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Staffs at 7 Chicago Schools To Be Overhauled

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Hoping to breathe new life into chronically low-performing schools, Chicago education chief Paul G. Vallas announced plans last week to overhaul seven troubled high schools by dramatically shaking up their staffs.

Under the "reconstitution" plan--the first of its kind in the city--all employees at the schools would be required to reapply for their jobs. In a few cases, district administrators expect to remove the principals, while in others the principal would remain and get the chance to rebuild the school's staff.

"These schools are simply not doing the job," Mr. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "Failure has gone on for years, with no sign of improvement. For the sake of the children in these schools, we must take drastic action."

Although it marks a first for Chicago, a growing number of school systems have resorted to such action in recent years.

San Francisco has made the most aggressive use of reconstitution, overhauling 16 schools since the 1980s. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line In Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996, and "S.F. Mulls Retreat From 'Reconstituting' Schools," May 28, 1997.)

In Philadelphia and Denver, officials this year announced plans to reconstitute two schools each. And Prince George's County, Md., recently targeted six schools for reconstitution in what is believed to be the first use of the tactic by a major suburban district.

Long-Standing Problems

Mr. Vallas' plan requires approval by the district's reform board of trustees, a panel appointed two years ago as part of an emergency four-year plan to turn around the 424,000-student system. The trustees are scheduled to act on the plan June 25, after targeted schools have had a chance to present their views in hearings this week.

The seven high schools identified last week have a history of sub-par test scores and high dropout rates, and were among 109 schools placed on probation in October as part of a broader academic-accountability plan. The high schools are DuSable, Englewood, Harper, Martin Luther King, Orr, Phillips, and Robeson.

District evaluators have chronicled wide-ranging shortcomings at the schools. Still, teachers at the schools complain that they are being unfairly blamed for failings that are rooted in a lack of community support for high achievement.

In announcing the shake-ups, Mr. Vallas stressed that he had stopped short of fully embracing the recommendations of an outside advisory board. The business-dominated Chicago Academic Accountability Council had called for the staffs of some of the targeted schools to be fired en masse, a district spokesman said.

The panel also recommended action against an eighth high school, Marshall, but Mr. Vallas said he wanted to give the new principal there a year to turn things around.

Teachers' Fate Uncertain

Mr. Vallas' plan would allow employees who are not rehired at their old schools to remain on the payroll while seeking slots elsewhere in the district. An estimated 700 teachers work in the affected high schools, as do an additional 300 to 400 other employees, a district spokesman said.

Estimates of how many employees would lose their posts at the reconstituted schools varied last week.

Beverly Tunney, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said she expected that principals would fill at least 40 percent of a school's teaching slots with new blood. Mr. Vallas, however, was reported as pegging the proportion at between 10 percent and 20 percent. Thomas H. Reece, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, offered an even lower prediction of 5 percent to 15 percent.

Under current district policy, teachers displaced by reconstitution would be given two school years to land another post before being laid off. Mr. Vallas said last week, however, that he was considering recommending that the time period be shortened.

Preserving the existing protections is a high priority of the historically combative teachers' union, which has generally cooperated with the administration in its drive to improve the district.

Mr. Reece said last week that the cooperative relationship would be damaged if the board were to significantly diminish the job protections of teachers displaced by the reconstitutions. But he predicted that no such erosion would take place.

"This is not a blame-the-teacher kind of thing," Mr. Reece said. "The difference in Chicago is that for the last couple of years there's been an effort to improve without scapegoating."

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Web Resources
  • The Urban Educator, a newsletter by the Council of the Great City Schools, offers recent articles on urban districts.
  • Urban School Restructuring and Teacher Burnout. While school restructuring, the latest reform measure, can break down bureaucracy and empower teachers, it also can seem distant from the day-to-day problems of most teachers, and even increase burnout among some. This digest comes from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.
  • Downsizing Schools in Big Cities. This digest briefly reviews the current movement to downsize urban schools to help educators decide whether and why to pursue such a move, and to indicate which models appear most promising. This report comes from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.
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