Bringing fairness to repair plans

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After months of complaints from principals, local school council members and even members of the Reform Board’s own Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee, school officials are promising a new day in the conduct of their massive school construction and repair program. They’ve come up with specific plans to keep schools informed and give them a say in the work. Bravo. New operations chief Tim Martin also says public comment will be sought on overall planning, in effect promising to take public hearings and the Blue Ribbon Committee seriously.

What’s unclear is whether officials will have their ears cocked for the best local sales jobs or for ideas about distributing scarce dollars equitably. In a surprising bit of candor, Martin acknowledged that the system’s m.o. has been to oil the squeaky wheels first. Make a good, loud case for your school, he says, and you’ve got a good chance of getting results. That’s a formula for leaving the have-nots behind. As Associate Editor Dan Weissmann’s painstaking analysis of board data shows, there was little correlation between spending and need during the first year of the Reform Board’s school repair program. It’s not that the lucky schools didn’t have needs; rather, in many cases, other schools had greater needs but apparently less moxie or clout.

Congratulations are due all around for the continuing rise in test scores in the elementary grades and an upturn in high schools. The kids, teachers and principals did the work. But the Reform Board and administration made them do it or at least made them do it harder. The new promotion policy put pressure on students and no doubt made a difference among high schoolers, who used to blow off the tests. Probation, though problematic in many regards, put overdue pressure on schools.

As when an increase in elementary scores was announced last year, school officials trumpeted their initiatives, and early school reformers noted theirs. The truth is worth pursuing—not simply to apportion credit but also to help the Reform Board and schools spend their money wisely. The Consortium on Chicago School Research has done some broad studies. But what about specific policies and programs, like alternative schools, Direct Instruction, Coalition of Essential Schools, School Achievement Structure? What’s working, where, and why? What’s not working? Answering those questions is part of the Reform Board’s job.

MORE AWARD WINNERS Catalyst staff and contributors have received four Distinguished Achievement awards this year from the Educational Press Association of America. The entire staff was cited for the June 1996 issue on discipline in high schools. Former Managing Editor Lorraine Forte, now with the Chicago Sun-Times, was the lead writer. Associate Editor Debra Williams won for her news story “Probation stuns schools that raised state test scores,” which appeared in the November issue. Free-lancer Grant Pick won for his profile of Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, which led off the December issue. And photographer John Booz won for his photo of a young girl wearing headphones who obviously is enthralled by the story she is listening to; the photo was published in the September issue. In addition, Elizabeth Duffrin and Linda Lenz were finalists in the Peter Lisagor Awards contest sponsored by the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists—Liz for her articles on Direct Instruction and Linda for her editorial on suspension.

CLARIFICATION In last month’s cover story on federal Title I, Karen Berman of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights comments on suspicions that students or parents lie to qualify for school free-lunch programs. Her statement is not a reflection of personal opinion, but rather an observation of notions held by some who are pushing for an audit of the free-lunch program.