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70 Chicago Principals Break With Colleagues To Press Board To Institute School Reforms

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By Ann Bradley

A group of Chicago principals has come out strongly in favor of the city's sweeping school-reform efforts in a break with the Chicago Principals' Association, which is fighting the restructuring in the courts.

In a petition submitted last month to the city's interim board of education, the Chicago Public School Principals Coalition requested that the board make 23 changes in district procedure to help principals in their efforts to improve schools.

"We ... do solemnly declare our commitment to the institutionalization of a restructured public-school system," the petition states.

"This petition," it continues, "is a public declaration of our collective desire to be6known as positive constructionists, and not as obstructionists."

Sylvia Peters, the chairman of the coalition and the principal of Alexandre Dumas Elementary School, said last week that about 70 of the school system's 540 principals have signed "manifestos" supporting the group's positions and that more are expected to do so.

Each statement was also signed by the chairman of the school's local school council--a fact that Ms. Peters said represents a "very powerful movement" in support of school reform.

"I can't abide this negative business any longer," Ms. Peters said. "The whole thrust [of the new group] is to change the public's perception of the principalship. Right now, you hear people saying, 'I wouldn't want your job for love or money."'

The announcement by the group, called the "We Care Principals," was greeted enthusiastically by leaders of several community organizations that have spearheaded the drive for school reform.

"I think it is an absolutely critical turning point," said Joseph D. Reed, the president of Leadership for Quality Education and a member of the interim board of education. "We have a group of people who have really become fellow revolutionaries with the communities in the determination to make school reform work."

The Chicago Principals' Associ4ation is challenging principals' loss of tenure under the 1988 legislation that changed the governance of the city's schools. The case, which also questions the constitutionality of the process used to elect local school councils, is pending before the state supreme court.

Bruce Berndt, president of the CPA., said he does not consider the principals' coalition "a splinter group."

"It's people who wanted to emphasize what we've tried to say, too," Mr. Berndt said, "which is one of the hard parts about being in court in opposition to a couple of points in a law which contains 30 or 40 items. If you dare challenge anything, you're opponents of reform."

Mr. Berndt said the principals' association is "working with" the new group, but Ms. Peters said the coalition will continue its efforts on its own.

Ms. Peters said principals who have joined the new group need training to help them become the true chief executives of their schools, as envisioned under the reform plan. The CPA, she added, has not provided such training.

"There really hasn't been that kind of focus in the city of Chicago," she said. "That's the reason we have school reform."

Mr. Berndt said it was "an absolute lie" that the CPA has not helped its members, noting that the association has sponsored seminars to help principals work with their school councils.

"Quite candidly," he said, "I think Sylvia would rather do some of these things on her own, without having to truly represent the majority of principals."

Donald R. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, which played a leading role in drafting the reform legislation, said his organization was "extremely pleased" by the statement by the new principals' group.

"One of the significant points that is coming to light is that Chicago principals lost their tenure, but they have more authority under the law than any other big-city school principals," Mr. Moore said. "The 'We Care' group has realized that."

The coalition's petition asks that principals be allowed to appoint assistant principals and head teachers in the way that they now appoint department chairmen. Such authority would allow principals to remove people who are not reform-oriented, the petition states.

The group is also asking for access to better computerized financial records, an updated purchasing policy that would speed the delivery of materials to schools, and more equitable distribution of money for physical-plant improvements.

The principals are also calling for improvements in the district's transportation department to provide safer bus service for the city's students.

Fausto Lopez, the principal of Joseph Jungman Elementary School and a member of the new coalition, said he believes principals can be the ''agents for change" in school reform if the district is willing to remove the obstacles cited in the petition.

"What we're asking for is nothing I would consider not viable," he added.

Joan Jeter Slay, a member of the interim board of education, said the new group's support for reform "had to be in place in order for other things in the manifesto to be meaningful."

Many of the changes the group is seeking are already on Superintendent Theodore D. Kimbrough's agenda, she added.

The principals' concerns also mirror those expressed by the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools. In a report issued in January, the reform coalition charged that the district bureaucracy was impeding reform and vowed to seek changes in the state legislature if improvements were not made.

Shawnelle Richie, a spokesman for Mr. Kimbrough, said the superintendent was "well aware that the system needs to be made more responsive."

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