Business-Run School Seen on the Sidelines in Chicago

By Jonathan Weisman — December 05, 1990 11 min read

Chicago--In 1988, amid applause from community members, educators, and public officials, a coalition of 15 corporations here opened a tuition-free private school designed to turn around the troubled West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale and possibly launch an education revolution.

Two years later, the gleaming Corporate/Community School makes a striking visual impression in a setting marked by vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.

But, with the city’s bold public-school reform effort now under way, the unusual private school has increasingly found itself on the sidelines of the drive to improve education. The once-intense local interest surrounding the school has turned to resentment, suspicion, or just indifference, a number of educators and reform advocates here say.

“It may have been a good idea that would have had an impact on a stagnant situation, but it came at precisely the moment when parents and activists were seizing power over their [public] schools,” William Ayers, an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former deputy mayor for education, said recently. ''Now it’s just a sidelight. ... The timing was just miserable.”

With the public system’s reform experiment barely a year old, the widespread feeling is that any move away from public education undermines that effort, added Linda Lenz, the editor of Catalyst, a magazine devoted to Chicago’s efforts to decentralize control of its schools by vesting power in local school councils.

The argument is that “you don’t help the public schools by creating a private school,” Ms. Lenz said. “You start with what you’ve got and try to change it.”

The Corporate/Community School--completely funded and operated by Chicago-based businesses--has combined a corporate structure, community outreach, stringent staff-hiring practices, and strict accountability to establish what its founders hope will be a nationally emulated model for reform. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987.)

The school is projected to reach full enrollment in the next school year, with 300 students from prekindergarten through 8th grade, starting at age 2. Students are chosen randomly from neighborhood applicants.

Organizers say the school’s approach to improvement is simple: get the best staff members possible, pay them good salaries (about 10 percent higher than the Chicago average), give them the material support they need, and hold them accountable for the results. The market, not the central office, will drive innovation, they say.

School officials point to the corporate-style governance and management structure as the school’s most distinctive feature. It is governed by a board of directors comprising executives from sponsoring companies, including Sears, Roebuck & Company and the Quaker Oats Company; local educators, drawn primarily from higher education; and community representatives, including a parent.

Administrative power rests with the principal, designated as the school’s chief executive officer. The performance of the entire staff is subject to annual review by the board of directors, at which time each staff member’s one-year contract is either renewed or terminated. There is no system of collective bargaining for teachers.

“It’s no different from what we do in corporations,” said the school’s founder and president of its board of directors, Joe Kellman, a Chicago glass manufacturer and philanthropist. "[The staff] knows if they don’t turn out a quality product, they’ll be turned out.”

When Mr. Kellman approached the Chicago Teachers Union in 1987 for an endorsement of the project, the union refused because it was “not supportive of the privatization of education,” Pamela Massarsky, the union’s recording secretary, said. “His efforts should have been directed toward public schools, since significant change was about to take place.”

But defenders of the school say such arguments miss the point of the private institution.

The city’s deputy mayor for education, Lourdes Monteagudo, said the public schools need support, but also need the model of site-based management, early intervention, and community involvement the Corporate/Community School provides.

Marj Halperin, a spokesman for the Chicago public schools, agreed that the school could be of use to public-school reform. Because its corporate sponsors can give it extra attention, she suggested, the school’s faculty members can afford to experiment in ways public-school teachers cannot.

Besides, Ms. Monteagudo said, philosophical hair-splitting should not get in the way of a child’s education.

“As long as they’re serving children in need and serving them well,’' she said, “it doesn’t matter what vehicle they’re using.”

Public System ‘Denigrated’?

Critics of the corporate school contend that much of the controversy has been brought on by Mr. Kellman.

“By his own statements, Kellman has said publicly that the whole theory of Chicago school reform is flawed, that putting the community in charge of the schools is ridiculous, and the only way to run a school is by corporate means,” said Joe Reed, president of Leadership for Quality Education, a business group focused on public-school reform.

“My position has been, ‘More power to you. I’m not interested in making comparisons,”’ Mr. Reed said. “But Kellman insists on making comparisons and denigrating our efforts in Chicago.”

Mr. Kellman makes no effort to hide his belief that Chicago’s public-school reform is doomed to failure.

“Decentralization is 20 years old in [the New York City school system] and look where it’s gotten them,” he said. “Detroit tried it 11 years ago and then junked it. Maybe [reform advocates] need three to four years of disaster before they get the message.”

But administrators of the corporate school are quick to blunt Mr. Kellman’s criticism and invite public-school cooperation.

“This school is an appropriate avenue for public educators to express their desires for change and see those desires implemented,” said Walter L. Kraus, secretary of the school’s board of directors and assistant to the chairman of Baxter International Inc. “The point of the school is not to bash. The point is to give that opportunity.”

A district superintendent for the Chicago public schools currently serves as one of the education representatives on the private school’s board.

Last spring, the school began setting up seminars for teachers from its staff and the staffs of neighboring public schools. So far, between 400 and 500 teachers and administrators have participated in English and mathematics training, said Elaine Mosely, the school’s principal.

Letters from principals of participating public schools praised the ''collegiality” and “generosity” of the Corporate/Community School staff.

