Prairie Crossing Charter School may lose charter

Erika Miessner, Staff Reporter

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Prairie Crossing Charter School is a charter school that teaches students in kindergarten through eighth grade, many of whom go on to GCHS once they graduate. Woodland Middle School is a larger public school that also sends a good number of graduates on to GCHS.

For students from these schools, the deeply rooted rivalry between the two is old news, as they overlap districts and are often fighting over funding and students.

But this rivalry was recently taken to the next level when a ruling from Judge Thomas Allen declared that Prairie Crossing’s charter should not have been renewed and that the charter school should be closed down.

Prairie Crossing, by law, has a charter that must be renewed every five years in order for the school to continue operating, according to Prairie Crossing Charter School Executive Director Geoff Diegan. Its chartering authority is the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

The charter sets requirements that Prairie Crossing is obligated to meet, and Woodland claims that the charter school has not fulfilled its promise to make Prairie Crossing more diverse.

Both the District 50 attorney, James Petrungaro, and the Woodland Middle School principal, Scott Snyder, declined interviews. However, there is an extensive amount of information available to the public via Woodland’s website.

“The Commission’s renewal of Prairie Crossing was a violation of 27A-9 of the Charter schools Law because it fails to hold the charter school accountable for its failure to educate at-risk students, particularly students from low-income and limited English proficient (“LEP”) backgrounds- a violation of the Law,” wrote Petrungaro in a motion last May.

“In essence, ‘at-risk’ can be defined as any child that has an unfair disadvantage and is at risk of not having an education equal to other students,” said Diegan. This includes English-language learners,

students from low-income families, children with disabilities, and homeless children.

Prairie Crossing teaches some at-risk students, but at much lower rates than Woodland. According to the 2013 Illinois School Report Card prepared by the Illinois State Board of Education and made available by Woodland, only 1.8 percent of Prairie Crossing students are low-income, as opposed to Woodland’s 30.2 percent. The gap is even larger with English Language Learners, who make up 12.8 percent of Woodland’s student body, but only 0.3 percent of Prairie Crossing’s student body. Woodland also has higher populations of black and Hispanic students.

Though Prairie Crossing’s at-risk population is considerably lower, the school report says that they have improved since their last charter renewal.

“We have been asked to increase our outreach so that every child in our districts understand that they can come to this school, free of charge, and we’ve done so,” said Diegan. “Since 2009 our at-risk students have increased 23 percent [and] our [minority rates have] increased about 12 percent since 2009.”

According to Woodland, Prairie Crossing has gotten better, but they are still well below Woodland’s rates. The two schools have very different explanations for why this could be.

According to Woodland, it is because Prairie Crossing does not offer the right programs and does not offer enough in the way of transportation.

“This isn’t an urban district where kids can jump on the CTA to get to school or any other kind of reliable means of public transportation,” said Petrungaro. “This is a charter that draws students from a 60-mile radius across two school districts.

There is no question that that transportation plan is a deterrent to at-risk students getting to school.”

Unlike Woodland, Prairie Crossing does not provide a bus system. Students need to be driven if they are too far away to walk or bike to school,  or they can join a carpool program if the parents are unable to transport their children.

But according to Prairie Crossing, the reason is because of how Prairie Crossing’s entry procedures are structured by law.

“We do only have 400 students in our school currently, and unlike a traditional public school, we do have a lottery system where we’re only allowed to have a maximum of 432 students in our school, or we violate our charter contract and the state law,” said Diegan.

This means people cannot enroll in Prairie Crossing whenever they want. They have to enter the lottery and hope they make the cut-off.

“The process in a traditional public school is if you knock on the door, they have to let you in,” said Diegan. “Here, we’re not allowed to do that, we have to use this lottery system. If  we have more people that want to come here than we have available seats, we have to have a lottery. If we’re full, then the best we can do is put you on the wait-list and say, ‘Well, if people move, you might be able to get in.’ Woodland and Fremont, on the other hand, can say ‘you can start tomorrow,’  and if they have 25, 26, 27 kids in the classroom, you will be number 8.”

This process can make it harder to encourage people to come to Prairie Crossing.

In addition, because Prairie Crossing must limit its number of students, it must limit how many newcomers it can take in every year, making change a slow-going process.

“The only openings that are guaranteed every year is when kindergarteners move to first grade, we’re guaranteed a new kindergarten class every year,” said Diegan. “Once you’re in the school you don’t have to go back through the lottery at all, so we’re guaranteed 42 to  44 openings per year at the kindergarten level.”

According to Diegan, there is also the  Sibling Preference Law. This ensures that siblings of students who are already enrolled in Prarie Crossing are at the top of the enrollment list.

“So here’s an example: in March, the March that just past a month and a half ago, we did our lottery, and of the 46 openings, 19 of them were actually open to the people that weren’t siblings,” said Diegan.

Since the lottery is blind, there is no guarantee that the at-risk students would make up a majority of that five percent.

The main reason why Woodland is targeting Prairie Crossing is because of funding.

On its website, Woodland wrote that “over the past 15 years, nearly $30 million has been siphoned from Woodland to pay for the operation of Prairie Crossing.”

According to Diegan, Prairie Crossing is funded with Illinois’ general state aid, as the cost for educating all the children going to Prairie Crossing that would otherwise be going to Woodland.

In other words, the state aid follows each Prairie Crossing child as he or she goes to a different school.

The $30 million that this amounts to does take up most of Woodland’s allotted state aid money, but they still receive plenty of revenue from district property taxes.

“The money that would follow the child back to Woodland, is about 4.24 percent of Woodland’s total revenue,” said Diegan.

And it is not likely that Woodland would receive all of that money if Prairie Crossing were to close.

“The general state aid at a traditional public school is used to subsidize at-risk students,” said Diegan. “With charter schools, general state aid is all of the money that they get for at-risk students and for any student, that’s the only money that they have allocated to the charter schools.”

Prairie Crossing is currently appealing the judge’s ruling and Diegan is confident they will win.

“After fifteen years of being at the school here, you learn to live with your neighbor,” said Diegan.

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Prairie Crossing Charter School may lose charter