Academy's fate tangled in confusion

Parents first told it's closing...now it will stay open as CPS school

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By TERRY DEAN

Irene Despenza dropped her boys off to school like any other Monday morning last week.

By the time her boys came home that afternoon, they were telling their mom that their school was closing. But she and other parents would learn two days later that it really wasn't, as Despenza, an Austin resident, would discover at an emergency meeting on Wednesday of last week on the Austin High School campus at 231 N. Pine.

Despenza, a vocal and outgoing parent, moved her sons from Maywood last year to attend the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy (ABEA), one of three small schools located in the former Austin High School building on Pine Avenue. She has four boys enrolled - a freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior. She and many other parents attended the meeting last week, which included officials from the Chicago Public Schools trying to answer questions to a concerned and confused group trying to get the facts about the fate of their school.

Chicago Public Schools announced two weeks ago that the Business Academy was closing; its students would be merged into Austin Polytechnical Academy, one of the other schools located on the Austin High campus. According to CPS officials, the move was resisted by parents. Sources close to the situation said the push-back was from parents of both schools.

It was last Monday when Despenza and other parents received a letter from CPS stating that the Business Academy was closing. American Quality Schools, the nonprofit organization that runs the Academy, had decided not to renew its contract with CPS to continue operating the school. Despenza and other parents tried to find out more information. She went up to the school last Wednesday to pick up her boys and only then found out about the meeting scheduled to take place that evening. She only found out after being told by staff, who pointed to a not-so-conspicuous flyer on a bulletin board near the front entrance, Despenza recalls.

At that evening meeting, parents would learn for the first time that their school would remain open but be operated by CPS.

"I was surprised and concerned when they said it was closing. But when we get [to the meeting], I was told all of a sudden that 'we're not closing, but merging with CPS,'" Despenza said.

She was among the parents who spoke that evening. Every parent who was at the meeting expressed support for their school and its teachers.

"I'm glad that it's staying open. Merging with CPS? That's a concern to me because I came here to have my kids attend a charter school and now they won't."

ABEA is one of many Renaissance 2010 Schools throughout Chicago, consisting of 100 small schools located throughout the city. Mayor Richard M. Daley established it to replace under-performing schools. Austin High School was one of them, and was closed in 2004. Under Ren 2010's guidelines, the new schools operate as a charter, performance, or a contract school. The Business Academy is actually a contract school, run and operated by a private entity.

AQS operates elementary schools in Chicago and other states, and has two high schools - the Business Academy and a school in Indiana. ABEA was the first Ren 2010 school to open on the former Austin High School campus in 2006.

In an interview with Austin Weekly News, Michael Bakalis, AQS's founder and president, said he decided not to renew the contract for a host of reasons, both philosophical and financial.

AQS, for instance, hires its own teachers but they weren't able to benefit from the city's public school teacher's pension fund. That, Bakalis said, made it difficult to recruit teachers. CPS also made promises to the school that it didn't fulfill, according to Bakalis, such as providing a library, which he said they never did.

He also doesn't think CPS has handled the multiple-schools-in-one building concept very well. On the Austin campus, each school is located on a single floor in the three-story building. Bakalis said it was difficult running a school on just one floor.

Bakalis grew up in Austin, attending Spencer Elementary School and later Austin High School. AQS, which was already operating a high school in Indiana, stepped in in 2005 to open a school at the Austin campus. The school's partners included the Westside Ministers Coalition and other community and business leaders.

But the school was initially rejected by the Austin Transitional Advisory Council. The council was created under Ren 2010 guidelines to allow members of the community to advise and recommend a school to open. CPS ended up selecting the Business Academy, and also Austin Polytech and VOISE Academy, the third school located in the building. AQS, however, faced its own criticisms concerning its handling of the school. The school saw turnover in teachers, and it went through at least four principals. Promised internships for students to work in area businesses had not materialized three years into the school's existence.

Despenza said her sons have had no such internships.

Bakalis said AQS will continue to focus on its elementary schools and one high school out of state. He doubts ever to open another high school in Chicago. But Bakalis supports another high school for Austin.

"We thank the Austin and West Side community for their support," he said. "This is a great community, and we're looking forward to the opportunity for someone to create a high school here."

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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