News Local/State

Questions Raised About Champaign Charter School Proposal

Attendees pack a public hearing on a proposed charter school in Champaign's Unit 4 school district on Monday, April 9, 2018.

Attendees pack a public hearing on a proposed charter school in Champaign's Unit 4 school district on Monday, April 9, 2018. Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

Members of the steering committee behind a proposed Champaign charter school struggled to answer dozens of questions from Unit 4 school board officials during a public hearing Monday night.

The hearing was packed with supporters of the proposal as well as community members and teachers who expressed deep concerns about the plans for the charter school called North Champaign Academy.

Nathaniel Banks and Craig Walker, both members of the group behind the North Champaign Academy proposal, described their plan to create a Kindergarten through fifth grade school that would succeed where Champaign’s public school system had failed. Specifically, they said, the charter would serve as an intervention for black children who were falling behind their white peers in academic assessments. The group also presented data that showed that black students were disciplined at higher rates than white students in the school district.

The core principles of the proposed school include making all students feel welcome in the school, individualized assessments for students, respect and shared responsibility for educating students between school staff and parents, and connecting families with the school community. 

“The family is key and we believe in working with the family,” Banks said. Walker said the charter school staff would also reflect the student body at the school.

A budget document presented at Monday’s public hearing on the charter school proposal outlined revenue of about $1.5 million.

“Money is not going to be an issue,” Walker told the board. He said every student enrolled at the school will also receive a savings account with $50 in it, which will be funded through private donations.

Plans for the school include seven teachers and 100 students. Walker said the school will focus on age appropriate financial literacy and entrepreneurship through partnerships with local businesses.

The group said they plan to purchase a property at 1400 W. Anthony Drive and convert it to a school building.

Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola said district administrators were tasked with vetting the charter school application to determine whether it met state school code requirements. She said the application did not clearly meet those standards in numerous areas, including how its goals will be met, metrics for student outcomes, and no mention of science or physical education as core subjects. Zola said the application also did not include specific information detailing how the proposed location would be converted to a school building; no budget for materials associated with individualized education plans (IEPs); no job descriptions for employees; no salary for a security employee; no information on how the after school program for the school would be staffed; and no evidence indicating how the school would meet health and safety requirements, among other issues.

Board president Chris Kloeppel asked the steering committee members 50 questions during the public hearing. Other board members asked dozens more. Walker and Banks provided incomplete and vague answers to some, and told the board they’d get back to the majority of the questions asked of them.

One area board members focused on was special education. Kloeppel asked the steering committee what eligibility they planned to use to identify students with disabilities and how they’d deliver specialized instruction.

Walker said they had assessments and evaluations for students, and they planned to hire someone who would make those determinations.

“We have a very dynamic African-American who is involved in special education and is very experienced, who is not a part of Unit 4, and she’s ready to go and she’s experienced,” Walker said.

When asked about how instruction would be delivered to those students, Banks said, “that’s determined by the person who would be hired to make that assessment.”

To clarify, board member Amy Armstrong asked: “You cannot describe the intervention tools you will use for children with disabilities?”

“Not at this time,” Banks said.

Walker said they planned to take “reasonable risks” and use innovative methods to address special education needs. “We are not trying to replicate what is currently going on in schools,” he said.

Walker also admonished the board for not providing their questions to the steering committee prior to the public hearing.

“These are questions and answers that could have been provided in your application and your proposal for this charter school,” Kloeppel said. Walker responded by saying it was not required. Kloeppel disagreed. 

Many supporters of the proposal waited more than three hours for their chance to speak at the hearing. Champaign resident Juanita Ashford told the board her godson is a fifth grade student at Booker T. Washington Elementary School who is struggling academically. She said a change is needed to help students like him.

“We do need something different. I wish y’all please consider this. Because I love this young man. And without a good education and knowing how to read and write and know your math -- it’s jail or dead for him,” she said.

Jennifer White, president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers, said during the hearing that she had significant concerns with the charter school proposal, including questions about staffing plans, curriculum, English language learners and how the cost of technology for students would be covered.

The Unit 4 school board will decide within 30 days to grant or deny the proposal. Banks previously told Illinois Public Media that, if denied, they would appeal the decision to the state.