Inaugural class at Southland College Prep preparing to graduate in spring
By Casey Toner firstname.lastname@example.org November 8, 2013 8:46PM
Updated: December 11, 2013 6:43AM
As a member of Southland College Prep Charter High School’s inaugural class, Marcell Vanarsdale didn’t know what to make of it when he enrolled three years ago.
After all, Southland College Prep was unlike most high schools. There were no seniors strutting about the hallways or rivalry football games to attend Friday nights. The school day lasted nine hours, and all of his classes were held in an empty wing of a Matteson middle school.
Now, Vanarsdale is a senior, a big man on campus who puffs up with pride when he wears his burgundy Southland College Prep suitcoat. Like many of his classmates, he is eager to graduate on May 24 at the Harris Theater in Chicago and, then, go to college.
“I wake up every morning and say the Southland creed and it means something,” he said. “I’m not only doing this for myself, I’m doing it for the classes after me and the next generations and setting an example for the community.”
Vanarsdale was one of 125 students picked in a lottery system to represent the first class of the nonunion charter school, which opened in 2010 amid a lengthy and controversial legal battle with Rich Township High School District 227.
The SouthtownStar reported last week the schools’ students tested 17 percentage points higher in the Prairie State Achievement Exam than students from District 227, which once tried to shut down the charter school.
While the test scores signify a victory for the up-and-coming school, Southland College Prep is not without its challenges. Founder and school CEO Blondean Davis she has struggled to raise the money she needs to run the school.
The charter school — part of a growing movement in the United States — also remains under fire for its state funding, which to date has drawn more than $18 million in state aid, money District 227 officials have argued should belong to their district.
Nevertheless, Davis remained optimistic about her school’s future.
“We are on the verge of hopefully being able to be a role model and give hope to all the schools that surround us,” Davis aid. “If we can do it, everyone else can do it.”
Nearly 500 students are enrolled at Southland College Prep, representing for the first time freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes.
The school’s first freshman class spent its first semester in 2010 in an empty wing of Huth Middle School while renovations were finished on their dedicated building, a former insurance company headquarters at 4601 Sauk Trail in Richton Park.
Southland College Prep’s budget has ramped up from $2.3 million in the 2010-11 school year to about $7.5 million in the current school year, and a majority of its funding comes from the state. About $18.2 million in state aid has gone to the school since it opened.
The state pays for the charter school out of money District 227 is allocated for state aid. The amount is based on the charter school’s enrollment multiplied by the cost of tuition.
District 227’s board initially rejected Davis’ request for the charter in 2010, saying the school would drain millions of dollars from it. The Illinois State Board of Education reversed the district’s decision and granted the charter. One month later, District 227 filed a lawsuit against Southland College Prep to try to keep it from opening, claiming the charter school would reduce state aid.
A Cook County judge ruled against District 227 in December 2010, and following an appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled against the district one year later. Still, the charter school’s funding has its detractors on the District 227 board.
“If they want opportunity, give them opportunity and fund it,” board member Emmanuel Imoukhude said. “It’s reverse Robin Hood.”
Davis said the Illinois State Board of Education previously told her while granting her charter she needed to raise an additional $250,000 a year to make the school “viable.” While she meets the fundraising goal regularly with state and federal grants — not to mention a one-time $250,000 start-up grant the Walton Foundation gave the school in 2010 — she said the local donations are not what they need to be.
“What I thought I’d be able to do is get more big-picture support from businesses,” Davis said. “I don’t consider $500 or $1,000 big-picture support.”
According to the school’s financial records, private donors and an annual gala for the school have raised a total $117,098 in the past three years. Davis said she hopes the new test scores as well as her recent appointment by Gov. Pat Quinn to the Task Force of Charter School Funding will help her raise her profile to Chicago donors with deep pockets.
“I am ready now to go out and sell this,” Davis said. “We’re going to take this up several notches.”
Before Davis became the Matteson School District 162 superintendent and Southland College Prep CEO, she worked for eight years under former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas before leaving in 2002.
One of the initiatives of Vallas, whom Gov. Pat Quinn tapped Friday to be his running mate in the 2014 election, was expanding charter schools in Chicago to reduce school classroom size, Davis said.
“One of the issues is that we had these huge conglomerate (schools) that were hard to manage,” Davis said. “He wasn’t a charter school person, he was a small-school person.”
The founding of charter schools in Chicago and Richton Park are part of a nationwide trend. Nina Rees, National Alliance of Charter Schools president and CEO, said charter schools nationwide have grown substantially since the first one opened in Minnesota in 1992.
About 5,997 charter schools — about 6.3 percent of all public schools— are operating nationwide today, according to the National Alliance of Charter Schools. Fifty-eight charter schools are open in Illinois.
“Nationally, charters are seen as one of the key levers to expand parental choice in those communities where the quality of the public school system is not where it should be,” Rees said. “That’s where charter schools have had greater impact in raising student achievement.”
The reality, however, might not be that simple. Mitra Fallahi, a St. Xavier University associate dean of education, said that data is mixed regarding charter school performance. Fallahi also said that when parents remove their children from public schools to put them in charter schools, it dilutes the public school community at large.
“It’s part of the argument that teachers of public schools have made,” Fallahi said. “What they say is by taking parents who care and their kids away, you have parents who are more caring and more helpful to the process leaving, and with them goes the financial support they have.”
In any case, about 47 percent of Southland College Prep’s juniors met Prairie State Achievement Exam testing standards, about 6 percentage points lower than the state average. About 29 percent of students at District 227 met PSAE testing standards. About 55 percent of Southland College Prep’s student population is low-income, compared with about 75 percent of District 227’s student population.
“It shows that when you have gotten a better score, you have learned more in the classroom and that you are not just memorizing, that you’re analyzing and learning and applying what you’ve learned and that’s what we’ve done at this school,” senior Aronna Wynne said.
Next year, Davis said, she hopes to boost the PSAE scores to 55 percent and one day bring her vision of Southland College Prep to other schools.
“I hope ... this will become a model that we can take national, replicate and help other school districts who have to know it’s not about having a selective enrollment,” Davis said. “It can be done.”