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posted: 5/27/2014 1:01 AM

Editorial: Charter school must serve students of all backgrounds

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  • Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake.

      Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2012

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The relationship between two Lake County elementary school districts and a nearby charter school is like a badly arranged marriage.

It's unhappy and perennially on the rocks.

Bad blood started when the state created Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake 15 years ago within the boundaries of Woodland District 50 and Fremont District 79. That a large portion of the districts' state aid is diverted to support their students who attend the environmentally focused charter remains a point of contention.

The relationship hit a new low last week with a lawsuit filed by District 50 against the charter school, the Illinois State Charter School Commission and the Illinois State Board of Education over diversity and funding issues. The suit seeks to overturn the state's recent decision to allow the 384-student charter school to operate for another five years.

The courts are the appropriate place to sort out the legal points at issue, but the filing does underscore a fundamental problem that must be addressed. That is, even though Prairie Crossing is a public school, accepting public money, its enrollment doesn't come close to reflecting the area's ethnic and economic diversity.

The statistics, frankly, are disturbing.

Nearly 80 percent of students at Prairie Crossing are white, 0.5 percent are Hispanic and about 2 percent are low-income. That compares to 49 percent white, 26.6 percent Hispanic and 30 percent low-income in District 50, according to the most recent state report card.

State charter commission members were "troubled" by the issue during a review five years ago and ordered that changes be made. They were again critical of the school's lack of low-income students during its latest five-year renewal hearing last month, but narrowly approved Prairie Crossing's continued operation.

Were measures created? Were benchmarks set and achieved? Was any action taken to attract and accommodate diverse and low-income students?

Based on the statistics, it appears not. Prairie Crossing's students are selected by lottery from a pool of applicants. School officials say they have tried to attract more diverse students to apply.

But it's a school that has no transportation service and no free/reduced lunch programs needed to serve low-income students.

Meanwhile, District 50 is educating the majority of low-income and at-risk students within its boundaries while a chunk of its state aid -- $3 million this year -- follows some of its highest-achieving, least-needy -- and therefore least costly to educate -- students to Prairie Crossing.

During the April charter review, the state ordered Prairie Crossing to develop a "robust outreach plan to attract more educationally disadvantaged students in the next five years." A report is due May 31. It may tell much about how serious Prairie Crossing is about its mission to reflect all students within its service area.

The lawsuit will work itself out according to the law and the effect of legal arguments. But clearly if Prairie Crossing is to serve a legitimate mission in the communities of districts 79 and 50, it must do more to demonstrate a commitment to all students of all backgrounds.

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