Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake was criticized for lacking student diversity before narrowly receiving approval to operate another five years from a state commission.
Illinois State Charter School Commission members Tuesday voted 5-4 in favor of renewing Prairie Crossing through the 2018-19 academic year. However, the charter renewal came with two conditions in an effort to diversify the student body.
Commission member Milton Wharton, who voted against Prairie Crossing's charter renewal, criticized the school for not significantly increasing the member of low-income and minority pupils since opening in 1999.
Wharton said officials at the small choice school need to sell what they are doing to "poor people" who may not be familiar with the concept of an environmentally focused curriculum. Prairie Crossing, which has a 392-student capacity, is known for outdoor teaching and trash-free lunches.
"When they first started this thing, a lot of people were kind of leery of this environmental thing," Wharton said of Prairie Crossing, which is in an upscale subdivision by the same name. "What is this? Is this hippie stuff from the '60s, communes and some flower children?"
By May 14, Prairie Crossing must develop a robust outreach plan to attract more educationally disadvantaged students over the next five years, said charter school commission Deputy Director Karen Washington. It also must develop an evaluation system for its managers to ensure the effort is pursued in the following year.
Prairie Crossing's current state report card shows 2 percent of students are low-income, 0.5 percent Hispanic and 78.7 percent white.
Executive Director Geoff Deigan said after Tuesday's meeting that school administrators and the board are committed to providing every opportunity possible to educationally disadvantaged children.
"We're going to make every effort to fulfill that obligation," Deigan said.
Prairie Crossing was sanctioned by the state in 1999. It was allowed to open within the boundaries of Gurnee-based Woodland Elementary District 50 and Mundelein-area Fremont Elementary District 79, and is one of two charter schools in Lake County. Prairie Crossing determines enrollment by lottery.
As part of receiving its renewal, Prairie Crossing will receive full general state aid payments from Woodland and Fremont for any children from those districts sent to the charter school.
Woodland most recently shipped about $3 million in general state aid to Prairie Crossing to support 321 children from his district. Fremont most recently was obligated to transfer about $757,000 to the charter school for 70 of its children.
Members of the charter school commission voted 5-4 against a motion to allow Prairie Crossing to have its renewal to operate for five years with full general state aid only from Woodland and Fremont for the 2014-15 academic season. The amount of aid going to Prairie Crossing would have been reviewed for the agreement's second year.
Deigan said he was impressed with the amount of work the charter school commission performed for the nine-month renewal process for Prairie Crossing.
"I think that the climate of charter schools in general are really getting looked at under the microscope," he said.