School & District Management

Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — July 14, 2004 5 min read

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.”

Related Tags:

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion COVID-19 Ripped Through Our Emotional Safety Net. Here’s How My District Responded
Three years after overhauling its approach to student mental health, one California district found itself facing a new crisis.
Jonathan Cooper
2 min read
A young man stands under a street light on a lonely road.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion Students Need Better Connections. To Wi-Fi, Yes, But Also to Teachers
We have to fix our digital divide, but let’s not lose sight of the relationship divide, writes one superintendent.
Susan Enfield
2 min read
A teacher checks in on a remote student.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion Superintendents Have Weathered a Lot of Vitriol This Year. What Have We Learned?
The pandemic turned district leaders into pioneers, writes one superintendent. We had to band together to make it through.
Matthew Montgomery
2 min read
A person walks from a vast empty space towards a team of people.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion Critics Complain My District Doesn’t Really Need Relief Aid. If They Only Knew…
District expenditures have ballooned in the pandemic, but many critics expect the opposite. How can leaders set the record straight?
Theresa Rouse
2 min read
A business person convinces colleagues by presenting a plan.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images