D89 Votes Down Proposed Charter School That Wants Millions in Public Funding, State to Weigh in Next

Elaine Lee.jpg

Elaine Lee before the District 89 school board on April 6. | Michael Romain/VFP

Friday, June 23, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

District 89 officials are pushing hard against a proposed charter school that’s the brainchild of a district employee. Dr. Elaine Lee, a longtime D89 school psychologist, has been fighting for at least six years to open Mastery Academy.

During an April 6 presentation to the D89 school board, Lee said that she believes her school, which will serve roughly 130 fifth- through eighth-graders, could be operational by August if the district approved the concept.

According to her most recent proposal, Lee is seeking funds ranging from $1.2 million to $2 million a year for the first three years to support the charter school. That money would essentially be coming from local tax revenue that would otherwise go into D89’s budget.

The school, Lee said, would open inside of the T.H. Wade Center, a facility that’s owned and operated by, and located across the street from, Rock of Ages Baptist church in Maywood.

The D89 board has since voted down the proposal, but Lee has appealed the decision to the state commission on charter schools, which could overturn the school board’s decision.

A public hearing facilitated by the commission will take place on June 28 and the commission could make a decision by July, Lee said. Both supporters and critics of Mastery are mobilizing support in advance of the hearing.

At the April presentation, D89 board members, teachers and principals scrutinized and criticized Lee’s latest proposal, which had changed since she last presented her charter school concept to the board.

Lee has been requesting a charter from the D89 school board since at least 2011. Back then, Mastery Academy was presented as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school, which would offer a model of study that Lee said wasn’t being offered in the district at the time.

Since then, the district has established two middle schools, and beefed up and expanded its STEM curriculum, a development that Lee took credit for and cited as a main reason for switching Mastery’s premise from a STEM school to one based on a model of education called Expeditionary Learning.

The EL model focuses on immersing students in real-world learning experiences and character development, according to its proponents. A nonprofit organization called Expeditionary Learning, which is made up of a network of schools around the country (not all of them charters), functions as something of a governing body for the model and provides consultation and curriculum materials for schools utilizing the EL model.

“I wanted to provide something different. I didn’t want to come back to the table with something already implemented,” Lee said, referencing the switch to the EL format. Lee added she was “flattered” by the  district’s implementation of ideas she believed to have originated at D89.

Board member Veronica Bonilla-Lopez, however, said that the district’s implementation of STEM was in the making well before the district’s transition from K-8 to the middle school format.

“You may want to take credit for it but I think others [are responsible],” Bonilla-Lopez said, before D89 Supt. David Negron suggested that, wherever the STEM idea originated, it’s also possible that Lee could be incorporating the district’s practices into her own proposal.

“Your initial proposal involved STEM, which the district is now doing,” Negron said. “So, is it safe to say that the district [can offer improved models of learning] without the necessity of a charter school?”

“You can take things from anywhere and put them in a charter school but the purpose of the proposal is to outline what those thing are you intend to implement in school in a certain way,” Lee said in response. 

Other board members zoned in on a range of inconsistencies in Lee’s proposal. When board members Dianne Williams and Jesse Macias asked Lee whether or not she’d informed the people she listed as supporters about Mastery’s change from a school based on STEM learning to one based on Expeditionary Learning, Lee indicated that she had not.

“I will contact every single one of those persons and have them talk to me about what they don’t understand about what we’re doing now,” Lee said.

During another part of the presentation, Lee said that the curriculum changes were not as important as what she considers her proposal’s core value — that Mastery would simply be better than the local public schools. 

When Negron asked Lee how much money she’d raised for Mastery over the last several years she’s been lobbying the district for public funds, Lee responded that she hadn’t raised virtually any private funding for her project.

In her 2011 proposal, Lee had identified the former H. McNelty School of First Baptist Church in Melrose Park as an alternative site if she couldn’t secure the Rock of Ages facility. Since then, however, H. McNelty has been sold to a developer that reportedly plans to turn the building into apartment units.

Negron added that Lee’s proposal indicated that she only had a letter of intent with Rock of Ages.

“The proposal clearly articulates that you’re not in an enforceable contract with your building of choice,” Negron said.

“We can’t go into that contract until we’re a school,” Lee said.

Several board members and a district building principal harped on the fact that Lee doesn’t have any experience managing charters and, outside of a few consultants, has not identified anyone with charter experience to staff Mastery.

“Without experience, how can you hold someone accountable [to make sure] they’re meeting expectations?” asked Macias.

With my previous experience having opened a charter school in the past from the ground up I’m concerned about the time frame and time line to do this with quality,” said Michelle Hassan, the principal of Irving Middle School.

