[Homestead] Education, don't be afraid to experiment, copy what works
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Thu Sep 23 00:47:51 EDT 2004
Small schools are an obvious choice for experiment. Not so long ago
there were NO larrge schools.
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from the September 21, 2004 edition
Chicago hope: 'Maybe /this /will work.'
A struggling urban district invests in the belief that smaller will
prove to be better.
By Amanda Paulson
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
CHICAGO – Come next fall, Chicago's DuSable High School, one of the
city's most historic - and lowest performing - schools on the South
Side, will be reborn as several small schools.
Douglas, Austin, and a handful of other elementary and high schools,
some of which have already been closed, will also get a major makeover.
Can competition really improve schools?
In failing schools, how real is transfer option?
An education rebellion stirring
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Those new schools, however, are just the beginning of one of the most
ambitious school reform projects ever undertaken. Cities across the
United States will be watching closely as - over the next six years -
Chicago shuts some 60 schools and creates 100 new ones.
Beyond just closing and opening schools, the plan is one of the broadest
endorsements yet of the "small schools" philosophy that has taken root
over the past decade. Almost all the new schools will have a small
number of students - less than 500 - and will emphasize personalized
learning and greater staff and student interaction.
In some respects, however, the plan is also the district's way of
admitting that it doesn't have all the answers when it comes to
bolstering some of its lowest-performing schools. That's why the doors
are being thrown open to outside experts who will be invited in to share
Only about a third of the new schools will be run by the district. The
rest will be charters or contract schools run by independent
organizations, and all will be subject to five-year reviews. Those that
don't make the grade can expect to be reformed anew.
It's a bold and risky plan that is creating a fair amount of controversy
here in the city and has been called by turns visionary or foolhardy.
Parents worry their kids will be guinea pigs, facing a different school
and educational philosophy every few years, and some experts question
the advisability of putting so much faith in structures - like small
schools or charters - for which little long-term data are available.
Others say that given the dire straits of public education in big cities
like Chicago, a plan like this is the only thing that could work - a
large-scale project that doesn't just shuffle people around but
drastically reenvisions the landscape of urban education.
"It's loaded with incredible opportunity but also with significant
challenges," says Timothy Knowles, director of the Center for Urban
School Improvement at the University of Chicago. He, like others who
cautiously endorse the plan, says the real test is in details, such as
finding and training talented staff. "It's going to require people and
institutions to stretch further than they have if it's going to be
successful. But if you're gazing into the eyes of a class of
kindergarten students and asking yourself, is this the right thing, I
think the answer is: compared to the status quo, absolutely."
Parents and education activists don't necessarily agree.
Last week, the district released a draft policy for Renaissance 2010, as
the plan is formally known, and over the next few months officials and
community members will be hashing out the details of just what the first
new schools will look like. But even before the written plan came out,
some groups, particularly in the areas most affected, have been airing
In South Chicago, where a large percentage of the affected schools are
located, residents worry about constantly shifting students from one
school to another. They also complain about the lack of voice they've
had in forming this plan and wonder why these changes are coming only
now that public housing is being dismantled and many neighborhoods are
facing gentrification. At the heart of the rumblings is a deep distrust
of a city government that hasn't always been open and up front in the past.
"[The district] has no credibility with the community about the
decisions they're making," says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents
United for Responsible Education, a parent activist group. "Their idea
of community involvement is coming with a PowerPoint presentation, doing
a dog-and-pony show, listening to people say they don't like the program
and moving it to the next place."
Ms. Woestehoff worries in particular about the future of local school
councils (LSCs) - elected bodies with high parent representation that
govern current schools but which won't necessarily be a part of the new
charter or contract schools - as well as the effect of multiple
transfers on kids.
"Parents don't want their kids to be experimented on," she says.
"They're tired of it. We've had an awful lot of it in Chicago over the
Indeed, this is a city that has been at the forefront of school reform
since the mid-1980s, with a mixed bag of successes and misses. This
newest plan might be considered the third wave of school reform, after
changes to school governance (and the beginning of LSCs) in 1988 and the
move toward accountability - which included reconstituting failing
schools - in the 1990s.
