Austin presence at charter schools conference

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Students from Austin performed this week at the general session of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools’ annual conference.

The spoken word club from Legal Prep Charter Academies performed Monday.

Although the school is located in West Garfield Park, three of the girls in the club live in Austin.

Two of the girls – twins in their sophomore year – said they like the school because it’s legal-themed and they’re interested in law.

“It’s different from most other schools, based on the law thing,” said one of the twins, Alexis Hiraldo.

Just in its second year, the school was recognized this fall by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for its growth, said Development Director Rather Stanton.

He said the students take classes in Latin, criminal law and introductory law. The students connect with a group of lawyers who act as mentors, and they hold a mock trial at the end of the year.

Ariel Hiraldo likes the spoken word club the most.

“They have a lot of programs that keep us interested and off the streets. It’s very therapeutic,” she said.

Charter schools have been controversial in Chicago, especially in light of Chicago Public Schools’ decision last year to close 49 elementary schools, four of which were in Austin.

Some advocacy groups like Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education have speculated that CPS shut down public schools to build more charter schools.

The controversy wasn’t lost on Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. He opened Monday’s session by reminding the audience of charter school teachers, community members and advocates about the challenging year public education has had in Chicago.

He pointed to a Chicago Tribune photograph on the projector of a girl sitting on the steps of a closed school.

“Notice how the child is in focus in this picture, and the adults picketing around her are out of focus. This image serves as a metaphor for our work,” said Broy.

Charter schools are defined by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as independent public schools with the freedom to be innovative and are held accountable for student achievement.

One of the highlights of the conference was a panel of aldermen and state lawmakers who discussed charter schools.

Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) was one of the elected officials on Monday’s panel, along with Sen. Pamela Althoff (R-Crystal Lake), Rep. Daniel J. Burke (D-Chicago), Ald. William Burns (4th), Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) and Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago).

Rep. Ford singled out some of the charter schools in Austin and thanked them for what they do.

“In Austin, the community struggles with education. Keep doing what you’re doing. Let students speak for the movement . . . let students’ progress shine,” he said.

Five charter schools operate in Austin: Horizon Science Academy, Catalyst Circle Rock, Kipp Create Middle School, Youth Connection Charter School and Legal Prep Charter Academies.

INCS spokesman Jodie Cantrell said it’s impossible to say how many students from Austin attend charter schools throughout the city, given the lack of attendance boundaries for charter schools. Some students from Austin attend charter schools in Belmont-Cragin, for example, she said.

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