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After a series of efforts that failed to improve achievement in a handful of Chicago’s worst schools, district leaders have announced their newest strategy: to “turn around” eight schools at once by firing all of the teachers and principals and replacing them with better-qualified educators by next fall.
The plan, which is drawing both strong support and skepticism, targets high schools and elementary campuses in impoverished neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides. One of the targeted schools is Orr High School, which was broken up into small academies as part of the city’s $26 million Chicago High School Redesign Initiative five years ago.
Casting the drastic measures as a “moral obligation,” district officials say the strategy diverges from earlier attempts because it makes overhauling the entire staff at targeted schools its centerpiece.
“In the past, we’ve changed themes, we’ve changed curriculum, and in some cases, there would be some staff changes, but none that were ever accompanied with the kind of intense professional development that will be done for staff that will go into these schools,” said Barbara J. Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer for the 409,000-student system.
Some local education activists and experts are leery. They call the plan another top-down prescription that leaves out parents and community members, and causes disruption for students, most of them poor and African-American.
“We don’t want to see all of our teachers fired, because many of them are really good, and they know our kids,” said Angela Wilkerson, a parent and the president of the local school council at Mose Vines Academy, one of the small schools on the Orr High campus.
Others call the move bold and necessary for schools that have failed for years to make adequate achievement gains on state exams.
“Frankly, it would be much easier and more politically sophisticated for the district to allow some of this stuff that clearly hasn’t worked to keep going on, like the small schools at Orr,” said Greg Richmond, the Chicago schools’ former chief officer for new schools development and now the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
The turnarounds are part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan, a program for closing low-performing schools and replacing them with 100 new, small schools by the end of the decade.
District officials said they will hold public hearings on the proposal, which still needs to be approved by the Chicago board of education. But new principals for the eight targeted schools already have been selected, said Alan Anderson, the director of the district’s office of school turnaround.
New teachers will be chosen, and an intense program of professional development offered to them over the summer—a change from earlier school shake-ups in Chicago when campuses shut down for a year and students went elsewhere until the schools were reopened.
The turnaround effort at Harper High School and two elementary campuses that feed students into the South Side high school will be managed by the district itself.
To manage the overhaul of the three academies at Orr—which will be combined into a single, comprehensive school—and the two elementary schools that feed into the West Side campus, the district tapped the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a Chicago-based nonprofit teacher-training and school management program that is already operating two “turnaround” schools. (“Teacher Pipeline Part of Operation to Lift a School,” Nov. 1, 2006.)
The Sherman School of Excellence, which the AUSL took over in the fall of 2006, saw a modest improvement in test scores last spring, after it got a new principal and a nearly complete overhaul of its teaching staff. Many of its new teachers were trained by the academy and received support from mentor teachers.
“In one year, Sherman’s academic slope started trending up,” said Donald Feinstein, the executive director of the AUSL. “We had a 7 percent increase in state results last year.”
At a second elementary school that the leadership academy began operating last fall, attendance has gone from 89 percent last school year to 94 percent so far this year, Mr. Feinstein said.
At Orr High, the AUSL will use its same mix of veteran teachers and newer, academy-trained teachers, as well as longer school days and a longer school year, Mr. Feinstein said.
Critics say the AUSL doesn’t yet have a proven record.
“The overall achievement gains have been quite modest, so when you base or hype a model on schools that haven’t yet shown dramatic progress, there is little reason to believe that the results are going to be any different,” said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago education reform group.
Teachers to Be Fired
Many in Chicago are also chafing at what will amount to the firing of 200 teachers across the eight schools. District administrators said those teachers will be able to reapply for their jobs.
“You can’t possibly have these schools where all 200 teachers are bad,” said Marilyn Stewart, the president of the 32,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “They keep trying to make teachers solely accountable.”
Said Michael Klonsky, the executive director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago: “The problem is that the communities these schools are in are impoverished. But still they expect these superstar programs to come in and solve problems in schools that are rooted in much more complicated social problems in the community.”
And parents like Ms. Wilkerson are angry that the re-created schools are unlikely to allow strong parental and community input through elected local school councils—a hallmark of many of Chicago’s public schools. She said the district has ignored the recommendations of her council at Mose Vines Academy to replace the principal.
Last week, members of several local school councils announced they would file a lawsuit against the district for ignoring state law and improperly demoting the panels to an “advisory” status in several of the new schools opened under Renaissance 2010.
At the same time, however, the district’s turnaround strategy has drawn some influential backers.
“Putting talent as your first key ingredient and thinking smartly about how you support that talent is the right approach for these schools,” said Janet Knupp, the president of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has raised roughly $25 million to support nontraditional teacher- and principal-training programs in the city. The fund has worked closely with the district to help identify key competencies for the principals and teachers to be hired to work in the schools slated for turnaround.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation late last month pledged $10.3 million to assist the AUSL in its efforts at Orr High and the two elementary schools. The foundation has poured money into Orr before—it was the main financial backer of the district’s high school redesign plans that began in 2002 and led to the breakup of Orr into small schools. (The foundation also provides support for Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report.)
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as District Leaders to Clean House at 8 Chicago Schools