When Chicago closed and reconstituted several schools back then,
staffing was the key issue, says G. Alfred Hess, director of the Center
for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. "The last 15 percent
of new hires they were simply exchanging each other's staff," he says,
even though turnover was required. "If you keep the same teachers, and
change the structure but don't change the way they relate to kids,
you're not likely to see changes in student achievement."
Proponents of the Renaissance plan argue that this wave of closings will
be very different from simply reconstituting schools. It will be instead
an overhaul of philosophy, size, and, in particular, governance. Each
new school will be based on a proposal drawn up by community members on
a transitional advisory council, or TAC. While the district will review
the schools' performance, the specifics - whether the school will be
charter, contract, or district-run; whether it will have a local school
council or appointed board; whether its employees will be union members
- will vary widely.
In the past, every new school, every idea for reform, came from the
central district office, says Greg Richmond, who is overseeing
Renaissance 2010. This plan is, in a sense, an acknowledgment by the
district that it doesn't have all the answers and a hope that by opening
the doors to outside groups, to principals and teachers and education
reformers with creative ideas of their own, some successful ideas will
find fertile ground.
"We want to be able to find people with not just ideas, but with their
own experiences and autonomy," Mr. Richmond says. "We want to be able to
have a portfolio of people who will run good schools and have a track
record, so that we can go to one of a dozen or two dozen proven
organizations and replace a school that doesn't work with one that does."
Where Richmond and other proponents see flexibility and the potential
for innovation, however, some residents see an abdication of responsibility.
"What you hear is less red tape, less bureaucracy, more autonomy," says
Shannon Bennett, assistant director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community
Organization in South Chicago. "To us that sounds like less
accountability to parents and communities.... We're desperate for
change, but out of all these schools that will open up, how many of
these models have been proven?"
Mr. Bennett's point, that little research backs up the idea that
charters, or small schools, necessarily have better performance, is a
central criticism of Chicago's plan. Several experts have questioned the
idea of such a major overhaul when it's unclear if the alternatives will
be an improvement.
Are small schools really the answer?
"It's easy to be enthusiastic about creating something new, but I think
what the charter experiment has taught us is that it's a lot harder to
run highly effective schools than one might think at the beginning, and
there's a lot of stored-up know-how and practice at the existing
schools," says Archon Fung, a professor of public policy at Harvard
University's Kennedy School of Government. "Why are reformers so
interested in revolutionary solutions to school reform when nobody can
say with confidence that any particular revolutionary solution is better
than any other?"
In fact, there are data out there, but they are hardly conclusive.
Charters have had mixed press nationwide lately, but the laws that
govern them vary from state to state. In Chicago, they've done fairly
well - better, on average, than district schools, according to a Chicago
Board of Education study.
As for small schools, they have consistently better attendance, lower
dropout rates, and fewer detentions. But improved academic performance
has been tougher to prove.
It isn't so much that small schools by themselves are the answer, says
Tom Vander Ark, director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to create small schools
around the country and in Chicago. "They only make success possible."
Other than a few selective schools that serve wealthy communities or
require entrance exams, "there are no successful large high schools," he
says. "We think every urban area in America should be working as
aggressively as Chicago."
Even the most ardent supporters of the plan acknowledge that the next
few years may be hard on some parents and students, and that having even
one school close - much less 50 or 60 - can be traumatic.
While Richmond consoles himself with the idea that if a new school
fails, he can replace it with a better one, that's less comforting to a
parent whose child has spent five years in the school that didn't work.
Still, the argument goes, the new schools can hardly be worse than the
status quo, and hopefully, they'll be better.
The teachers union, the LSC advocates, the parents with kids in closing
schools - "all these groups have good arguments and legitimate
concerns," says Professor Knowles. "I think the test is not to throw
away the whole initiative, but rather to look closely at the results as
these schools open."
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