School & District Management

Chicago Grants to Help Break Up Large Schools

By Mark Stricherz — September 12, 2001 2 min read

With $12 million from Bill Gates’ foundation, some Chicago high schools will now make little plans.

Hoping to make the city’s high schools less anonymous and more personal, Mayor Richard M. Daley has announced that four to six of them will be divided into 15 to 20 schools-within-schools.

The five-year plan will be financed by the grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and $6.2 million from a number of Chicago groups.

Officials of the 432,000-student district, the nation’s third largest, said the grants will be targeted to low-performing schools.

“We have a number of high schools that are struggling academically, but also socially and emotionally,” said B.J. Walker, a top city official who helped the Chicago schools secure the grant. “We think this will give teachers an opportunity for more collegial settings, and there will just be less bureaucracy and bigness than we have now, so they can plan curriculum.

“Similarly, for the kids,” she said, “It’s an opportunity to be known and have a close relationship with teachers.”

For the Gates Foundation, the grants represent the latest effort to reduce the number of students in a given high school, particularly in cities, to fewer than 450. The foundation has underwritten small-school plans in Oakland, Calif.; New York City; St. Paul, Minn.; and Washington state, including Tacoma.

Underlying the grants is research, shown most recently in a study by the Bank Street College of Education in New York, supporting the idea that smaller schools help raise achievement and attendance, said Carol Rava, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

Missing Ingredients?

But some school observers and educators in Chicago questioned the value and practicality of the initiative.

G. Alfred Hess, a professor of education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was the lead author of a report, commissioned by the district and released in March, that found its high schools often hamstrung by poor teaching.

While commending much of the city’s 1997 efforts to improve its high schools, the study found that many teachers lacked academic-content knowledge, teaching skills, or faith that all their students could learn.

“They have not necessarily addressed the issue of teacher instruction, and I think the advocates of small schools would acknowledge that,” Mr. Hess said. “Attacking this is a major issue, and it’s a different sort of premise that small high schools may or may not help address.”

Deborah Lynch, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she was “very supportive” of the concept of smaller schools, but also sounded a note of caution.

Recalling that as a teacher she had worked in a school that was converted into smaller schools, she said that schools’ staffs must welcome such a change.

“There was no buy-in, no staff development. It happened in name only,” she said of her experience. Ms. Lynch also voiced disapproval that no school officials had called the union about the grants.

High schools may adopt the new setups as early as next fall, but most are expected to convert to smaller units by the fall of 2003 and 2004.

Low-performing schools will be the focus of the grants. To qualify, a school will need to show strong plans for student achievement.

“If you have a school where 12 percent of the student body reads below comprehension,” Ms. Walker said, “you need to show ways of improving reading.”

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