2006 Annual Report Interviews, Copy: conveying the voice of a community

In 2006 Inc!te Design contracted me to write the copy for Chicago International Charter School’s annual report, including the ‘campus narratives’ for each of their locations, editing and polishing statements from the executives, and conducting and writing featured interviews of selected CICS students, families, and teachers.

Discussing the Chicago International Charter School mission with Executive Director Beth Purvis in order to help polish her Letter was interesting and instructive, but meeting and talking with senior Sam Torres, 7th grader Ariel West, the five members of the Cano family and Primary Team Leader Lindsay Bixby were what made this project special for me.

Sadly I was never delivered the completed annual report, but I have reproduced selections from the text here.




Sam Torres, Senior, Northtown Academy

Sam is a Chicago International success story. A student at our Bucktown and Northtown Academy campuses since the third grade, Sam is now set to become the first in his family to attend college. He’s come a long way since failing the second grade.

“If I was in a public school I don’t think I’d be able to perform as well as I do now. It’s a lot of work – it’s like boot camp here! But when you get ready for college and you have to write that five-page essay, that’s nothing – I used to get that in freshman year! They get you ready.

A lot of kids in my shoes would never finish high school, never get a high school diploma, would just settle for a GED. But my mother, some of my friends, and the church I attend really helped me out when times got rough. And Chicago International hires a lot of good, good teachers, a lot of young teachers who are able to relate to your problems.

These days Sam balances college prep and honors courses, basketball, drama, church and after-school programs such as the H-Prep medical internship program at Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School. This first-hand medical knowledge opened up a new world for Sam.

Since my junior year I’ve wanted to become a neurosurgeon. But with that comes medical school, and I know I don’t have that kind of income, so even then I was looking for scholarships…and I found one! All that separates me from my career is the hard work that has to be done.”

Ariel West, 7th Grade, Washington Park Campus

Seemingly shy at first, a conversation with Ariel West reveals a quietly confident young lady with a quick wit and a clear love of learning. After a career at private and Catholic schools, Ariel is in her third year with Chicago International.

She’s naturally curious, inquisitive, and analytical. “I like math and science — they’re interesting. I know I want to be a doctor so I’ll probably have to do a lot of math and science in high school. I watch a lot of Discovery Channel health shows — I’ll sit down and watch them like cartoons. My little sister gets on me and says ‘No, I don’t wanna watch surgery!’ But I always want to know why things happen.

Ariel has a playful side as well, so she enriches her scientific mind with something else that requires fierce concentration: Washington Park’s new Modeling Club! “We’re the first ones. We’re learning our walks and at the end of the year we’ll have a show. I love Tyra Banks! I watch her show every week.”

Ariel loves the continuing commitment Chicago International educators show. “My favorite teacher was Miss Beck in fifth grade. I still talk to her every day — she knows where I live, she knows my parents, everything.” And Ariel’s parents love the advantages of the charter school system – that’s why her younger sister is enrolled in second grade at Chicago International Longwood.

The Cano Family: Beatrice and Raul, daughters Carina and Angelica, and son Carlos

You’re unlikely to meet more hands-on parents than Beatrice and Raul Cano. They typify the intense involvement that CICS families bring to their childrens’ education.

“You can’t just send your kids to school and expect the teacher to work miracles,” says Beatrice. “You’ve got to work together to be successful, and the kids have to be accountable too. And we have to help them and give them the right tools. The teachers at Chicago International are really great at directing kids to make the right choices to become responsible and accountable for their own education.”

Angelica is a case in point; working closely with her parents and teachers last year, she improved her reading scores over 50%, and her confidence and maturity have improved dramatically. “When my teacher told me I’d improved the most,” says Angelica, “I felt like I’d done something really great, and told myself, ‘I can’t stop now!’”

Carina is a junior at the Northtown Academy Campus, involved in yearbook club, art club, tennis, soccer and Spanish Honors Society, along with college prep classes. Angelica is in eighth grade at the West Belden Campus, and participates with her sister in a Guatemalan girls’ marimba performance troop and the Chicago Police Departments Peer Jury community adjudication program. Little Carlos is in second grade at West Belden, and like his sisters and father, practices tae kwon do. All three children participate in charities, and the family regularly travels to Raul’s Guatemalan homeland so the kids can see first-hand the people they’re helping. “There’s schools, orphanages, children’s hospitals – it’s really good for us to see the good our hard work does,” says a grateful Carina.

Beatrice and Raul especially value the breadth of cultural programs, after-school activities and educational opportunities available at Chicago International. “They’re opening up more doors — showing the kids that there’s a whole world out there. That’s what we want them to see.”

Lindsay Bixby, Primary Team Leader (1st through 3rd grade), Washington Park Campus

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from innovations in education at Chicago International; teachers also receive support and instruction from Team Leaders like Lindsay Bixby. She’s young, dynamic, and dedicated to the success of the kids and the educators with whom she works.

Team Leader is a unique position. Our main job is to help teachers become better educators. We coach them when they’re having a tough time and we model lessons to demonstrate for the teachers best-practices in education. Assessment is also a big part of the job; we informally evaluate the teachers every month, and formally evaluate them twice per year. We also spend a lot of time one-on-one with the students.”

Lindsay holds a degree in elementary education from Marquette University and is close to completing her Masters as a reading specialist. This is her fourth year at Chicago International, and she’s galvanized for many more.

I work with amazing teachers. They’re so diligent; most people don’t realize how hard these men and women work. They work after-school programs and tutor groups of their children. They’re truly amazing because they stick with it. These are strong-willed, motivated people who know that this is an important place to be and an important population to work with.