“We’re not sitting in a lighthouse looking down on the people below, telling them to look up to us,” Ms. Mosely said. “Our interaction puts us in the trenches with them.”

School administrators also point to a community-outreach emphasis similar to the public schools’. Parent representatives sit on the board of directors and on teacher-selection committees. Teachers meet with parents to develop curricula, and three workshops were held last summer to encourage dialogue between parents and teachers. The school also sponsors adult-education courses.

School officials say the outreach programs are not necessarily by design, but are an outgrowth of the school’s commitment to accountability. Debbie Adolphson, a teacher at the school, said her frequent trips to parents’ houses are not mandated by the central office. If a student is having trouble concentrating, she said, she seeks out the source of the problem because that is just good teaching.

But such efforts do not impress some public-school supporters, precisely because they are so similar to the new form of governance at the heart of the public system’s reform efforts.

In the public schools, local councils--dominated by parents--choose their principals, who are held accountable for the performance of the teaching staff. The idea behind the reform movement is community participation, Mr. Reed of Leadership for Quality Education said.

“There are very few if any elements of good school practices that they are trying out that we don’t already know about,” Mr. Reed maintained. “I’m not sure that the Corporate/Community School as a laboratory can be afforded if it’s not adding significantly to what we already know is needed.”

Even some community members have become suspicious of the new corporate presence in their neighborhood, according to Clyde Williams, the owner and proprietor of the local Ace Hardware store. Because of North Lawndale’s proximity to Chicago’s downtown business district, he warned, gentrification could send the neighborhood’s low-income residents fleeing before the school can make an impact.

The school “is a bright idea, a great idea,” Mr. Williams said, “but by the time the bugs are taken out of the system, I’m suspicious it won’t be serving the same clientele.”

He said he suspects the school will eventually become a profitable private school for the children of young professionals who might begin to encroach on the neighborhood.

Primus J. Mootry, a member of the school’s management team, said he shared some of that concern. But he contended that gentrification will not quite reach North Lawndale, and if it does, the new residents will be working-class and not significantly more affluent than current residents.

For Mr. Mootry, executive vice president of the Better Boys Foundation, a civic group active in North Lawndale, and other school officials, the pricetag is the main concern.

The school spent more than $2.1 million between March 1987, when it was conceived, and March 1989. More than half of that was start-up costs, with the $5,100-per-pupil expenditure slightly higher than the figure for the public system.

Mr. Kellman said he wants to bring per-pupil expenditures down to public-school levels to prove that the corporate school can operate year-round, 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. daily, with a full-day preschool and a more highly paid staff, for about the same cost as a public school. It can be done, he contended, by keeping out the fat that has swelled the budgets of public education nationwide.

Other school efforts, such as the community-health-care outreach program and adult education, are not figured into per-pupil expenditures, Mr. Mootry said.

He cautioned that containing costs might not be as simple as Mr. Kellman argues. Quoting Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, Mr. Mootry warned, “There ain’t no cheap grace.”

“Savings from carving out fat will make a dent,” he said, “but it won’t support us.”

Corporations have promised to support the school through 1992, but the dollar amounts pledged so far are not enough, Mr. Kellman acknowledged. The board of directors is seeking to expand the school’s support to include contributions from foundations.

“I would be naive to expect corporate Chicagoland to carry this along indefinitely,” Mr. Kellman said.

But he hastened to add that he believed the board would find a way to keep the school afloat indefinitely, “even though our longevity is going to be opposed by education America, by union America, and by the bureaucrats who have gotten fat off the system.”

Despite the questions that have arisen about the school’s place in Chicago’s education-reform efforts, its leaders ultimately want to see their model implemented nationally. A Corporate/Community Schools of America office has been set up here apart from the school. A national advisory board advises on strategies to spread adoption of the model.

Mr. Mootry said corporations from several major cities have gotten in touch with the office, and he estimated that more than 1,500 business leaders, politicians, educators, and other interested individuals have visited the school.

Mr. Ayers of the University of Illinois expressed doubt that education is about to be rocked by a revolution that will make corporate models the norm. Mr. Kellman and others who view waste and bureaucracy as the barriers to good education, Mr. Ayers suggested, may be surprised to learn just how complex education can be.

Referring to a widely publicized book on school choice by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Mr. Ayers said, “In a sense, [the Corporate/Community School] has the same flaw as the Chubb and Moe approach,” which identifies free competition between public and private schools as the key to reducing bureaucratic constraints on education and boosting student achievement.

“They’ve identified one thing very well, and they’re right, but they’re not right enough,” Mr. Ayers continued. “They haven’t captured the complexity of why urban schools fail.”

Mr. Reed questioned the school’s ability to sustain itself financially, and asserted that some of the school’s corporate sponsors would like to see it ultimately become part of the public system. But, with the private school’s higher staff salaries, he said, that might not be possible.

Whatever its eventual fate, the school has already earned high marks from those who are perhaps its staunchest supporters: the parents.

“There are very supportive people here,” said Diane Gray, who attends adult-education classes at the school and has a 9-year-old son, Tyshauwn, enrolled. “The home life between my son and I has come a very long way. I think the school has made an outstanding mark on the community.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Business-Run School Seen on the Sidelines in Chicago