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Chicago Experiments With School-Based Spending Strategy

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Chicago--For a variety of reasons--including a state mandate, a desegregation agreement, and an interest in trying out ideas associated with the "school-improvement" movement--Chicago's highly centralized school system this year is giving about two-thirds of its 605 principals the opportunity and money--some $24.2 million in all--to design special programs for their own schools.

In addition to principals, Chicago parents, teachers, and community members are being called upon to help decide how to spend the money in each school.

Most of the money--about $16 million--comes from budget juggling. In order to comply with a state mandate that the school system spend more money in schools with many children from low-income families, system officials reduced citywide numbers of teacher aides, clerks, and art and music teachers to generate the additional funds.

State and Local Combined

The school board combined the state directive on spending for low-income schools with the local goal, outlined in the system's desegregation plan, of making special efforts to improve Chicago's more than 375 schools with predominantly minority enrollments.

That plan, part of a preliminary document approved last year to fulfill the board's consent decree with the federal government, was submitted in its final form to a federal judge last month. In it, the board said it would make an extra effort to improve the quality of education at the schools that will remain "segregated"--that is, those whose minority enrollment is more than 70 percent.

Each of these schools was guaranteed at least $42,000, through a combination of shifted state aid and local funds. The state aid was distributed on the basis of the number of children from low-income families who are enrolled in each school.

By encouraging broad participation in mak-ing choices about how to use the special funds at the school level, Chicago has joined what Don Davies, president of the Boston-based Institute for Responsive Education, calls "a growing pattern of response to a huge pile of problems and dilemmas, including money, the departure of former clientele, low achievement, and the lack of confidence" in large urban school systems. Such initiatives "are the most helpful single thing that is going on in urban education," says Mr. Davies, whose organization conducts research and acts as an advocate for citizen-participation in the schools.

Detailed Guidelines

In Chicago, there is one string attached to the school-improvement money. Principals must follow detailed guidelines, prepared by the system's desegregation office, that include the requirement that they survey their teachers and parents on such matters as staff and community communication, and analyze their procedures for monitoring pupil progress and conducting staff-development activities.

System administrators told the principals last fall, when the program was initiated, that parents "need to understand the program-development process and should have an opportunity for meaningful input in program development and implementation."

The activities chosen by each school were to be part of a coordinated educational program, not "add-ons or isolated activities," said school-system officials. And the spending plans had to include a system for evaluating the effectiveness of the programs.

Academic Skills Lacking

"We all are aware of our problems at a gut level," said William G. Rankin, principal of Herbert Elementary School on the city's deteriorated West Side. "Children lack academic skills. You try to analyze why. There are so many reasons for it. Sometimes you can't see them all because you are so close to them."

The assessment his school carried out "gave us a kind of objective indication of problem areas, some directly relating to me," he said. ''Teachers said I didn't visit their classroom enough. I thought I did. So I will be there more."

To accomplish that goal, Mr. Rankin hired a teacher to free the school's assistant principal from teaching duties, and the assistant principal in turn performed tasks that freed up more time for Mr. Rankin to visit classrooms.

The Herbert school's "needs assessment" also led to activities that address a variety of problems common to inner-city schools: many children need extra time to learn basic skills; some parents do not know how to help their children with schoolwork; and parents are not as involved as they could or should be in resolving school problems.

The school is paying teachers and several parents to conduct after-school and summer classes for children. An after-school class also is being held for parents. Two teachers are working with small groups of students whose achievement lags far behind national norms, and the parents are encouraged to sit in on these sessions.

Program Success

"Nobody gets more excited about a program than the people who created it," Mr. Rankin observed. "If a program is handed to you, you may work on it only halfheartedly. If you do it yourself, you want to make it work."

Two other common problems, poor student attendance and self-discipline, are the focus of activities at Raster Elementary School on the South Side. Last year, 50 pupils were suspended from Raster for disturbances that caused "severe" problems in the classroom, reported Principal Robert E. Hagan in the "needs" section of his proposal.

One teacher now works with such disruptive children in a special class--known as in-school suspension--and counsels them and their parents. Another teacher contacts parents of children who do not attend school regularly.

Many other participating principals also met the challenge of devising such programs, system officials report, but some initially came up with "equipment-heavy" proposals, such as a request for an expensive electric typewriter. Officials say the degree of citizen participation also varied.

Commenting on the uneven response, Superintendent Ruth B. Love noted recently that "the tradition in Chicago has been to order programs from a catalogue, as opposed to developing programs."

"If you've had a long practice of picking programs from an approved list, it's understandable that an in-depth, analytical process will not happen overnight," Ms. Love said.

Most principals, however, praise the new concept although they acknowledge the program is laden with paperwork.

Similar Programs Nationwide

The parental involvement in Chicago's new school-improvement activities is also mirrored in other urban communities across the nation, according to Mr. Davies, who points to similar programs in districts from New York to California.

Three states,--California, Florida, and South Carolina--as a part of school-finance legislation, require the formation of school advisory councils that include parents, Mr. Davies said. The councils' mandates range from making nonbinding budget recommendations (South Carolina), to issuing annual school-performance reports (Florida), to developing and overseeing programs supported by special state grants averaging about $110,000 (California). The Florida councils, which may be set up at the district or school level, also may apply for state grants of up to $5,000.

New York City, Cincinnati, Seattle, and St. Louis are among the large urban districts with pilot programs. And Salt Lake City, in his view, particularly stands out because of its system of "shared governance." Under that management program, parent-teacher councils have the authority to set discipline standards, establish class schedules, adopt curricula, and make other policy decisions to create the kinds of schools they want.

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