“The workers on this building started calling it the ‘miracle on Laramie,” said Donnita Travis as she stood in the shadow of that ‘miracle’ — a glistening 52,000-square-foot three-story facility that will house the new Moving Everest charter school and By The Hand Club For Kids, the after-school organization Travis founded nearly 15 years ago and still heads. 

Last Thursday, August 20, Travis, along with elected officials and hundreds of other community members, cut red ribbon in front of the new facility at 416 N. Laramie Ave. The building complements one right across the street — a 24,000-square-foot facility built roughly three years ago. 

Travis’s description isn’t hyperbole for those who know what this once-blighted corner at Lake and Laramie looked like before By The Hand catalyzed what may appear to have been a sudden onset of development and activity. 

“This school is a transformation for this community,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7th), a longtime Deacon at the New Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, 431 N. Laramie Ave. “I know what the block looked like before we got it and I can imagine the experiences the young people are going to have inside.”

Travis said the facility was constructed with the help of 50 minority and local workers, including four neighborhood subcontractors. When school starts, Moving Everest, one of By The Hand’s 17 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) partners, will enroll roughly 180 kindergarten through first grade students. A few years down the road, Travis said, the school will be serving 810 kindergarten through eighth grade students. 

Many of them will end up like Satin Poole, a sophomore engineering student at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Poole enrolled in the after-school program when she was in the sixth grade. 

“By The Hand has played a very important role in my life — from providing me with school supplies in elementary school to providing me with scholarships for college,” she said to the crowd, adding that the program helped her acquire an internship. 

Travis said parents of Moving Everest students who choose to do so may allow their children to participate in By The Hand programs after school lets out. Last year, Travis said, By The Hand served 1,000 students in four neighborhoods. 

For all of its apparent good, however, By The Hand isn’t without its detractors — many of whom argue that the after school program, in addition to its newest charter school partner, Moving Everest, are simply pieces of a more comprehensive frontal assault against public education.

At a small demonstration outside of By The Hand’s smaller Laramie facility last month, Wanda Taylor, an Austin parent, gathered with local education activist Dwayne Truss; former 29th Ward aldermanic candidate and activist Zerlina Smith; and former mayoral candidate and public policy consulant Amara Enyia in protest against Moving Everest.

Taylor said she was offended by the charter school’s marketing campaign. On various social media sites, Moving Everest advertised water park visits, meals at MacArthur’s Restaurant and backpacks to raise awareness about its programming. At the time, the school had not hit its target enrollment mark of 180 students, each of whom brings with him or her roughly $3,000 in revenue.

This revenue model, in which school funding is determined by enrollment levels, is called student-based budgeting. Critics of the model, like Truss, say it favors charter schools over neighborhood ones and initiates counterproductive competition among all schools, whether charter or traditional, that compete for CPS dollars.

 “It’s all about the money,” said Truss last month. “When everybody has to fight for kids, you get these kind of tactics,” he said, referencing Moving Everest’s perks. 

According to CPS’s FY 2016 school-level budget released last month, the district’s charter schools experienced a net increase of $30 million, while traditional neighborhood schools experienced a net decrease of $61 million. Moving Everest stands to receive roughly $1.5 million from CPS. 

Charter school proponents say the new budgeting model steers more money to schools that do a better job of educating students.

Michael Rogers, Moving Everest’s founder and executive director, said in an interview last month that the student-based budgeting model empowers parents, who have more choice in where to send their children to school.

“It comes down to parent choice,” he said. “If a parent doesn’t want to come to a charter and they stay at the school they’re at, then those dollars stay with the student. That’s the beauty of the system. It’s parent-driven.”

Rogers also defended the school’s marketing tactics, noting that the campaign was paid for by private dollars and that Truss and other critics have depicted it unfairly.

“I think it’s a very unfair characterization to think that a parent is making one of the most important decisions of [his or her] child’s life based on a dinner,” he said, adding that the school’s most potent marketing tool has been word-of-mouth.

“Our goal isn’t to make money; our goal is the success of the kids in our school,” Rogers said. “That’s our endgame — not playing a shell game with money.” 

Full disclosure: Dwayne Truss and Amara Enyia are also Austin Weekly News contributors. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com