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Senator Sets Panel To Make Chicago An 'Urban Lab'

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Washington--In an action that follows several reports highly critical of the Chicago public-school system--one calling its dropout problem "a human tragedy of enormous dimensions"--U.S. Senator Paul Simon has taken the unusual step of creating a national task force to turn the city into an "urban laboratory" for educational experimentation.

And in a related development last week, the Chicago Board of Education, reeling from the negative publicity surrounding the reports, agreed to a "major reorganization" of the school system.

Senator Simon, an Illinois Democrat, said in an interview last week that all the attention focused on Chicago "will be a good thing, if we use it as a tool to recognize that there are problems, but that they are not insoluble problems."

"I think Chicago is an urban laboratory," said the Senator. "If we can move in a positive way in Chicago, we can do it in Philadelphia, we can do it anywhere else."

Bennett To Participate

Twenty-five people will serve on the task force, including Ted Sanders, the state superintendent of public instruction; Manford Byrd Jr., Chicago's superintendent of schools; Jacqueline Vaughn, president of the Chicago Teachers Union; and Arthur Berman, chairman of the state senate's committee on elementary and secondary education.

A spokesman for the Education Department confirmed last week that Secretary of Education William J. Bennett would attend the task force's first meeting, scheduled to be held in Chicago last Friday, and would serve as an unofficial member of the group.

"The Secretary believes reform will take place at the state and local level" and will help that effort where ever he can, a Department spokesman said.

The task force is expected to address a variety of issues facing the embattled school system, which, in addition to perennial financial problems, recurrent teachers' strikes, and widely publicized dropout problems, has had to adjust to new state and local school superintendents in the past six months.

"These times demand unusual things," Senator Simon said.

But not everyone in Chicago is pleased by the idea of a national task force to solve the city's school problems.

"What Illinois needs now is not another task force to draw up recommendations for improving the Chicago public schools," The Chicago Tribune wrote in an editorial last week. "The newest task force may simply give those whose responsibility it is to improve Chicago schools another excuse to postpone doing anything specific."

And Ross Hodel, a spokesman for Gov. James R. Thompson, said that although the Governor has not specifically addressed the issue of the Simon task force, he wonders "why we need another study."

"The Governor said he doesn't know of anyone in Illinois who3hasn't done an educational-reform study, and if anyone does know someone, he should be reported to the proper authorities," Mr. Hodel said. "Obviously, Senator Simon is one who feels he hasn't done his study yet."

Mr. Hodel acknowledged, however, that Governor Thompson recently appointed a panel to hold a series of public hearings beginning in June or July concerning the Chicago public-school system.

He said the Governor "knows what the politicans think, but has no indication of the sentiment of the general public."

'A Practical Project'

Senator Simon, who made education a chief issue during his Senate campaign last fall and previously headed the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, said that he does not want "another study that simply gathers dust."

William A. Blakey, senior education aide to the Senator, said the task force will not issue a report but plans instead to devise a practical demonstration project.

Mr. Blakey said it would be premature to discuss any specific model programs, but added that the task force will seek funds at the federal, state, and local levels. The task force will not require initial funding, since the participants are volunteering their time, he added.

Athough Secretary Bennett has made clear in the past month that he does not intend to initiate any major federal programs to deal with the dropout problem nationally, Mr. Blakey said the Simon task force may ask for federal appropriations for specific demonstration projects.

Reports on Problems

One impetus for the creation of the task force was a report issued in February by Designs for Change, a nonprofit research and child-advocacy group, which said that almost half of Chicago's public-school students in the 1980 freshman class failed to graduate, and that only a third of those who did graduate were able to read at or above the national 12th-grade level. (See Education Week, March 6, 1985.)

Another report, completed in April by a coalition of 17 civic organizations, charged that Chicago operates a "two-tiered" high-school system that concentrates students with a high probability of dropping out in the inner-city schools. (See Education Week, May 5, 1985.)

'Urgency Is There'

Ms. Vaughn, the president of the American Federation of Teachers local, said of the task force, "from my vantage point, this isn't just another study. The urgency is there in order to improve the quality of instruction and provide alternatives."

"The only way we can make an impression or create a change in attitude," she said, "is to have all the agencies come together."

Mr. Byrd, who replaced Ruth B. Love as Chicago's superintendent in March, is devoting most of his energies to a "major reorganization" approved last week by the Chicago Board of Education, according to a board spokesman, Robert Saigh.

Reorganization Plan

The reorganization includes taking about 30 officials out of central headquarters and putting them "in the field." Mr. Saigh said their new assignments have not yet been determined.

The board approved a recommendation to divide the city's 20 school districts into 17 elementary and three high-school districts for administrative purposes. "The idea is to decentralize the system, to improve accountability, efficiency, and response," Mr. Saigh said.

The board also approved the establishment of advisory councils at every level, including students. Such councils "exist in a spotty way now," Mr. Saigh said.

He said two committees appointed by the superintendent in April are reviewing elementary-school reading and mathematics curricula and will issue a report in June.

State Initiatives

In the coming months, the state legislature will also consider a number of education-reform bills, including a $20-million package to address the dropout problem, Mr. Saigh said.

The legislative initiative would include pilot programs in a number of Chicago schools, as well as the establishment of "lighted schoolhouses," which would keep certain schools in the city open beyond customary school hours, to "keep kids off the streets and away from gangs,'' he said.

Although Mr. Saigh said Senator Simon's task force was not at the top of the superintendent's agenda, "the feeling is that it could be helpful. It's no trouble for us. We'll take suggestions from anyone."

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