New charter school proposed for McKinley Park-Brighton Park area
June 7, 2013

By Patrick Butler

A K-12 Horizon Science Charter School proposed for 2245 W. Pershing Road drew loud protests at a May 7 meeting called by Ald. George Cardenas (12th). Many residents believe the meeting was organized only a few hours before they were notified.

Some of them dubbed the 5 p.m. meeting at the McKinley Park field house a “sham,” insisting Concept Charter’s latest school already was a shoo-in.

The path has not seemed easy to the charter school’s backers, however.

Despite support by Cardenas, the Chicago Public Schools first rejected Concept Charter’s application before the Illinois State Charter School Commission overruled the CPS.

Then, City officials pulled Concept Charter’s request for a zoning change off the City Council Zoning Committee agenda as the Emanuel administration balked at allowing another charter school at a time when the City was closing more than 50 regular public schools.

During Cardenas’s community meeting, Chicago Teachers Union representative John Kugler, also a local resident, noted the site once was used by a carpet padding factory and questioned the site’s environmental safety.

Concept Charter countered that, according to AES Due Diligence, Inc., the environmental assessment company it had hired to check the property, the site had no safety issues despite what it described as a “minor” spill 13 years ago of five ounces of a liquid compound used to manufacture foams. The substance, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), is considered “very toxic” by some health authorities, but AES Due Diligence reported “no evidence” of environmental hazards beyond the asbestos that workers would remove before the school would be allowed to open.

Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Charter, assured neighbors at the May 7 meeting that Concept would never use an unsafe facility.

Ucan told the attendees Concept had collected more than 1,000 signatures from local residents supporting the proposed school.

Yet Patrick Brosnan of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council said Concept had never contacted his 16-year-old community organization and that he had never heard of Concept’s plans until very recently.

“We should all be participating,” Brosnan said. “This isn’t the way it should be.” Jean Nowaczewski of the Illinois State Charter Commission, which approved Concept’s plan after CPS rejected it, said the Springfield-based panel came away impressed after what she said was a “very detailed” investigation of Concept schools.

Concept Charter runs about two dozen schools across the Midwest, including the Chicago Math and Science Academy, whose students and faculty spoke at the meeting. Asked about Concept’s alleged links to Turkish educator and Muslim scholar Fethulla Gulen, Nowaczewski said Concept has “nothing to do with Gulen’s movement or any other movement.”

Concept officials conceded, however, that while Gulen and his teachings may have influenced some of the company’s founders, Concept has no ideological, religious, or financial ties to any “Gulen movement.”

According to Wikipedia, Gulen now lives in “self-imposed exile” in Pennsylvania and “has stated his belief in science, interfaith dialogue among the people of the Book [the Scriptures], and multiparty democracy.”

‘Give it a chance’

One of the teachers from the Concept-run Chicago Math and Science Academy on the Far North Side urged McKinley Park/Brighton Park residents to “give it a chance.”

A Math and Science Academy student from Rogers Park, Blessed Nahn, said it was only after she transferred from a regular public school that she could “see her future for the first time.”

Cardenas told those attending the meeting that nobody is forcing parents to send their children to charter schools and that “if Concept is not wanted or needed, then it won’t exist,” he said.

Cardenas’s support for charter schools as an alternative to regular public schools drew fire last month from fellow aldermen including Ameya Pawar (47th), James Cappelmen (46th), and Robert Fioretti of the neighboring 2nd Ward.

Both Pawar and Fioretti said charter schools appear to be undermining support for the neighborhood public schools.

The day after the CPS board voted to close 50 schools in the biggest school shutdown in United States history, Pawar told the North Center Chamber of Commerce he’d like to see a yearlong moratorium on any new charter schools.

Fioretti said, “In the current unstable climate of school closings and uncertainty, we need to assure that any school that does open is one that has community support and an ethical financial standing.

“Taking a vacant building and putting it back into productive reuse seems like a reasonable idea,” he continued. “But when Concept Charter Schools applied to CPS through their New Schools process, CPS rejected their application to expand this year. CPS engaged in a thorough and rigorous evaluation and it didn’t want this school, even during the current climate of this administration’s large-scale charter school support and expansion.”

Diverting tax dollars?

Fioretti added that the proposed new school, though approved by the Illinois State Charter Commission, would not be run by or accountable to CPS, even though the State would still subtract its funding from the CPS budget, diverting tax dollars from the CPS schools.

As a result, Fioretti added, “the taxpayers would be forced to pay for a school that is clearly not in our own best interests. Earlier this year, 35 aldermen, myself included, signed a resolution for a oneyear moratorium on charter school expansions just for situations such as this.

“I will remain vigilant in holding CPS accountable for these types of actions,” Fioretti said. Cardenas did not respond to requests for an interview.