 2018 before its proposal was denied in a Dec. 6, 2017, board of education meeting, according to Mary Bradley, executive director of the office of innovation incubation at CPS. 

During the hearing, Bradley said there were several problems with the Chicago Classical’s December proposal, including a lack of community support, an instructional leader, an unreasonable budget, clear programming and support for students with disabilities and English learners. 

There are some decent charter schools in America, said William Sampson, professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy. However, he added, “the average charter school does not outperform the average public school on standardized test scores.” 

While there is a need for schools in the South Loop, a charter school might not be the best approach, Sampson said. 

Other than questions raised about the quality of curriculum, critics at the hearing were frustrated about the school’s low level of community support. Both neighborhood aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) and Sophia King (4th Ward) have not supported the school, according to Epstein. 

“[Community engagement is] pretty much all [Chicago Classical] has been doing with our time,” Epstein told The Chronicle. 

Since March 2015, Chicago Classical Academy has held about 149 community outreach events, including one-on-one in-person meetings, gatherings and phone calls to residents throughout communities, including speaking with Dowell and King, according to documents provided to The Chronicle by Epstein. 

While the charter school drew criticism at the Feb. 20 meeting, supporters implored commissioners to overturn the CPS decision to deny its application.

Tiera Patrick, 26, a Whole Foods Market employee from the West Side—who has two of her five children attending Duke Ellington Elementary School—urged the commissioners to approve the Chicago Classical Academy’s construction to provide the best education for her children. 

“Why should I want more for my child but know that my income capacity is limiting them?” Patrick said at the hearing. “It’s not fair for them and this is heartbreaking for me.” 

If Chicago Classical was built, she would be able to enroll her children there and provide the education she wants them to have, Patrick told The Chronicle. 

The commission will take action on the school’s appeal during a March 20 meeting. 

“It’s not going to be a solution for every parent, it’s not going to be what every parent wants,” Epstein told The Chronicle. “But we are intentionally a small school to be a solution for those people.” 


Updated Feb. 26 3:05pm. The previous version of this story said there were 115 intended enrollees, when there was actually 150 intended enrollees. The Chronicle regrets this error.