First U of C charter middle school targets Bronzeville

The Carter G. Woodson campus of the University’s Charter School opened this year to 250 sixth through eighth graders, with plans to eventually expand to 450 students.

By Alison Sider

[img id=”76925″ align=”alignleft”] Though the U of C’s relationship with the surrounding community is sometimes difficult, community leaders and University administrators acknowledged a shared achievement at the dedication of the University’s fourth charter school. The Carter G. Woodson campus of the University’s Charter School opened this year to 250 sixth through eighth graders, with plans to eventually expand to 450 students.

While some charter schools draw students from all over the city, Woodson gives priority to students from its Bronzeville neighborhood. Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute (UEI), which is responsible for operating the charter schools, said great efforts were made to work with community leaders and parents in designing the school and in ensuring that local students could attend.

Pat Dowell, third-ward alderman, spoke enthusiastically at the dedication.

“I really am excited about the opening of this school because this is a school that serves the community. It draws upon the assets in the community and contributes to community building by providing increased educational opportunities to children living in the Grand Boulevard area,” he said.

One of the primary goals of the University’s charter schools is to ensure that their students have opportunities to attend four-year colleges. There is strong demand for spots in the charter schools; students are selected by lottery without academic screening, and Knowles said that applications exceed available spots in the four schools by a five to one ratio.

At the dedication, Woodson director Jared Washington underscored the high expectations the school has set for its students.

“Fundamentally we believe that our children are smart and entitled to a worldclass education. Our explicit purpose is to cultivate the next generation of thinkers, activists, researchers, educators, leaders,” he said.

But the school has an even more ambitious agenda.

“Our aim was, ‘Can we create the middle school of the future?’” Knowles said. In contemplating the curriculum, structure of the school day, and the best uses of resources, the UEI worked with teachers, parents, and even students to envision what such a school would look like.

Technology will play a strong day-to-day role in the school’s activities. Classrooms have been fitted with flat-screen monitors and Smart Board computer display screens. Students have laptops that they use on projects ranging from research in history class to video game editing.

In addition to their core academic classes, students will have opportunities to pursue interests not typically offered in school, such as bike riding, cooking, robotics, and spoken word poetry. The school receives public funding at the local, state, and federal levels. Additional funding for technology and start-up costs came from the MacArthur Foundation and the Walton Foundation in Chicago.

“It’s about using that to try and turn traditional schooling on its head,” Knowles said.

The school building was acquired from the Chicago Public School system in a competitive auction in December of last year. According to Knowles, the school fills a gap in the University’s charter system, which is committed to educating students of all ages but has not operated a separate middle school until this year. According to Knowles, the building’s location helped make the project attractive.

“All of our facilities are in communities of high need and also within a few minutes’ drive of the University campus. This way we can leverage the assets and resources of the University to support the schools,” Knowles said. “We didn’t realize we were going to get lucky so quickly.”

Administrators said the University’s investment in the charter schools goes beyond the material.

At the dedication ceremony, President Robert Zimmer said, “The University of Chicago name is on the schools. So we are not just involved in the schools, but the quality of the schools—the results achieved in the school—reflect on us.”