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109 Chicago Schools Put on Academic Probation

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Chicago education officials lowered the boom on nearly one-fifth of the city's public schools last week, placing 71 elementary and 38 high schools on academic probation--including the school board president's alma mater.

In an unprecedented crackdown on schools with poor test scores, the district said it would thoroughly assess each school's shortcomings and help create detailed plans for improvement.

The 109 schools, the first in Chicago subject to such aggressive intervention, will be evaluated again in a year. If they fail to measure up, district officials have options ranging from firing staff members to shutting down schools.

"We are saying to failing schools, 'We will help you, but we insist that you do what it takes to earn the trust of the parents and students who expect you to provide a solid education,'" said Gery Chico, the president of the Chicago school board. Among the schools on the list is Thomas Kelly High School, where Mr. Chico graduated in 1974.

Scores on nationally normed standardized tests were a chief factor in determining which of the district's 557 schools made the probation list.

In all the schools placed on probation, at least 85 percent of the students tested below grade level in reading. In some cases, fewer than 5 percent of students in a school read at grade level.

Outside Audits Slated

Last week's action was the latest in a series of steps taken by Mr. Chico and Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, to address chronically poor academic performance in the nation's third-largest school system. ("In Chicago, It's Full Speed Ahead As Vallas & Co. Begin 2nd Year," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Both men were put in charge of the system by Mayor Richard M. Daley in June 1995 after the state legislature gave the mayor four-year emergency powers over the 413,000-student district.

In each school placed on probation, the district will send in monitors to review management and instruction and recommend changes. Then a team led by an experienced principal will oversee the development and implementation of an improvement plan by the school staff and outside "partners," including universities and consultants.

Mr. Vallas said the team leaders would be drawn from both the ranks of the district's best principals and from public and private schools throughout the area.

Under state law, probation lasts one year but can be extended indefinitely.

In the coming months, the district plans to outline criteria schools must meet to get off probation, some of which will be tailored to the individual schools and some of which will apply systemwide. One standard already determined is that no school will be released from probation until at least 15 percent of its students read at grade level.

A big advantage of probation is that it makes it easier for the district to remove staff members deemed to be obstacles to progress, Mr. Vallas said. He said he was prepared to reorganize or close entire schools that fail to make the grade, but would consider that only as a last resort.

Besides placing schools on probation, district leaders announced they were putting three high schools and 21 elementary schools on a less stringent form of oversight known as remediation. Those schools joined six others already in remediation, which allows school employees greater autonomy than probation.

In an interview last week, Mr. Vallas said that many schools had improved in the past year, but that dramatic action was needed to spur more rapid change.

"We still have schools with extraordinarily low test scores, and we just have to move faster," he said. "We're at the base camp trying to climb Mount Everest."

Critics Question Approach

Some local school-reform advocates criticized the district for failing to warn schools about the criteria used for imposing probation. They also questioned whether the district would come through with the extensive assistance schools have been promised.

"We agree that any school with fewer than 15 percent of its students at or above the national average on standardized tests needs intensive help," said Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, a local reform group that is a persistent critic of the current school administration. "But the school system leadership hasn't done their homework to prepare for their highly publicized probation program."

The head of a group that represents local school councils--the parent-dominated governance teams set up at each school under a 1988 reform law--said she is advising schools to view probation as an opportunity. "The real question is, can the board provide the support or assistance that the schools need?" said Sheila Castillo, the director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils.

G. Alfred Hess Jr., a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., agreed that offering such support will prove a challenge. But he hailed last week's action as an excellent first step.

"It sends a message for the first time in all the years I've been working in Chicago that this administration cares about how much kids learn," said Mr. Hess, who is working with the district to improve its high schools. "That's exactly the right message."

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