Management change at N. Side charter school angers parents

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • July 24, 2008 @ 7:43 AM
Parents are questioning the Chicago Board of Education's decision to appoint a new academic manager for one of the city's best-performing charter schools.

The board voted unanimously yesterday to name American Quality Schools, a Chicago-based school-management firm, as the new academic manager of Passages Charter School.

"Passages was a rare school, a school built from scratch," says Passages parent Diana Shulla-Cose. "We do not believe we're saving Passages School."

Asian Human Services, a Chicago nonprofit, opened the elementary school in 2001.

In the last four years, the school has seen a 23.4 percent rise in Illinois Standard Achievement Test scores. Its attendance rate is 95 percent.

Passages has benefited from an active group of parents and teachers who have helped set the curriculum. School slots are filled through a citywide lottery with no admission testing required.

Chicago Public Schools officials say the management change is a response to Passages' growth.

But at a board meeting last month CPS Arne Duncan chided the school's parents. "If the culture doesn't change dramatically, I'm not comfortable going forward with this school," he said.

Duncan did not elaborate on his complaints, but  a renewal agreement approved by the board mandated an overhaul of the school's operating and financial structure, the creation of a new evaluation process for teachers and staff and a process for resolving facility and disability access issues.

Charles Hempfling, listed as Asian Human Services' vice president, characterized the decision to bring in American Quality as a routine contract change after the organization's discussions with New York-based school management firm Victory Schools "just didn't work out."

Hempfling however, refused to say why the decision had left parents so unhappy, referring questions to Asian Human Services chief executive Abha Pandya, who could not be reached for comment.

"It's a long, long, long story. I haven't been that involved. I'm just a board member," Hempfling said before abruptly ending the conversation. "That's enough questions."

The school is moving from its current location near Graceland Cemetary to a new campus on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Andersonville. Passages is also expanding from 233 students to 300.

The school board's decision will split administrative and educational responsibilities at Passages, says Josh Edelman, CPS director of new schools. Asian Human Services will continue to hold the charter and operate the school administratively, but American Quality Schools will operate the educational side.

American Quality Schools already runs six schools in Chicago, including five Chicago International Charter Schools.

"Having AQS come in is a great way to move forward," Edelman says. "They're not coming in to mess with success."

However, Shulla-Cose and other parents worry AQS will change the academic program.

Shawnee Newsome, who was selected by AQS to be the new principal at Passages, says she wants to maintain the academic program already in place and improve it.

"Keep some of the same curriculum and make improvements," she says, describing education as her "passion."

In other business, the board:
  • Okayed a new location for L.E.A.R.N. Excel Charter School at 2401 W. Congress Parkway. The board had previously approved two other locations for the new school. L.E.A.R.N. says it found a larger building on Congress that can serve as a permanent location.
  • Approved a policy on student intervention, which allows teachers and staffers to use "limited force" when needing to restrain or move a student, and a new student code that includes added restrictions against bullying and date violence.

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.