As Chicago’s third charter strike moves forward, it has cast a spotlight on alternative charter schools, a little-known but critical part of public schools that deal with some of the city’s most at-risk youth.
Unlike the charter schools that serve students in traditional K-12 settings, alternative schools specialize in serving students who were either expelled or otherwise left traditional schools to seek an alternate path to graduation. Both kinds of charters are privately run but receive public funding.
Two of the three schools on strike Thursday are alternative schools — Latino Youth High School, and the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy — and teachers at both buildings say they want higher pay, and more comprehensive social and emotional supports for students.
Gema Gaete, a college and career counselor at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, one of two Instituto del Progreso Latino schools on strike, said her school doesn’t have a counselor offering emotional support for its 87 students.
“When will Instituto invest in our students?” she asked. “Stop looking at our kids as a dollar sign.”
In a statement, the principal of Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy said that staffing levels had fallen because of a higher graduation rate leading to a decrease in enrollment.
“Because CPS funds our school on a per pupil basis, we have needed to adjust our staffing levels in line with our student enrollment,” said Stephanie Calderon.
She noted that, as of Thursday afternoon, management had tentatively agreed to union demands for more nurses, counselors and social workers.
“We recognize that there is always more support that we can provide to our students, which is why we have tentatively agreed to additional wraparound services.”
Alternative schools have their roots in Chicago’s movement for community-controlled schools in the 1960s, when parents and activists opened their own schools with the help of federal and city grants to meet the specific educational needs of their neighborhoods, but most became charter schools when Illinois authorized the creation of charter schools in 1996.
Today, 31 alternative schools, also known by the district as options schools, serve more than 5,000 students. A majority serve students ages 16 to 21, but some target older students or teach young people in juvenile detention.
Many students at alternative schools have experienced the difficulties that come with poverty and violence in Chicago, either inside or outside the classroom. A 2018 Chicago Reporter investigation found that most students in Chicago killed by gun violence had been through an alternative school program, but that those schools lacked the resources to help students cope with trauma.
Teachers at Latino Youth High School, founded in 1974 and one of the oldest alternative schools, say that one counselor serves the school’s 169 students — and only if they have insurance accepted by Pilsen Wellness Center, the non-profit that runs the school on behalf of the Youth Connection Charter Schools network. That leaves students with different insurance, or who are undocumented, locked out of services.
“This affects about 60 students, and it creates a problem,” said Juan Tolentino, a math teacher at Latino Youth High School. Students “need access to counselors because they already have a lot of trauma.”
The school administration, which did not respond to a Chalkbeat request for comment, sent out a letter to families on April 29 saying the union was trying to shorten the school day to 7.5 hours and decrease student instructional time. The union denies that it seeks to cut instructional time.
Tolentino says teachers want more parity with district-run schools, where teachers are paid more and students can see a counselor regardless of their medical card or immigration status. He conceded that not all Chicago schools have counselors available.
“They [students] want and need that support, but if they don’t have it at our school it’s a disadvantage for them,” he said.