Charter schools can make a difference

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With only 13 schools in a system of almost 600, Chicago’s charter school movement might seem like an interesting but unimportant sideshow. Cast against national studies finding “no evidence that charters are systematically doing better than public schools,” the sideshow may not seem like it’s worth the price of admission. That would be a serious misreading of the potential. To have an impact beyond their walls, charter schools don’t have to multiply to the point where they constitute a competing school system. Nor do all charters have to be stand-outs from the regular public schools. Rather, they need only produce some models worth emulating. And the movement that supports them needs to pay as much attention to this issue of cross pollination as to creating more campuses.

With its unique brand of governance, Chicago is an exceptionally fertile field for new approaches. Local school councils and principals have the freedom to craft much of their own programs, and the administration is putting pressure on them to succeed though its emphasis on test scores sometimes gets in the way of good instruction. In decades past, the CPS administration didn’t pay attention to anything outside the school system proper, including a parochial school system that was fully a fourth its size. Under a mayor who sees education more broadly–that is, doing whatever it takes to keep middle-class families in the city–this administration has even toyed with ways to save financially failing parochial schools. And, as Assistant Managing Editor Mario Ortiz describes in this issue, it has been especially creative in supporting charters to increase options for parents and kids.

However, the administration has failed to help schools learn from each other’s successes. Hundreds of Chicago educators have trekked to see the Central Park East schools in New York City and the Wesley Elementary School in Houston, Texas, schools that have taken very different paths to success. None of Chicago’s schools may be as distinctive, but some, such as Beethoven, Best Practice, Carnegie, Foundations and McCosh, which CATALYST has profiled in past issues, certainly stand up as replicable models. But who among CPS’s 25,000 educators has visited them?

Early in his administration, CEO Paul Vallas dumped a very good idea from the prior administration, identifying succeeding or improving Chicago public schools as demonstration sites. Just as teachers can’t learn how to teach better simply by reading about good teaching, faculties can’t learn how to get better–and local school councils won’t know what to push for–without seeing schools that are doing a better job with the same general student population. With its “own” set of schools, the charter school movement can get the cross pollination going. The Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center might even be interested in joining the effort by adding inside-the-system schools it has worked with. And the Teachers Task Force might throw in some of the more promising schools it has helped. Always wanting to be part of a good thing, CPS proper might help with logistical support.

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The Catalyst Editorial Board has decided to expand to 24 members and bring student voices to the table. Veronika Hayes, a junior at Perspectives Charter High School, and Omarr Tabbara, a senior at Lane Tech, will give us students’ points of view. Also joining us are William Burns, education and tax policy manage for the Metropolitan Planning Council; Barbara Eason-Watkins, principal of McCosh Elementary School; Sokoni Karanja, president of Centers for New Horizons; Marie Leaner, executive director of Communities in Schools; Robin Steans, a board member of the Steans Family Foundation; and Paul Zavitkovsky, principal of Boone Elementary School.