A crowd of parents, teachers and school administrators followed Alontai Hunter, 16, down a largely empty hallway before he stopped in front of the classroom door of his art teacher, Pearl Mack, who invited the crowd into the room. It was also empty, which made the otherwise unremarkable space seem cavernously open — a virtual brick-and-mortar frontier of possibilities.
For Hunter and his classmate Barry Evans, 17, the relative emptiness provides space to think and nurture relationships, activities the two young men said were much harder to do at their old schools. Hunter and Evans were tour guides for a day during an Oct. 28 ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house held for Camelot Academy Garfield Park, 230 N. Kolmar.
The school, which began classes in September with around 14 students, occupies one and a half floors inside the former Marconi Elementary Community Academy — one of roughly 50 schools closed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 2013.
The building itself was sold to the Allison United Foundation for Better Living, a West Side nonprofit located a few blocks away from the school. In addition to Camelot, the nonprofit has also allowed the Chicago Park District to utilize space in the former Marconi school, which it now calls the Care Center.
“When the schools were closed, my pastor, David Todd Whittley [CEO of Allison United], saw a need to make sure that this was not just a dilapidated building in the community,” said local community activist and entrepreneur Marseil Jackson, who was on a steering committee that helped pave the way for Camelot to setup shop here.
“So, we reached out and, in partnership with [Mayor Rahm Emanuel], was able to acquire this building. We repurposed it and partnered with Camelot and the park district. Some other community organizations will be renting space here as well. It will be actively used seven days a week to bring resources to West Garfield Park.”
Camelot is operated by Camelot Education, a national chain of alternative education and therapeutic programs based in Austin, Texas. The for-profit company is contracted by CPS to provide a learning environment for at-risk students with behavioral problems, many of whom are close to dropping when they enroll.
“As a District, we have an obligation to reduce the dropout rate by creating more high quality, alternative education seats and working with proven vendors that will best serve the needs of students who have dropped out of traditional schools,” said former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard in 2012, when the district approved a contract for Camelot to operate its Excel campus on the South Side.
“If placed in a supportive, structured environment, we believe these students can succeed academically, and it’s imperative that we continue to expand these options for all students throughout the District.”
But the district’s approach — contracting with for-profit, out-of-town, companies to provide alternative education programs — could be highly flawed, according to some reports. A joint analysis by WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago of for-profit firms operating alternative schools in the city found that many of these firms “stand to make millions off the deals.”
On average, the analysis noted, “some of the companies spend more than half of their budget on consultants, advertising, technology and fees to affiliated companies,” among other disturbing conflicts of interest.
Todd Bock, Camelot’s president and CEO, told WBEZ and Catalyst that the for-profit model doesn’t automatically entail companies “making hundreds of thousands of dollars on these schools.”
“That’s really, really not the case,” he told the publications.
Camelot’s environment is highly disciplined and structured. Students go to school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They’re required to wear uniforms. Distractions are kept to a minimum, said Evans.
“You can’t have over $10 in your pocket,” said Evans. “We don’t have jewelry. We can’t have phones. They take that as a distraction. We safe here.”
“Behavior and education go hand in hand,” noted Pedro Segarra, Camelot’s vice president of operations in Chicago, in a statement on the company’s website.
“If a kid has fallen behind he’s going to become a behavior problem. So what we try to do is bring them up to speed and even accelerate their learning. When the student goes back to his sending school he’s on point and is able to behave and learn.”
Catalyst referenced a 2010 study showing that Camelot schools in Philadelphia “raised graduation rates and credits earned more than accelerates schools run by other operators.”
As to the firm’s effectiveness on the South Side and in West Garfield Park — it could be too early to tell. For Hunter, at least, what works is the intimacy.
Eventually, Camelot will serve up to 150 middle and high school students, but Hunter is comfortable with the school’s current smallness and open space — they provide all the more opportunity to take pay attention Emmanuel Littrel — his math teacher.
“You don’t have to sit in the classroom with a lot of people looking over you. You can just sit in the class and do your work,” he said. “When you’re in class with a lot of people there a lot of distractions.”
Hunter plans on attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and going to law school. He boxes regularly at the Garfield Park field house and has some success in tournaments. He said his favorite subject is mathematics, partly because it’s the subject he finds most challenging.
“Mr. Littrel teaches me a lot of stuff that I haven’t even imagined. He really gets into your head. He makes me think about math a lot, lot more. He asks you, ‘How do you know this? How do you know that?’ You gotta watch out for Mr. Littrel!”
“I have high expectations,” Littrel said while prepping a white board before a class. “We try to ask higher order questions that challenge students and require thinking skills, so they have to do a lot of reasoning to support their conclusions.”
Littrel said the latest education research demonstrates that asking students open-ended questions and questions that are based on their personal experiences can be more effective learning tools than some of the conventional pedagogical techniques — such as rote memorization.
“Ask them questions related to their own experiences in life, so they can hook in and tie into that to arrive at conclusions — just as they would in life,” Littrel said. “There are always those theoretical aspects we have to teach related to the content standards of the state and tests they have to take, but we kind of want to bring those two areas together.”
And, as in life outside of school, Hunter and Evans said the dozen or so students of Camelot’s inaugural class in West Garfield Park consider each other surrogate family.
“We all family here,” Hunter said. “We all support each other. When each of us is down, we help them up.”
“You fall off, we fall off,” said Evans, before Hunter interjected with a corrective.
“No, when you fall off, we help you come back.”