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Chicago Plan Targets Assistance to Lowest-Achieving Schools

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General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson of Chicago last week unveiled preliminary plans to focus resources and assistance on the city's lowest-achieving schools.

The superintendent's plan, which was presented in general form and will be refined after public hearings that are slated to begin next month, calls for each of the system's 551 schools to be placed in one of three groups.

Schools will be grouped on the basis of a number of factors, Ms. Johnson said, including students' achievement-test scores, student and teacher attendance rates, promotion and graduation rates, dropout rates, parental participation, self-evaluations, and support of governance councils.

Under the city's decentralized governance system, schools are run by local school councils made up of principals, teachers, community members, and parents. The councils hire principals, manage school budgets, and draw up improvement plans.

The role of the central office in the new system, however, has never been clear. Members of school councils have frequently clashed with central-office policies that they have perceived as top-down mandates.

Ms. Johnson's announcement represents "her new mark on the system,'' said Dawne Simmons, the general superintendent's press secretary. "This is her plan for bold action.''

Spelling Out the Details

Under the proposal, schools that are found to be doing well will receive a minimum of support from the central office, while those in the middle group will receive moderate support. The central office will develop "intervention strategies'' for the lowest-performing schools.

The kinds of assistance that will be offered, the superintendent said, include helping principals organize schools for the most effective instruction, providing staff development to teachers and support-staff members, giving schools current data to analyze, tracking student progress from year to year, and teaming schools across achievement tiers for networking and sharing information.

The announcement of a plan to group schools by achievement levels was expected. Ms. Johnson, who became superintendent last summer, has talked frequently about focusing on the most troubled schools. She also has been sending her top deputies to meet with principals and teachers in those schools to determine their needs.

Sheila Castillo, the coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, applauded the superintendent's emphasis on helping troubled schools.

To insure schools' flexibility is not impeded, she said, the group will closely monitor the criteria being proposed for evaluating schools and the types of assistance being recommended.

"If the details that are spelled out dictate who needs the help and how it will be given, that would definitely be contrary to decentralization and self-determination,'' Ms. Castillo said.

Based solely on a preliminary analysis of achievement-test scores, the board of education estimates that 40 high schools would be placed in the lowest-performing group. In addition, 229 K-8 grammar schools would fall into that category.

Eleven high schools and 51 grammar schools would be ranked in the best-performing group.

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