Aspiring to set the pace for other big-city school districts, Chicago leaders announced last week that they have undertaken a major rethinking of their high schools that will yield a strategic plan touching the entire 430,000-student school system.
Announced by Mayor Richard M. Daley, the strategic-planning process is being paid for with a $2.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its push to ratchet up graduation rates and college readiness nationwide. Last week, the Seattle-based foundation also announced five other grants to help create new small high schools in Chicago and develop leaders for them.
Expected to take 10 years to roll out, the city’s planned overhaul of its high schools will go well beyond its Renaissance 2010 plan, officials said. That controversial initiative, launched last year, aims to replace 60 low-performing schools with 100 new, smaller ones by the decade’s end.
“This is a huge deal for us,” Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer, said in an interview last week, referring to the strategic plan. “We’re not looking for incremental change, we’re looking for transformation.”
A chief element of the plan will map ways for the district to support restructuring and instructional improvements at the school level, officials said.
“We’re operating on the assumption that the school is the unit of change, but we need a system that will support change,” said Laurence B. Stanton, the district’s chief officer for planning and development.
Although the district just went public with the initiative last week, it has been under way since January under the direction of a steering committee. To date, it has involved meetings with groups of teachers, principals, students, and others.
“We’re really trying to unite the entire city behind this work,” Mr. Duncan said.
To help chart its course, the district is working with the Boston Consulting Group, a Boston-based management-consulting firm, and the American Institutes for Research, a prominent education research organization based in Washington.
The strategic plan is expected to be unveiled sometime this summer. The district intends to look for additional philanthropic support to carry it out.
While school leaders cited figures showing that barely half the city’s high school students graduate in four years, Mayor Daley contended in a May 19 statement that “Chicago’s no worse off than other large urban districts.”
Still, he pledged that the city would break ground by being “the first in the nation to change those statistics.”
“One district has to find a way to ensure that students are prepared for success after high school,” said Mr. Daley, who has had direct control of the city’s schools for a decade. “That district will be Chicago.”
For its part, the Gates Foundation is billing the Chicago effort as a milestone in its drive to make big-city school systems more hospitable to the kinds of smaller, more rigorous, personalized high schools that it has spent roughly $1 billion promoting for the past five years.
The foundation has committed large sums to help set up new high schools and to restructure existing ones in many cities, through grants to a wide range of local and national organizations.
In selected districts, it has also indirectly supported strategic efforts to rethink policies affecting high schools. Those district-directed grants have been rare, but foundation officials expect to make more as they expand their efforts to influence policy at the district, state, and national levels. (“Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools,” March 9, 2005.)
“Chicago is an example of how we hope to work with districts in the future,” Tom Vander Ark, the foundation’s executive director for education, said in an interview last week. “So while it might be unusual historically, it will be typical going forward.”
Mr. Vander Ark said the foundation is not insisting that the district’s plan involve making all high schools small, even though it feels “no less strongly about the importance of personalization” than ever. “The only thing that we’re firm about is that they have high academic goals for all students, and all kids in Chicago should have really good options,” he said.
In addition to the district’s planning grant, the foundation announced a five-year, $6 million grant to the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement both to replicate a charter school it runs and to help start up seven other new charter high schools in the city.
Two high-performing charter schools in the city also got grants for replication. The design of the 460-student Noble Street Charter High School, a 5-year-old school that last year posted the highest composite score on state tests of all charter schools in the city, will be copied at two new schools under a $1.4 million grant. And Perspectives Charter School, a 280-student school for grades 6-12, is receiving $550,000 to build its capacity to replicate and to set up one additional school.
Other grants include $786,000 to New Leaders for New Schools to support the New York City-based nonprofit group’s training for principals for Chicago public schools.