U of C may add charter school

By Sarah Hetherington

As part of its ongoing efforts to boost its involvement in local public education, the U of C recently revealed plans to seek development of a new charter school to accompany the three schools it now operates in and around Hyde Park: the Donoghue Campus, the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School (NKO)—which comprises both primary and middle school campuses—and Woodlawn High School.

“[The University] has been on a path for nine years: to develop really good ideas about public education, to offer a fabulous education to children in the neighborhood around the University, and to put these ideas to use around the country,” said Hank Webber, vice president for Community and Government Affairs and chairman of the governing board of the University’s charter school system.

The University’s involvement with charter schools pre-dates the Renaissance 2010 plan, Mayor Richard Daley’s call for the opening of 100 new Chicago public schools by the year 2010. Renaissance 2010 entails closing underperforming schools and re-opening them as either contract schools, which are run by education management organizations, performing schools, or charter schools, which admit students through the use of a lottery system. Of the three kinds of Renaissance schools, the University is involved solely in the charter school effort.

“The University recognizes education is one of the most important things our nation needs to do well,” said Timothy Knowles, executive directory of the Center for Urban School Improvement (USI). “Universities in general have a responsibility to address our country’s biggest problems. We have one of the greatest research institutions in the world, along with some of the worst public schools,” Knowles said of the city of Chicago. “We’d like the former to bear on the latter.”

Details about the specific kind of school the University hopes to open were not yet available, and administrators were unwilling to comment on the plans.

The University’s involvement with its charter schools stemmed from the establishment of USI in 1988. Webber said USI’s teaching techniques and ideas about school organization, combined with a sense of great potential to improve urban schools, led the University to apply to sponsor and run the NKO charter school as a non-Chicago Public School organization.

Though the opening of NKO came before the formal Renaissance 2010 plan, the school fits within the scope of the plan’s mission. Webber described the University’s involvement with its charter schools as “analogous to a teaching hospital,” in which medicine is practiced as well as taught, with an eye toward innovation.

“Renaissance 2010 is both a continuation and an expansion of the path we’ve been on,” Webber said.

One of the University’s goals for its charter schools, Webber said, is to prepare all students to enter and complete a four-year college, a goal he acknowledged as a given for middle class parents but which is not necessarily in reach for under-privileged families.

Knowles placed particular emphasis on the University’s direct accountability, oversight, and involvement with its charter schools.

“There is a direct connection between the Center and each charter school’s director. Our involvement is unlike those universities that run charter schools at arm’s length in a kind of partnership,” said Knowles. “We want to be legally, morally, and philosophically responsible for the education of these children.”