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The Chicago school district is enlisting some of its top principals to help out administrators in about 120 of the city's most troubled schools.

The program will match exemplary principals with colleagues at schools that have been cited by the state for academic failings or other problems.

Retired principals, as well as business executives and college or university faculty members, will also be recruited to serve as mentors to some principals in the district--the nation's third largest, with about 413,000 students.

Retirees and mentor principals will receive a stipend for joining the program, but the other mentors are being asked to volunteer their services, according to the district.

District officials want the seasoned employees to give the troubled schools guidance on such indicators of successful schools as improved student achievement, a well-managed budget, and increased attendance and graduation rates. Under the Chicago school-reform law, principals have a high degree of control over their schools' finances and instructional programs.

"We believe our master principals and teachers will be successful in assisting others because they have proven, successful track records in their own schools," Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said in a statement this month.

Next month will see some interesting role reversals as parents everywhere get to call the principal on a toll-free, national hot line.

About 150 school administrators will answer phones for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which runs the service during its annual conference as a way to promote family involvement in schools. The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and Family Circle magazine are also sponsoring the event.

Parents who are "curious, troubled, or simply need some reassurance about their child's education" can use the hot line March 24-26, according to the association.

Callers may also request an English or Spanish copy of "Now We're Talking," a free guide that helps parents decide how, when, and why to get in touch with their children's schools.

The principals' hot line is in its seventh year. But this year's event will have a new twist: School psychologists will also pick up calls and offer specialized advice to parents.

The service will be operating during the association's conference in Washington. The toll-free number is (800) 944-1601.

--Joanna Richardson

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