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LEARN charter network starts the school year ahead of Chicago schools

Uniformed students in second grade sitting at desks raise their hands as their teachers looks at them in a classroom. The students and teacher are all wearing masks.

Students at LEARN charter schools returned to the classroom before most students in Chicago.

Eileen Pomeroy / Chalkbeat

Donnie McGee and his daughter Serrena stood outside the Romano Butler Campus in the LEARN Charter School Network early Monday morning, eagerly waiting with other families for the doors to open on the first day of school. 

Inside, Principal Sharanda Morehead addressed her staff in the lobby, giving instructions for the day and a brief pep talk in which she called the mix of veteran teachers and newer faces the “secret sauce” to the school’s success. 

The North Lawndale school is one of seven in the LEARN Charter School Network, which usually starts classes in early August and a few weeks ahead of Chicago Public Schools, which this year, starts on Aug. 22. LEARN serves predominantly Black and low-income families. At Romano Butler, about 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade make up the anticipated enrollment, according to Morehead, in addition to preschoolers. 

LEARN schools get a head start on the year to help minimize summer learning loss, said CEO Greg White. This year, they are focusing on providing students with not only academic support, but the social and emotional support that has become critical since the pandemic, he said.

“It’s been a difficult time for all communities, but LEARN students in particular have been impacted by the COVID crisis, and they need a lot more additional support,” he said. 

Unlike many schools across the country, LEARN schools are requiring masks this year and will test students for COVID-19 on a biweekly basis. Students will be tested in school, and if a test comes back positive, Morehead said she and her staff will inform the family and the school community, while observing the student’s privacy.

White said the LEARN network over-hired staff to avoid the shortages plaguing districts across the country, especially for positions such as social workers and special education teachers. 

Last year, the LEARN network only had to close a few if any of its classrooms due to its COVID-19 policies, which included masking and weekly testing, according to Morehead. The network also continues to encourage vaccination, White said.

As Serrena and her father waited on Monday for the doors at Romano Butler to open at 8 a.m., the kindergartener beamed with excitement. Last year, she attended another school in the LEARN network, her father McGee said. Ahead of the first day, he had to scramble to find parts of her new uniform since the colors she was allowed to wear have changed. 

The students – who wore uniforms composed of white shirts, charcoal gray pants or skirts, sweater vests, ties with red accents, and black sneakers – carried backpacks, lunchboxes, and bags filled with classroom supplies. The staff greeted families, handed out face masks, and helped guide students to classrooms.  

To prepare for the new year, onboarding for new teachers started two weeks ago, Morehead said. Returning teachers returned a week later for intensive professional development that focused on curriculum, social-emotional support, and new initiatives, she said. 

This year, there are three social workers and a behavior interventionist at her school, Morehead added. 

Star Terrell, the mother of fourth grader King, said that she trusts how the school handles safety and appreciates how it communicates with parents. Still, she said she reminded him to distance from others and use hand sanitizer. 

King doesn’t usually wake up early, but he was excited to get to school today, Terrell said. This morning, she made breakfast, gave her back-to-school speech, and said a prayer with her son. 

WaConda Curington-Harris is the mother of MiAsia, an eighth grader who will be her third child to graduate from the LEARN network. Although summer passed quickly, MiAsia was so excited to return to campus that she had already donned her school uniform by the time her mother woke up, she said. 

Curington-Harris praised Morehead for helping connect her older children and other students with opportunities such as the Daniel Murphy Scholarship

“That’s an excellent opportunity for these students, because a lot of our students and parents don’t know about the scholarships and stuff like that,” she said. 

Trisen Phillips, who is in eighth grade, said he’s excited to apply to high schools and go on class trips. He’s also excited to see his friends again after spending five weeks this summer taking a course as a part of the High Jump program, which provides support for students going into high school.

Although he hopes to attend Whitney Young High School next year, Phillips said he is happy to be back at Romano Butler for now. 

“I love my school,” he said. “I’ve been here since kindergarten, so it’s good for me to come back here. I learned almost everything I know from here. The teachers and stuff that I’ve been with is amazing.”

On Friday, Romano Butler hosted a back-to-school event in partnership with local organization UCAN that more than 500 people attended, Morehead said. Activities included barbecue, face painting, roller shaking, bouncy houses, and horseback riding. 

“But the most important part was the meet and greet with the teachers,” she said. At the event,  parents had the chance to get to know teachers and get information about the school.

Morehead, who said she has been with the LEARN network for 19 years, was born and raised in North Lawndale. She said she hasn’t gotten much sleep while preparing for the first day, which she tries to make “perfect.” 

Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at epomeroy@chalkbeat.org.

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