Virgie Kelly’s daughter, Jennifer, was a troubled kid before enrolling at Chicago Talent Development Charter High School on the West Side.
The 16-year-old had “rage issues,” her mom, an Austin resident, recalled. Jennifer also had failing grades and often acted out. But all that changed after enrolling at the Near West Side school. Talent turned out to be a “god-send,” according to Kelly.
“They teach them how to use their words, how to calm down and not take a situation and escalate it to a fight,” she said.
Her daughter will be a junior this fall, with a 3.9 grad point average.
“I saw Jennifer blossom into a beautiful young lady,” said Kelly, who now worries how her daughter will transition to a new school for her senior year, now that Talent with close its doors.
The school, located at 2245 W. Jackson, announced last week that it will close at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. the school opened in 2009. Lack of funding to keep the school running is behind the closure, officials at the school said. Talent’s demise, however, is not tied to the Chicago Public Schools’ recent school closures — 49 in all this year. Talent’s current senior class will be able to graduate next June, but the school won’t be accepting freshmen this fall.
Current sophomores and juniors, like Virgie Kelly’s daughter, will have to find other schools to attend next year.
“I’m just really upset and sad that we won’t be able to have that connection, because our kids get lost in the shuffle with these huge schools around here,” Kelly said. “What kid wants to graduate with kids they don’t know in their senior year?”
Another plus for Kelly is Talent’s small size. Its student body is currently 280 kids. The school is small enough, Kelly said, to provide resources for students to deal with off-campus issues that can hinder academic success. But the school has seen its per-pupil funding decrease since opening. In the last four years, Talent’s overall per-pupil funding fell15 percent, or $1500, out of the $10,000 the school receives.
In the end, it was just too costly to maintain the school as funding dried up.
Talent, which is affiliated with John Hopkins University in Baltimore, contracted with City Year, a volunteer, on-site tutoring group for students. The school also employed a social worker and had a student/teacher ratio of 20 to one. The school has sought funding elsewhere, but corporate donors are scarred off by the unions, explained Kirby Girolami Callam, Talent’s founder and CEO.
“Here, we are a charter that corporations would like to support, but they don’t want to support a pro-union based one,” he said.
Talent, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers, has sought grants, but a string of recent proposals were not granted. Callam noted that the available pool of money for charters has dwindled each year as more schools open.
Parents search for a ‘Plan B’
Many of Talent’s parents are dismayed about the school’s sudden closure, forcing them to find other options for their children.
Next year’s graduating seniors will be able to secure college placement. This year, Talent graduated its first senior class with a 72-percent acceptance rate into four-year colleges.
The school has bounced around various locations since opening, landing at its current space shared with Crane High School, which is part of CPS. But CPS’s funding formula does not support a small school concept, said Talent Principal Bernina Norton.
“I thought that this was the wave of the future; that you create these small learning environments so students can feel like they have an advocate, they have support, and that they have what they need to be successful later on in life. But yet the financial supports we get from Chicago Public Schools don’t support a small learning community.
“We run a mom-and-pop shop here at Chicago Talent,” Norton added. “We’re just one school.
Adding to Talent’s woes was its multiple moves over its five years, which impacted enrollment. The school first shared space with Tilden High School, 4747 S. Union, and then ACT Charter High School, 4319 W. Washington, until ACT closed to merge with another.
Talent was then heading back to Tilden, but concerns over students crossing gang lines nixed that plan. Talent remained at the Washington Boulevard campus, but took in fewer freshmen (75) than the previous year (150) because the building’s third floor was inoperable.
Eventually, Talent settled into Crane for the 2012-2013 school year — only eight students chose not to reenroll at the new location. But with the majority of students coming from Austin and West Garfield, the school still had a 92-percent attendance rate.
Still, Norton appreciates the parents’ praise for the school, but credits Talent’s success on being student-focused. The staff made it a “daily regiment to establish relationships with students,” recalled Norton, who left another West Side to become Talent’s principal.
“I think we were just really big on relationship building, because that’s when you can break down the barriers to help students,” she said.
Norton has seen students blossom, wanting to go to college where before it was not part of their future. That’s what attracted parent LaTonia Taylor of the Near West Side to Talent for her 15-year-old son, Naim, who’ll be a sophomore this fall.
Taylor said she wanted a school that offered programs beyond math, reading and science. Talent offered character-building and morality, and, as a single mother, Taylor wanted strong role models for her son. She fears her son won’t get that now at a larger school.
“That’s my hardship,” Taylor said. “Once I sent my so to this school, I know he would be surrounded by the kind of men I basically want him to turn out to be like. It was a good environment for my son.”