Chicago Business Heads Take Hands-On Approach to Reform
A Chicago businessman has set in motion a scheme to test whether academic reforms, coupled with management techniques drawn from the corporate world, can improve the education of inner-city students.
The vehicle for his experiment is a private--but tuition-free--elementary school soon to open in a low-income neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. If Joe Kellerman has his way, the school will eventually become a demonstration of educational excellence.
Mr. Kellerman, a multi-millionaire glass manufacturer and leading Chicago philanthropist, has persuaded a group of 15 corporate leaders, including the heads of Sears, Roebuck & Company, McDonald's, and the Quaker Oats Corporation, to fund the school, which is scheduled to open in the North Lawndale area of the city next March.
The corporate sponsors have thus far pledged nearly $2 million of the estimated $3 million that will be necessary to underwrite the school's first three years. The building that will house the school has been made available by the Archdiocese of Chicago; local construction firms have offered to assist in its renovation.
"Our public schools simply aren't working for too many young people today," Mr. Kellerman said in announcing plans for the school. "This model school can be a force for critical change."
The idea, according to Mr. Kellerman and other organizers, is to prod public-school systems into making changes by proving that reforms, such as merit pay for teachers, increased parental involvement, and stricter accountability, can be made to work.
When the school reaches its full enrollment five years from now, its organizers say, it will serve 300 students from prekindergarten through the 8th grade, offer a variety of social services to local families, and be a center for teacher training.
Of even greater importance, Mr. Kellerman and other supporters say, is that the school will provide a platform for fostering change at the national level. Eventually, they add, the project could include a national policy center that would seek a high-visibility role in the on-going debate over education reform.
Organizers say they also hope to open additional schools in other cities where the problems of urban life pose difficult challenges for public education.
Comparable to Public Schools
A crucial element of the plan, according to Primus Mootry, one of the school's planners, is to ensure that the Chicago school is comparable to those in the city's public-education system, in terms of both the students that it serves and the resources available to it.
Mr. Mootry is the executive director of the Better Boys Foundation, a civic group that has been active in the North Lawndale area for a number of years.
"What we are building is a school that embodies many of the key principles that educators on the national level agree must be incorporated into American education," Mr. Mootry said. "We want to show that it can be done with the resources at hand."
The parents of students ranel15ldomly chosen from the area's public schools will be offered the option of enrolling their children in the new school. Its staff will be hired largely from within the community, and per-pupil costs will be kept at the same level as in the city's public system.
Another of the school's key goals, Mr. Mootry said, will be to demonstrate how the use of management strategies developed in the business world can be transferred to education, reducing costs and improving services.
School organizers are now in the process of hiring a principal and selecting the school's first 120 students, he said.
Impressive List of Supporters
To date, the school's organizers have managed to recruit an impressive list of supporters, including Mayor Harold Washington; the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame University; Marva Collins, the widely known director of the West Side Preparatory School; and both of Illinois's U.S. senators.
More problematic, at least for now, is the project's relationship with Chicago school authorities and the city's powerful teachers' union.
Plans for the school do not envision a system of collective bargaining for teachers. According to a paper prepared by school organizers, faculty members will be employed on one-year individual contracts.
While the organizers say they intend to "make every effort to establish working relationships with the Chicago Board of Education at every level," they have received no offer of support, according to Mr. Mootry.
A school-board spokesman would only say that officials there would be "watching the school with interest."
The Chicago Federation of Teachers, currently embroiled in a bitter strike, has also largely ignored the project. School organizers, however, have discussed their plans with Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Mootry said.
"We are interested in learning how it develops, but there has been no formal endorsement," an aft spokesman said.