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Role of the Central Office In Aiding Schools Studied

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A group of urban school reformers who are pushing for smaller, more autonomous schools is rethinking how central offices should be organized to support successful city schools.

The group, called the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, includes representatives from Chicago, Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Although pursuing varied approaches, the members are all trying to create small schools closely linked to their communities and with a significant degree of freedom from central-office dictates.

The group, formed a year ago, has raised more than $400,000 from the Joyce, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, and Annie E. Casey foundations and from the Woods Charitable Fund, a Chicago philanthropy.

Anne Hallett, the group's executive director, said members of the Cross City Campaign exchange information, debate policy, and support one another in their reform efforts. The group's members, she said, are both mindful of research and "best practices'' in education and are actively engaged in creating new types of schools.

Their first activity was to think about how responsibility for curriculum and instruction, facilities and services, personnel, budget, and governance could be moved to schools and what the changes would mean for how central offices are organized. Cross City expects to publish its findings by mid-year.

Subjects for Debate

In addition to thinking about decentralizing school administration and support, the group is examining how schools and their surrounding communities can forge partnerships to educate inner-city youths.

Another focus is the reauthorization of the federal Chapter 1 program, which provides significant remedial-education funding to urban schools.

Finally, members of the Cross City Campaign are beginning to tackle the question of accountability and assessment in decentralized systems.

"As we move serious decisionmaking to schools--and we really believe in democratic governance--then how do you structure an accountability system so you know that it's working for kids?'' Ms. Hallett asked.

One of the first laboratories for the discussion of decentralization will be Chicago, where elected councils govern each of the city's schools. Now, at the invitation of Superintendent Argie K. Johnson, a range of school and community people have begun discussing how to reorganize the central office to support the new governance arrangement. While central administrative functions in Chicago have been cut, they have not yet been reconceptualized.

Ms. Hallett said the group also hopes to forge links with educators and community members in Los Angeles, where efforts to decentralize services to schools are under way.

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