“The teachers and administrators who are surrounding our students are ready to do whatever it takes on a daily basis or they wouldn’t be there. It’s amazingly rewarding, because you get to see how much the students grow because they have such strong teachers around them. And we have strong parents in our school who know that education is important and who want their children to do well. Everyone comes in from every corner and meets in the middle, and that’s why our school succeeds.”

CICS: At the Crossroads of Urban Education

The 2005­–2006 school year was a time of change and growth at Chicago International Charter School. Our total enrollment has grown to 6000 talented students across ten neighborhood campuses, allowing Chicago International to remain the largest charter school in Illinois. We welcomed 158 freshmen to our Ralph Ellison Campus, the second high school created under the Gates Foundation High School Initiative. Our Foundation also changed its name to match the name of our school, creating one clear public identity. Internally, we’ve adapted our processes and learned from experiences; we believe the dawn of the new year finds Chicago International Charter School better prepared to deliver an attractive and rigorous college-preparatory education that develops fully the potential of Chicago’s children.

Charter Schools Change Lives

Charter schools came to the Chicago Public School System in 1997, with the establishment of Chicago International and five other charter schools. These charters were given a mandate: in exchange for autonomy from the traditional district governance system, charter schools must be innovative and create educational environments that better meet the needs and build on the inherent strengths of the students served. This public-private partnership has yielded an educational network that produces real results.

Chicago International was established as a multi-campus network, able to serve a larger proportion of students throughout Chicago. We serve children from pre-kindergarten to the twelfth grade, with an emphasis on community involvement and true college preparation. Each of our ten campuses is managed by one of three Education Management Organization (EMO) partners, working with Chicago International under performance-based contracts. Our EMO partners are Edison Schools, Inc.; Civitas Schools, LLC; and American Quality Schools, Inc.

Building a Culture of Achievement

Our students’ achievements over the last nine years confirm that the Chicago International approach to education is changing the lives of Chicago’s urban youth. Our four-year high school graduation rate is 90%, and our five-year graduation rate is 100%. The Chicago International dropout rate was only 3%, unprecedented within Chicago’s public school system. Eighty-five percent of our graduates enrolled in post-secondary education, with 15% entering the U.S. Armed Services. During the 2005–2006 school year, Chicago International Bucktown and Longwood campuses were both ranked within the top 10 Illinois charter schools ranked according to the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the ISAT state standards, an outstanding achievement for our K-8 students.

It is important to realize that Chicago International is a non-selective charter school; we do not enroll students based on their academic performance, special talents, or relationships. Our students come to us with different levels of academic ability; however, all students have a desire to learn and a willingness to work hard.  Chicago International promises to provide a caring, nurturing environment for learners and to embrace the vision that individual students will be admitted to college and graduate. Chicago International provides the academic rigor, unflagging commitment and individualized attention that cultivate achievement – and we achieve all this with significantly less funding than that of traditional public schools.

Choice Where Choice Matters Most

As Chicago International is non-selective, our enrollment is determined by lotteries held in February for high school students and in April for elementary school students. Parents believe that enrollment in Chicago International provides their children with a path towards growth and achievement that is often unavailable at traditional Chicago public schools; therefore, demand for our campuses is high. Entering the 2005 school year, Chicago International had a student body of approximately 5400 and a 2000-strong waiting list; this year, despite the expansion of the student body to 6000 students, the waiting list was again over 2000 long. The lotteries are necessary, yet emotional, for everyone involved because our capacity is limited.

Chicago International students come from traditionally underserved populations within Chicago; the school provides academic choice otherwise unavailable in Chicago’s south- and west-side neighborhoods. Approximately 71% of our students are African-American, 20% are Latino and 9% are a mixture of Asian, Indian and Caucasian. Most students come from homes of limited economic means.  In fact, 75% participate in the Federal Free or Reduced Cost Lunch Program. These are the children most in need of the life-long social and economic benefits of the high-quality education that Chicago International delivers.

With Our Partners, We Draw Our Path

Like all charter schools, Chicago International is funded through federal, state and local taxes, including funds from the Department of Education, the Illinois Board of Education and the Chicago Public Schools. But charter school funding currently lags behind traditional schools in the district; during the 2005-2006 school year, we received, on average, only eight-five cents for every dollar spent at a traditional CPS school.  Despite this, we are committed to a balanced budget.

In order to supplement our income we seek partners to fund special projects and organizational growth. Each funding partner has chosen to invest with Chicago International’s community of students, parents, and educators as a way to better prepare young people for the future. During the 2005–2006 school year we were fortunate to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, The Renaissance Schools Fund, Judd Enterprises, Kraft Foods, Arie and Ida Crown Memorial, KaBOOM!, Home Depot, the Pritzker-Traubert Family Foundation, AMC Mortgage Services and others.

Join Us As We Grow

Chicago International has established a policy of strategic growth to meet the demand for quality education in Chicago. To meet the financial demands of our educational mission, we continue to form partnerships committed to financing quality education and expanding educational choice. Perhaps you or your organization will join us and partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose generous $4.2 million multi-year grant has already produced our Northtown Academy Campus and led to the founding of our Ralph Ellison Campus, which opened in August 2006.  Two more Chicago International high school campuses are planned for the coming years under this initiative.

Chicago International stands at a crossroads. Entering our tenth year we have learned much and changed more, yet we are better prepared than ever to support meaningful change in the lives of Chicago public school children and the neighborhoods of Chicago. As the largest, and one of the original charter schools in Illinois, Chicago International is uniquely capable of turning private funding into a valuable and lasting investment in the children of Illinois.