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Nobel Laureate's Vision Is Realized: Chicago Teacher AcademySet To Open

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By Peter West

Slightly more than a year after the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman publicly broached the idea of an institute that would hone the skills of Chicago's public-school teachers in the technical disciplines, the district is working out the final details of its new Academy for Mathematics and Science Teachers.

The academy is expected to soon enroll its first class of as many as 100 "replacement teachers." These teachers will be prepared to serve as high-quality substitutes for the instructors who are selected to enroll in the academy's initial 10-week training course, planned for next spring.

The project's ultimate goal is to train as many as 3,000 of the school system's 17,000 teachers each year, at an annual cost of $32 million. Officials expect a significant share of the academy's annual budget to come from the federal government.

Mr. Lederman said his vision is that similar academies might be established in other major urban districts.

"If so, then we've done something very profound" for inner-city education, he said.

At the academy's ribbon-cutting this summer, U.S. Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins announced the award of a $215,000 planning grant as initial support for the project. The National Science Foundation also has given the project a $200,000 planning grant.

In addition, the Energy Department has requested $2.5 million in its fiscal 1991 budget proposal to help fund the academy's first year of operation.

Various private and state funding sources could bring the first year's operating budget to $10 million, Mr. Lederman said.

Officials in Chicago credit the rapid fruition of the project to the reputation of Mr. Lederman, a University of Chicago physicist and a former director of the Fermi National Laboratory.

Although Mr. Lederman became the spokesman for a group of approximately 60 local education reformers who backed the proposal, the original concept was formulated by Henry Gordon Berry, a senior physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory who served as co-chair the the reform group Concerned Parent Network/Believe in the Public Schools, and Priscilla and Henry Frisch, scientists who also took an active part in the grass-roots drive to improve the Chicago schools.

Mr. Berry took a leave of absence from his post in July to become the academy's acting director.

Local officials point out that the state legislature refused to fund the project, which lay moribund until Secretary Watkins got in touch with Mr. Lederman for advice about how the Energy Department could improve the teaching of science and mathematics in Chicago's schools.

"I think what I added to [the project] was the scope of trying to do things on the scale that national laboratories do it," Mr. Lederman said.

Although the concept of the academy has the public support of the City of Chicago, the school board, and Superintendent of Schools Ted D. Kimbrough, negotiations are expected to begin within the month to hammer out the details of how teachers will be selected and other facets of the program's operations, according to the academy's executive director, Mary Anne Edwards.

Participating teachers will have to meet criteria established by the academy, she said, but will not be charged tuition. The hope is to reach teachers at all grade levels and from a wide variety of schools, she added.

The concept of providing qualified "replacements," rather than untrained substitutes is a key to the program's success, Ms. Edwards said.

"Generally, the stories you hear about substitute teachers are really negative," she said. "We want to have principals look at these replacements and say 'terrific."'

In addition to ensuring a steady supply of well-qualified subsititute teachers for those attending training, Ms. Edwards said, the academy will require a commitment from principals to support the program and attempt to train a handful of parents in its methods in order to ensure a "nucleus of support within its own walls."

"It's a very integrated process that we're going for," she said.

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