“Additionally, its important when looking at options to really look at the credentials and background of the staff … it’s important to have experience running a high-quality school.”

Lee, who is listed as Mastery’s CEO, said that her doctorate degree, along with a range of other experiences in the education field, qualified her for the leadership position.

“The training is there to be a leader of an organization,” Lee said. “The CEO is basically the leader with the consummate vision … I’ve worked as a high school band director [and] on different levels of education [including at the preschool, sixth-grade and college levels, and as a music teacher]. As a high school band director, I was out on the field making formations.” 

Lee added that the outside consultants she’s retained — namely Ryan Maxwell, the midwest regional director for Expeditionary Learning network and American Quality Schools, a charter school network — will provide additional oversight.

Besides, Lee said, charters schools, by law, aren’t required to hire experts in charter school education.

Macias also pushed Lee to explain how she plans to open her school by August. Lee said that the T.H. Wade center was “move-in ready” and doesn’t need much work before it can be repurposed into a functioning charter school, but Macias said that doesn’t take into account some key details.

He said that even if the district approved Mastery, the process would take at least a month, before noting that Lee would still need to consider the time it would take to deal with “operations, maintenance and custodial issues.”

“Consider all the training … the procedures, policies, student code of conduct materials, pencils, papers, computers, desks, scheduling, the list goes on and on,” Macias said. “Is it realistic to say that anybody with any leadership experience can make something like that happen in less than four months?”

“I believe it can happen, yes,” Lee said, but added that she would consider pushing out the open date to 2018 if the district wanted.

District officials also pushed back against the idea of taxpayer money being diverted from D89’s budget to pay for a charter school concept that, based on Lee’s presentation, seemed to still be in the conceptual phase and that could potentially exclude some children.

Mastery students would be enrolled through a lottery system, but during her presentation Lee conceded that its possible that not all students accepted into the charter school would benefit from Expeditionary Learning.

Lee said that Mastery would contract out services to local operations for students that it could not accommodate. Lee also said that Mastery would not be required to provide transportation for students.

“You’re saying to me you would not be taking special needs children and they’d be coming to us,” board member Loretta Gustello said, before latching onto another weak spot in Lee’s proposal. 

“In your proposal, you said that the financial impact on the district would be minimal. That’s not true,” Gustello said. “It would be a significant impact on the district if we approved this charter.”

“I do stand corrected,” Lee said. “I looked at it like the school district gets $55 million a year and the charter school [would get] $1.2 million to $2 million. The ratio [is minimal].”

“But that’s our budget!” Gustello responded. “We don’t have $55 million in the bank … That’s our budget we have to maintain each year to meet the needs of the staff and students, especially the students.” 

When Negron asked Lee if she had “miscalculated,” Lee said that she “misunderstood,” before explaining that the transfer of funds was “a necessary evil” that’s required in order to get better academic outcomes.

Charter schools, by nature, are run this way until they come up with a different formula,” Lee said. “That’s just what it is.”

Lee cited state data showing that over 84 percent of D89 students failed to meet state standards last year, among other statistics, to argue that the transfer of funds was justified and that her charter school would offer parents a better option.

District teachers, however, countered that the district has made marked improvements over the last several years and that diverting money to Mastery would cut into that progress.

“It has been and continues to be evident that we are experiencing huge successes,” said Gina Harris, an Emerson Elementary school teacher and a former National Education Association state director. 

District 89’s success are found in our MAP test scores as well as the successes of our students as many of you have seen in this year’s board meetings with our math and spelling bee champions,” Harris said.

“We have been successfully transitioning in middle school … to increase our positive climate and culture in the buildings to foster the development of the whole child … Our programs will evolve each year unless we lose resources to support the work.” 

Lisa Weber, president of Maywood Education Association (the union for D89 teachers), said that “charter schools, by their very nature, weaken the public schools in the district where the charter exists.”

“The charter school proposal received by District 89 would take away from the students of the district and give to the charter school nearly $5 million in the first three years of existence,” she said. “This does not include title money or other grant moneys the district would lose. We would like to see for our students more opportunities for all and not select opportunities for a few.”

Lee, however, said that she has faith that Mastery can produce a better educational alternative in an environment that would not lack adequate professional oversight.

I’m familiar with the curriculum and I’m working with people who do this for a living and if they say it can be done I believe that,” Lee said. “Its been said to me that there is evidence that it has been done and it can be done again.”

“A lot of people believe a lot of things can be done,” said Bonilla-Lopez. “Maybe I can believe I can run a marathon, but in actuality I have no chance. It’s not a matter of belief. Are we supposed to give you our children on a leap of faith?” VFP

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