City aims to hire ‘best and brightest’

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Since the Chicago School Reform Act gave principals the authority to select their own teachers to fill vacancies, the School Board has held a job fair each summer. Principals would eyeball candidates in brief interviews, inviting those who made a good impression and had the right credentials back to their schools for more extensive conversations.

Now, the system’s Department of Human Resources is experimenting with variations. One initiative involves a more sophisticated screening system.

After last June’s elementary and high school job fairs at Malcolm X College, the department screened 700 of the applicants for characteristics associated with effective teaching of low-income children. It then entered their ratings into a computer database that principals could consult. Of the 700, 351 won places in the public schools.

The department used an interview format developed by Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, that focuses on eight areas: organizational skills, stamina, creativity, human relations, planning, discipline, teaming and self-analysis.

Chicago is among 25 districts nationwide that use the format. A growing number of schools across the city have been using it since 1990, when Haberman, at the invitation of the Chicago Teachers Union, began training 25 to 30 principals and teachers each year to use it at their schools. Ideally, Haberman says, a principal and a faculty member would interview prospective teachers as a team. (Haberman also is a member of the Catalyst Editorial Board.)

The School Board’s experiment came under the command of Xiomara Cortes Metcalfe, a former personnel director for a bank holding company who joined the school system in 1994 to direct recruitment and staffing. “I’m determined to hire the best and brightest for our system,” says Metcalfe.

Trying to reach teacher candidates earlier than usual, the School Board now is holding its traditional job fairs in the spring—the high school event took place April 20, and the elementary fair is scheduled for the end of May.

Over this year’s winter holiday break, Metcalfe’s office also threw an open house for education students, drawing 250 guests. “That’s not a humongous number, but we’re interested in forging relationships with schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago, who have traditionally ignored us,” relates Metcalfe.

School Reform Board President Gerry Chico has a standing bet to pay Human Resources Director Thomas Doyle $50 for the first Harvard alumnus he snares. “I have three people who live at 54th and Harvard, but that doesn’t count,” cracks Doyle.

Yet, this year the board’s new hires did include alumni from such prestigious institutions as Dartmouth College, Duke and Cornell universities and the University of Chicago; 17 came from the University of Wisconsin, 12 from Northwestern, and 10 from the University of Michigan.

Also this year, the University of Illinois at Chicago toppled Chicago State University from its long-held perch as the No. 1 supplier of teachers to the Chicago public schools. Of some 1,300 teachers hired between July 1, 1995 and Jan. 22, 1996, 113, or 8.6 percent, came from UIC. Chicago State and Northeastern, both institutions that grew out of former teacher colleges, were practically tied for second, with the former supplying 96 and the latter 95.

Victoria Chou, associate dean for academics at UIC, attributes the new standing to two relatively new practices: placing all student teachers into Chicago public schools and encouraging faculty members to recommend their students to Chicago principals.

Robert Roemer, dean of the College of Education at Loyola University, also speculates that public institutions place proportionately more of their graduates in city schools because their lower tuition attracts more city students.

“The people who can afford our tuition [$13,000 a year] in general are from the suburbs,” he says. “If you live there and you read the papers, you figure the city schools are dangerous and gang-ridden.”

Even so, some 55 per cent of Loyola’s graduates end up in urban settings, says Roemer.

Chicago State sends two-thirds of its education students into the Chicago public schools. Northeastern Illinois now sends roughly 45 percent into the city’s schools.

One counterbalance to the city schools’ bad reputation is their relatively high starting salary. At $28,742 a year (plus benefits and a 7 percent pension contribution), Chicago compares favorably with elementary districts in such tony climes as Winnetka ($30,000) and Hinsdale ($28,500).

Beginning next year, the system also will shed a longstanding impediment to recruitment: teachers will not be shifted from one school to another during the first weeks of school to accommodate any unexpected fluctuations in enrollment. In the past, that burden has fallen largely on recent hires.