School & District Management

Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — July 14, 2004 5 min read
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Chicago is embarking on a major initiative to convert at least 10 percent of its schools into small schools, most of which will be run by private operators. The controversial move expands the city’s role in the vanguard of districts experimenting with alternative school arrangements.

Underscoring the significance of the plan, Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled it himself, flanked by leaders in business, education, philanthropy, and community activism. Mr. Daley has been in charge of the nation’s third-largest school system since 1995, when a state law handed the mayor control.

Mr. Daley portrayed his plan, called Renaissance 2010, as a way to “shake up the system,” introduce fresh ideas that could save its lowest-performing schools, and provide more options for families and more personalized learning environments for students.

“We must face the reality that, for schools that have consistently underperformed, it’s time to start over,” the mayor said in announcing the plan on June 24.

The blueprint employs a variety of approaches that the Chicago public schools have been trying on a smaller scale. The district has opened new small schools and broken large ones into smaller schools-within-schools. It has reconstituted underperforming schools with new personnel. Seventeen charter schools operate there, and seven schools are run by outside groups under contracts with the district.

Renaissance 2010 would close up to 20 high schools and 40 to 50 elementary schools, reopening them as 100 or more small schools within six years. One-third of the new schools will be charter schools, double the current number. One-third will be operated under contracts, a fivefold increase. One-third will be operated by the district. Chicago currently has about 600 schools.

Most of the new schools would be housed in existing buildings. The district will pay for repairs and equipment, and business, civic, and charitable groups will assemble $50 million for other costs, half of which has already been raised.

“I’m blown away by the level of support for this,” the Chicago schools’ chief executive officer, Arne Duncan, said in an interview. “It’s staggering. We as CPS can’t do this alone. Collectively, we have a chance to do something extraordinary here.”

Part of a Trend

Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are just three of the large urban districts seeking answers to poor student performance by encouraging charter schools, contract schools, or small schools. (“High Schools Nationwide Paring Down,” June 16, 2004.)

Some observers of urban school innovation see Chicago’s plan—like any undertaken by a huge, troubled district—as potentially powerful, but fraught with challenges. Some criticize it for not articulating exactly how it will improve instruction.

Archon Fung, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who has studied Chicago’s school governance, said the city’s approach amounted to “replacing everyone on a hope and a prayer it will result in school improvement in some way.”

But Greg A. Richmond, who oversees the creation of new schools in the city, said the plan is not about finding “a fountain of secret curriculum” to fix low achievement, but giving school leaders the flexibility to customize approaches that are best for their schools.

Some question whether school reconstitution, a staple of Renaissance 2010, is effective as a tool for improvement. San Francisco reconstituted a group of schools in the mid-1980s, concentrating intensive resources and top-notch personnel in them, but many could not sustain long-term improvement, said Heinrich Mintrop, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Mintrop doubts that Chicago can focus sufficient attention on so many schools long enough to forge improvement.

Timothy Knowles is the executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago, which operates a charter school in Chicago and advises the district, but was not involved in forging Renassaince 2010. He said the plan is without question “one of the most ambitious school improvement efforts anywhere in the country.”

But to make it work, he said, the district must ensure a strong supply of well-qualified teachers and school leaders, a daunting problem for urban districts. The district must also restructure itself to support small and charter schools, and guarantee community members a strong voice in their schools, he said.

Some Chicago activists fear that the community voice will be eroded under Renaissance 2010. A 1988 state law that made Chicago a national model of decentralized school governance created local school councils, composed mostly of parents, teachers, and community members. They set their schools’ budgets and hire the principals.

Using a loophole in the law that permits alternatives to LSCs in small schools, Mayor Daley’s plan anticipates that of the 100 new schools, only those run by the district itself might have the panels.

“We think some things should be privatized, and we welcome the investment and support of the business community, but you can’t just do an end run around the LSC governance system,” said Andrew G. Wade, the executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, which trains and supports the school councils.

The district will evaluate the performance of the new small schools in part on their systems for ensuring parent and community involvement, said Mr. Richmond, the head of the office of new school creation. But Mr. Wade said no promise is as powerful as the legal authority to make school decisions.

To some, Chicago’s latest plan is another tug in the ongoing tension between centralizing and decentralizing school power. “This is political. It’s about who controls the schools,” said Julie Woestehoff, the director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a local activist group.

To others, it represents an unprecedented chance to help the neediest young people.

“We need to look at the schools that aren’t working and do whatever it takes to make them work. To do that, we’ve got to think outside the box,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, a Roman Catholic parish that serves a mostly low-income community on the South Side.

“There are a lot of children who are suffering,” said Father Pfleger, who backs Mr. Daley’s plan, “and we should not have to wait another generation before we get things right.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools

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