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RIVER FOREST | A mother of four is forging a path to open a public charter school in the area.
Allison Jack of River Forest has partnered with other like-minded parents to form Western Educational Community Action Network (WeCan), to open a tuition-free, progressive, multi-district public elementary school” serving Proviso and neighboring communities. Jack hopes to open the proposed school by Fall 2019. The charter would serve children K through eight-grade from River Forest, Oak Park, Forest Park, Maywood, Broadview, Melrose Park, Bellwood and Berwyn.
WeCan’s website emphasizes the progressive focus of the school by outlining goals for a “culturally relevant curriculum” that plans to include such techniques as mindfulness, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive pedagogy. WeCan aims to have a “racially conscious” team of staff and faculty that can help “unify the diverse communities of West Cook County that attend the school,” according to a statement on its Facebook page.
Jack works as director of charter growth and support for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. She was involved in the opening of a charter school in Chicago and she told Chicago Tribune that working with charter schools is her “passion.”
Jack’s critics are advocating against a charter for what they perceive as its negative impact on the public education system. The Truth About Choice In Education, a committee belonging to the political action group Oak Park Call to Action, hosted a screening in partnership with Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, a public education advocacy group, of the 2016 documentary “Backpack Full of Cash” narrated by Matt Damon at the Lake Theater in downtown Oak Park on Saturday morning. About 200 people attended the event.
The film, directed by teacher and filmmaker Sarah Mondale, focuses on the growth of charter schools and school voucher programs in the United States since the early 2000s, and the associated struggles due to budget cuts at the state level as a result of tax dollars steered to an increasing number of privately funded charter schools.
The film explores the impact standardized testing mandates have had on curriculum and learning in public schools, a widespread school voucher program in New Orleans that provides taxpayer dollars to private religious schools, and a New Jersey school system that serves predominantly low-income students which, once on the brink of collapse, is now an example of successful public schooling.
Jack’s opposition contends that the push for charter schools is part of a bigger agenda to privatize public education. “The increase in charter schools “is part of a larger push to privatize public education and public money,” Lisa Pintado-Vertner, Oak Park resident and Truth About Choice In Education member said. “Why should our tax dollars go to charter schools when charter schools are not for everyone,” she added.
Jack said the proposed charter school will help to create more alternative options for students and parents. “We think there is a certain kind of kid that does well in traditional schools and another kind of kid that doesn’t. We’re trying to meet with parents and community members who have ideas about what else can happen to address chronic achievement gaps,” she said.
Charters are now required to receive at least 97 percent of a district’s per capita rate for each enrolled student, per the new school funding law. Previously, law required charters be paid at least 75 percent of per capita tuition. Charter schools authorized by local school district receive payment from the district, while those authorized by the state receive payment from the state, according to Jackie Matthews, director of media and external communications for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Erin Fountain said she joined the WeCan effort earlier this year after meeting Jack at an Oak Park library screening of the 2015 documentary film “Most Likely to Succeed,” which focuses on the shortcomings of traditional education. Fountain, an African-American, Oak Park resident and mother of four, said she’s in favor of a charter school in the hope that it might better address academic achievement disparities between the district’s white and black students. For each of her children, she said she’s struggled with report cards and assessments that do not accurately reflect their knowledge or academic potential.
Rev. Jacques Conway, District Superintendent of the Northern Illinois United Methodist Conference, and former Oak Park River Forest school board president is in support of a local charter school. Conway, a contributor to West Suburban Journal, lead the way in Maywood since 2003 to establish a charter as an alternative to public education. He worked closely with Jack on the initiative. “We did a 10-year tutorial at Irving School for third-grader students struggling below grade with a 100 percent success rate improving grades.”
Conway’s charter school idea was inspired by Oak Park and River Forest High School alum, Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools. Conway met Feinberg at OPRF’s 2005 Tradition of Excellence Awards, where Feinberg was an honoree. Conway thought the KIPP schools were exceptional and liked its concept-extended school days during the school year, mandatory summer classes, high expectations for students, and dedicated teachers.
“After I heard that, I thought, this is great. You don’t need a PhD to figure it out. If you keep a kid in school longer and instill in them a desire to achieve, they will achieve,” said Conway.