Group takes ‘Initiative’ to bring charter school to Elgin
By Emily McFarlan email@example.com May 23, 2012 9:32PM
Students attending the Academy For Global Citizenship , a charter school in Chicago near Midway Airport, water their garden during recess using water from rain they collected from their rain barrel Tuesday morning in Chicago. A group from Elgin toured the school for research in the possibility of bringing a charter school of their own to the Elgin Area. |Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:26AM
ELGIN — At one charter school downstate, students have their own farm plot. They eat some of the produce they grow, even eggs from their own chickens.
At another charter school in Chicago, administrators, teachers, parents and students decided to have single-sex seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms. At that same school, administrators also shifted gears after getting test scores in the middle of the year and reassigned the school’s resources to focus on bringing up science scores for grades four to seven.
“The decisions that can be made at charter schools are nimble,” said former Elgin District U46 teacher Karen Schock. “When something happens, you can make those changes. You work with your staff, your students and your parents. You’re working with that group instead of 20,000, like any decision a school district must make.”
That’s why Schock and several other Elgin residents have started the Elgin Charter School Initiative to research bringing a charter school to the City in the Suburbs.
That was an idea discussed by the Elgin City Council and city staff in February during their first strategic planning discussions. The strategic plan, which is expected to be completed next month, will direct the city over the next five years.
One idea that was thrown out during focus groups as part of those discussions was the creation of an education task force to explore ways the city and District U46 could work more closely together, City Councilwoman Anna Moeller told The Courier-News in March. Another was attracting a charter school to U46.
Moeller said the idea was not yet at “the nonprofit stage” then. It still isn’t, she pointed out.
The Elgin Charter School Initiative was registered March 28 as a not-for-profit corporation with the Illinois Secretary of State. Schock is listed as its agent, according to the Secretary of State website.
But it is not registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, according to Guidestar.org, which gathers and publicizes information about nonprofits.
And Moeller was clear: “This is kind of a private effort amongst a handful of us. It’s not related to the city. It didn’t get any city funding. It’s an independent effort at this point, and it probably will be always.”
Launching an idea
That “handful” of Elgin residents includes Moeller; Schock; Kari White; Kerry Kelly, wife of City Councilman John Steffen; and Laurel Warren, wife of former City Councilman Mike Warren, according to Schock.
“Our commonality is we all care about education and we all care about Elgin,” Schock said. “We want to look at options for the children of Elgin.”
Both Schock and her husband, former Elgin Mayor Ed Schock, spent their careers as educators in U46. Moeller also has a background in education, the councilwoman said, and both she and Kelly have young children.
All know each other from the community, and the idea to bring a charter school to Elgin grew out of their conversations about a year ago, Moeller said. The nearest is Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, part of neighboring Community Unit School District 300 and one of only three in the Chicago suburbs, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.
That’s an idea that hasn’t been discussed since 2003, when two U46 employees, Gail Worrell and Calvin Gooch, submitted a proposal for a Chicagoland Science, Art & Language Institute.
The school board later discovered that Gooch, then principal of Sheridan Elementary School in Elgin, had a criminal record. He resigned from the district, and the board denied the charter proposal the next year.
“We have worked hard from the beginning to keep school board members aware of what we’re doing. We have a meeting set up with the superintendent,” Schock said.
“We want to proceed collaboratively or, for sure, respectfully.”
That has meant informal meetings and telephone conversations with U46 Board of Education members, who would have to approve the group’s application for a charter, since charter schools are public schools run by private groups, she said. And U46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders confirmed the group has planned a meeting with district officials.
But, Sanders said, “To my knowledge, we do not know yet what their plans would be for a charter school proposal.”
Neither does the group, Schock said.
“We were sticking our toe in the water. Now we’re up to the ankle,” Schock said.
“Now that we’ve got some basis, but not anything in cement,” she said, the “design team” behind the Elgin Charter School Initiative is ready to reach out to the community.
In January, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools accepted the Elgin Charter School Initiative’s application to be part of a cohort of groups starting charter schools, Schock said. That was a “significant event,” helping the group connect with others, organize visits to other charter schools and access information, she said.
Since then, that team has visited about eight charter schools across the state, Schock said. Kelly also has hosted two “coffee meetings” this month in her home for community members interested in discussing an Elgin charter school, she said.
Reactions have ranged from “people who have said, ‘That’s a great idea. When will you be starting?’ and people who have questioned the need for a charter school in Elgin,” according to Schock.
The Elgin Charter School Initiative has no neighborhood or curriculum in mind for the charter school, Schock said, although it “primarily” is looking at a focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Group members are not sure whether the school would be for kindergarten through grade six or through grade eight, she said.
The group is sure it wants to offer “something not currently available in U46,” Moeller said.
“Education is an important component to any community, so we’re hoping it will get support and generate enthusiasm and be a welcome addition to what’s currently offered now through U46 and the private schools,” she said.
That’s where the community will be “crucial,” according to Schock.
“Now is the time where that kind of input and involvement is needed,” she said.
Schock said the group is hoping to have its application for a charter from U46 and the Illinois State Board of Education by 2013. But, she said, she’s not sure if the school then would open in 2013 or 2014.
“There are times I wondered if this would happen just because the task is so large. Now I feel like this is going to happen,” she said.
“Every charter school has its story, that’s for sure. And we want to have a positive one.”