Chicago Board To Consider Plan To Overhaul High Schools

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In a software-applications course at Wendell Phillips High School here last week, a mixed bag of sophomores, juniors, and seniors copied a grammar exercise from their worksheets onto their computers.

Besides practicing word processing, the point was to decide which of two pronouns was appropriate in a series of short sentences: I or me, he or him, she or her.

The nine students present--most students had stayed away that day from the gang-plagued, 93-year-old school--weren't having much luck.

"Here come him and David," typed one. "Please bring Lindy and I some cool water," wrote another. "Susan and him were late today," ventured a third.

Classes such as these, in which students stumble over work they should have mastered years earlier, are more the rule than the exception in public high schools across this city.

That is especially true of the more than three dozen high schools the Chicago school district put on probation last fall, a process designed to force improvements in schools with dismally low test scores.

"Some of our schools have fallen into a morass of despair," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. "There are horror stories galore."

To break this chain of failure, the managers of the 422,000-student system are about to embark on a massive effort to revamp the city's 74 high schools. At stake, they say, is nothing less than the fate of the city's emergency plan to get its long-troubled schools on track by the turn of the century.

"Success in reforming education in Chicago hinges on our ability to solve the problems in our high schools," said Paul G. Vallas, the system's chief executive officer.

Phys. Ed. Targeted

Crafted from the recommendations of seven task forces with a total of 150 members, the redesign plan was introduced in draft form in December and is expected to come before the district's reform board of trustees for consideration later this month.

It reflects the contributions of players from all facets of the city's education community, and it has been well-received by the local news media.

"There is a realization throughout the system that our high schools need to be reformed," Mr. Vallas said in an interview last week.

Even as he spoke, however, a part of the plan that would cut back on physical education was running into stiff opposition from teachers and parents. District officials say the change is needed to free more time for academics.

Over the objections of many physical education teachers and the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, the school board voted last week to seek a waiver to the state's requirement for daily gym classes. That would force many teachers to retrain or lose their jobs, and union officials vowed to fight it.

Mr. Vallas, who has forged strong relations with the teachers' union since he was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995, predicted that last week's fight over physical education would not be the last time his efforts to turn around the high schools would cause friction.

"The majority of teachers want real reform, and real reform means more rigorous courses, higher standards, and accountability," Mr. Vallas said. "But over the next few months this is going to test the relationship we've built with the teachers' union and with the teachers."

Job Losses Predicted

The strain will arise in part, he said, from the move from watered-down academic courses and electives to more rigorous requirements in English, mathematics, science, social studies, and foreign languages.

Under the draft plan, schools could adapt any number of redesign plans, including one based on the city's four-year Catholic high schools, or create their own. "What they cannot do is remain unfocused, undemanding, and uncaring," the draft report states.

The common thread of redesign efforts in the various schools would be an emphasis on mastery of a core curriculum bolstered by new tests that would determine when students are ready to advance. Elective courses would be scaled back, but vocational and career programs linked to job sites would be strengthened.

"People will balk at the restructuring of the curriculum," Mr. Vallas said.

"While some teachers will be able to deal with it through retraining," he added, "there are some teachers who are going to be dislocated. But it's perfectly within my rights to prescribe the curriculum, and I'm going to do it."

Last fall, the district placed 109 low-performing schools on probation, including Wendell Phillips and 37 other high schools.

Reconstitution Likely

It is in those high schools, where crumbling conditions, discouraged employees, and alienated students are the norm, that the district will push local officials to redesign their curricula by next fall.

In some cases, those schools would not be able to solve their myriad problems without the radical staff shake-up known as reconstitution, a development that Mr. Vallas said would further test his rapport with the union.

In other cities where it has been used, reconstitution has involved forcing all or most of a school's professional staff to reapply for their jobs--most of them unsuccessfully.

"There will be some schools that will probably have to be reconstituted in September," Mr. Vallas said.

While the district has not yet determined precisely what form reconstitution will take in Chicago, Mr. Vallas said it would be flexible to account for different problems schools face.

As the high school restructuring and probation processes move forward, Mr. Vallas said, "the battles will be fought over the elimination of jobs."

Despite such predictions, Ms. Gallagher of the CTU said the union is optimistic that whatever differences may emerge in the coming months will not severely damage the union's detente with the district.

"I think there's not going to be a horrific abandonment of teachers by the board for what they see as restructuring," Ms. Gallagher said. "Because of the quality of the people running the district, I think in Chicago it's going to be a cooperative effort."

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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.
  • More information is available on the Chicago Public Schools Web page, including updates and the latest news from the Chicago Educator, the schools' newsletter.
  • 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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