Teachers, Parents Plead for Hope Learning Academy to Keep Its Doors Open Following Sudden Closure Announcement

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Six-year-old Keragan is down for a good tickle and laugh with her parents, but she wasn’t always.

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“When Keragan first started at Hope, Keragan was very sheltered. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her or anything,” said her mother, Megan Miller Russell.

Now, Miller Russell said her daughter has opened up, and not just to her family.

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“She has this one best friend, she has Down syndrome, but they love each other to death,” Miller Russell said. “She’s so sweet to Keragan, and Keragan’s so sweet to her. She’s like her BFF.”

Keith Russel and Megan Miller Russel credit Hope Learning Academy. It’s an unconventional contract school operated by Hope Institute, a nonprofit based in Springfield focused on students who have developmental disabilities.

Hope Institute has been contracted by Chicago Public Schools since 2009 to operate out of CPS’s Spalding campus on the Near West Side.

About 240 students, from kindergarteners to fifth graders, are enrolled at Hope Learning Academy this school year. It’s a mix of general education students and special education students like Keragan.

“She’ll even give you a hug,” Miller Russell said. “But before Hope, she didn’t have any chance, you know what I mean? Now she has a form of communication. Now they’re teaching her sign language so she has a way to communicate with us.”

“Yeah, the teachers are great,” Keith Russel, Keragan’s father, added.

They’re worried that’s going to change next year because Hope Learning Academy is closing once the school year is done.

Hope’s executive leadership gave the notice in March — a surprise to parents and staff, given that the school had just inked a four-year contract with CPS weeks prior.

Hope families and staff pushed back on the decision at CPS’s April board meeting.

“It is frustrating for staff, especially those with 10-plus years working here,” said Monse Castro, a teacher at Hope. “They travel long distances, sometimes past other high-paying schools because they believe in the children that they serve. Hope is integral to the community with several partnerships, such as the food depository, Gads Hill Center, Grow Greater Englewood, a Black Girl Book Club.”

Critics said Hope families deserve better, especially the Latino and Black students who make up 97% of Hope’s student body, according to the Illinois Report Card.

Parents are upset, too. Miller Russel started a petition of protest that’s received more than 1,200 signatures.

The petition has comments like: “This school should have been the example and standard for public schooling in Chicago. For so many families, Hope is the only option for their child.”

CPS said because of the late notice Hope gave, the district doesn’t have time to start its own Hope-style program. But a spokesperson also said the district is actively working to develop a plan that meets the needs of individual families.

“We are confident that the District will be able to continue providing services without interruption and that students and families will have the support they need to be successful in the coming year,” CPS said in a statement to WTTW News.

CPS said it offers many of the same services as Hope at the schools the district runs and is helping place students even though the district’s enrollment deadline is passed.

But families like the Russels don’t want other schools. They said they appreciate the one-on-one attention Keragan gets at Hope and that the principal knows every student’s first and last name.

“It has to stay for our children,” Miller Russell said. “They need it. There’s no other choice. It hurts as a parent to have to go through this because our child loves this school. … I’ve never seen a child that runs to get ready for school. She loves her uniform, she hurries up and puts her coat on, she puts her backpack on.”

Parents are struggling to understand why Hope is closing.

Hope executives didn’t return WTTW News’ repeated requests for answers, but in previous public comments, the nonprofit blamed CPS.

In the March letter to staff, Hope Institute leadership cited “concerning … trends.”

“This data includes downward trending student enrollment, increasing special education enrollment as a percentage of the total student population, less than satisfactory achievement results, consistent denial for grade expansion by CPS, as well as contract issues with CPS,” the letter stated.

Critics believe there’s another reason: Earlier this year, school staff voted to join the Chicago Teachers Union.

“It looks like the unionizing of the teachers is the reason. That’s what we suspect. That’s how it happened,” said Ashley Howard, a resource coordinator at Gads Hill Center who runs afterschool services and multiple programs at Hope. “The week after they [staff] got approved, the next week they decided about the closure.”

Howard said it’s a double slap in the face — for Hope to exit, then for CPS to take the “easy way out.”

The Spalding campus, and therefore Hope Learning Academy, fall in Ald. Walter Burnett Jr.’s 27th Ward. Burnett said he helped Hope Institute open its doors in the Near West Side almost a decade ago.

Video: Watch our full interview with Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward).

“We helped them to get people to go to this school,” Burnett said. “Folks come from all over the city to go to this school. They have a great autism program, but it’s a private institute. We also advocated for them to take it up to sixth to eighth grade. We did it several times, but we couldn’t get the Board of Education to allow them to do it. … It’s so sad. … I talked to the Board of Education. They’re trying to do everything they can to replace the teachers and also opening up spots for neighboring schools.”

Students currently travel from all over the city to attend Hope Learning Academy.

“Our families are absolutely distraught,” Howard said. “They don’t know where they’ll be sending their students. … There’s no guarantee that their students will be safe in the neighborhoods that they come from. We serve over 30+ ZIP codes in the entire city, and so our families come all across from Chicago just to come here, because that’s the kind of culture we cultivate at Hope.”

Meanwhile, the Russells haven’t lost hope.

“Somebody please reach out, please, please, please, and help us save this school,” Miller Russell said. “This is our last hope. But we’re not going to stop fighting. But step up and help us, please.”

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