During the past three years, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) has dramatically expanded its work to educate Illinois residents about the charter school model, and to support charter school “design teams”— made up of teachers, former educators, and community organizations, for example — that seek to launch new, high-quality public schools in their respective communities. With support from the Office of Innovation and Improvement, INCS has grown its Charter Starter Consulting program to deliver consistent content and counsel to design teams while maintaining a strong focus on customized services. As a result, INCS has planted the seeds for additional charter schools to thrive, especially outside of Chicago, Illinois’ largest city, and to raise student achievement for increasing numbers of Illinois students.
Touting growth in both schools and academic achievement
Since 2010, aided by a three-year, $2.2 million Charter Schools Program National Leadership Activities grant, INCS has educated a range of key stakeholders, including parents and community organizations, across the state about the charter school model; moreover, INCS has successfully promoted and supported the growth of charter schools for Illinois families. Due to this work, charter schools in Illinois are serving more communities, providing families with high-quality schools that fill critical needs within their school districts, improving academic achievement, and fostering classroom innovation. Parents; educators; and civic, business, and school district leaders often lead the charge to identify a specific need in their community’s public school system, and then introduce chartering as a way to bring in a new school model to address it.
During the past three years, INCS and Illinois’ charter school sector have achieved important milestones that now benefit more than 55,000 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade:
- Illinois’ charter sector has grown by 42 percent — 45 new school campuses — since 2010.
- According to 2012 ACT scores, the top 10 (actually, the top 11) non-selective, Chicago public high schools — schools open to all of the city’s students — are now charter schools, a first for the city’s public schools.
- Nineteen of Chicago’s top 20 non-selective high schools, based on Education Planning and Assessment System (EPAS) growth, are charters.
- And, 15 of the top 20 non-selective high schools, based on college enrollment, are charters.
Helping new charters respond to specific needs
The work of INCS’s outreach efforts and our Charter Starter Consulting program has helped to expand the charter footprint beyond Illinois’ largest school district. A great example of this work happened in North Chicago, when the LEARN Charter School Network, a charter management organization of high-performing college preparatory elementary and middle schools based in Chicago, opened the doors of its sixth campus in North Chicago to serve students and the growing population of military families located at the Naval Station Great Lakes (NSGL). LEARN’s mission ofproviding children with the academic foundation and ambition to earn a college degree is accomplished through rigorous academics and a family-like school culture.
LEARN 6, serving both North Chicago area and NSGL military families since 2012, introduced new innovations to help students thrive academically through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) projects aimed at peaking students’ interest in STEM subjects. The school also gives teachers autonomy and flexibility to differentiate lessons based on student achievement levels. This ensures instruction is tailored to each child’s needs. The introduction of these new programs resulted in achievement gains for the 250 students of LEARN 6, which leads the North Chicago district in Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) attainment and growth. Fifty-nine percent of LEARN 6 students are meeting or exceeding standards according to the 2013 ISAT, compared to the district’s average of 27 percent. In addition, they achieved a growth value of 111 in ISAT math and reading (district averages are 94 in reading and 92 in math), representing positive growth in both subjects.
In Jacksonville, community members identified a need in their school system for a school that would prepare students academically, socially, and emotionally to succeed in high school and beyond. Leaders from Illinois College and the local school district noticed students falling through the cracks in the critical middle school years and envisioned a public school option to address the challenge. The 8 Points Charter School design team entered into INCS’s Charter Starter Consulting program to help them achieve this goal.
Since it opened in 2011, 8 Points Charter middle school has increased its autonomy and flexibility to implement curriculum, instructional approaches, the school schedule and calendar, and other aspects of the school’s organization and academic program that are specifically tailored to the unique needs of its students.
8 Points currently serves higher percentages of African American, low-income, and special education students than the average Jacksonville district school, and its students have demonstrated impressive academic growth. According to 2013-2014 Measures of Academic Progress® assessments, 86 percent of 8 Point’s students are meeting growth targets in reading, which includes 95 percent of the school’s 7th graders, 8 Points’ first class of students. In math, 67 percent of students are meeting growth targets. With its growing enrollment, 8 Points is seeking a new facility that provides more classrooms, outdoor space, and other amenities.
Starting a new charter school is hard work. INCS’s Charter Starter Consulting program is working hand-in-hand with leaders in Illinois communities to strengthen local teams in the charter school design and application process, so that more successful schools like LEARN and 8 Points are opening for students and families in need. By providing expert knowledge, resources, and connections, as well as coaching and feedback, INCS propels teams forward and helps them achieve their communities’ plans for excellent charter schools.
Focusing on the future
The success of LEARN 6 in North Chicago has suggested a new kind of partnership that schools can develop with INCS through Charter Starter Consulting. In past years, INCS focused Charter Starter almost exclusively on charter start-ups — often referred to as “mom and pops” — as a means of meeting the interest and demand for new schools. Charter Starter now not only serves new design teams, but is also well-positioned to expand the knowledge and capacity of existing operators and charter management organizations (CMOs), such as LEARN, the highest-performing charter elementary school network in Chicago based on results on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. LEARN network students’ scores are exceeding citywide averages and LEARN schools are outperforming comparative district-run schools. LEARN knows Chicago well. Through Charter Starter Consulting, however, INCS is guiding LEARN’s strategies beyond Chicago and into new communities in Illinois where it seeks to open new schools.
Building upon the success of our OII-supported efforts since 2010, INCS’s 2014-16 strategic plan contemplates a new charter school presence in Chicago’s “collar counties.” In partnership with Chicago-based charter school operators, national CMOs, and our robust pipeline of “up-and-comers,” Charter Starter Consulting will provide design teams in DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, and McHenry counties with the tools to consider more high-quality schools for local families. And, we will continue to assist those start-ups throughout Illinois that deserve a chance to provide something better for children.
Eric Johnson is director of development and capacity at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.