U-46 leaders suggest rejecting charter school proposal
Elgin-area schools officials recommend denial of a second proposal for an Elgin charter school because it still falls short of addressing the needs of the district's diverse and at-risk students, among other concerns.
Elgin Area School District U-46 released a detailed response to the charter proposal for the Elgin Math and Science Academy submitted by the Elgin Charter School Initiative in January. A 2014 proposal by the group was denied by the U-46 school board and the Illinois State Charter School Commission.
During a public hearing on the proposal Monday night, U-46 leaders highlighted their concerns with the latest proposal, including that the curriculum fails to meet the district's English language arts standards and doesn't support the development of bilingual or biliterate students and children with special needs. An official school board vote on the proposal won't happen until April 10.
U-46 is a majority-minority district with more than 40,000 students. Because charter schools operate within public school districts' boundaries, they are funded through property taxes and accountable to the districts funding them.
District leaders took issue with the charter school's education and business plans, the latter of which relies heavily on uncertain grants, loans and state funding. The charter proposal also fails to provide dedicated science facilities until fiscal year 2021 despite its focus on science, the district said.
Since the earlier proposal was denied, group leaders said they worked with U-46 officials to address concerns about how at-risk students, such as those in special education, English language learners, or low-income and minority students, would be served. A new design team of parents, volunteers and professionals from various fields drafted the latest proposal, and a new board has been established to run the school.
Kerry Kelly, president of the charter group, said the proposed school would have smaller class sizes and students would be exposed to nature every day as part of its proposed Expeditionary Learning educational model.
The Expeditionary Learning curriculum allows students to spend a portion of each day exploring real-life problems and is aligned with Common Core state standards, the group said.
Suzanne Johnson, U-46 assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said among the problems with the education plan is that the charter school's curriculum is not written to support special education students, who make up 13 percent of the district's population, and fails to provide beyond mandated services to English language learners, who make up 28 percent.
"EL education has acknowledged it does not provide Spanish resources within the curriculum," she said.
District officials contend the Expeditionary Learning educational model -- used by Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago -- is not proven to produce better results.
"The two U-46 elementary schools located near the preferred site -- McKinley and Coleman -- exceeded the Polaris results on the PARCC exam in 2015-16. It's also important to note that national and state studies have consistently found an uneven quality of educational outcomes at charter schools," the district said in its report.
The charter's proposed location is the former Fox River Country Day School at 1600 Dundee Ave., owned by the city of Elgin. The Elgin City Council on Saturday approved a plan to lease the vacant property for $1 per year to the charter group. The property was appraised at $1.5 million in December 2012 and needs about $4 million in repairs, which the charter group would perform.
That location and the renovation cost would increase the taxpayer burden as the site lies outside U-46 boundaries. The proposal also fails to meet the transportation needs of low-income and at-risk students, the district said.
If approved, the charter school would open in August 2018 with students in kindergarten through third grade. Each year, another grade would be added, eventually offering classes through eighth grade.
In year one, with 200 students, EMSA would cost U-46 roughly $2 million -- less than half of 1 percent of the district's roughly $512 million in revenues for the current school year. And at full enrollment of 450 students in the sixth year, the financial impact would be less than 1 percent of U-46's current revenue, according to the group.
If the school board denies the charter proposal April 10, the group has 30 days to appeal to the Illinois Charter School Commission.