College preps battered new policies proposed

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As the first school administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley left office over the summer, one of its signature programs, a citywide system of selective, college preparatory high schools, suffered repeated blows.

Only a month before last school year ended, parents who had signed up their children for the inaugural year of King College Prep were told the school’s opening would be postponed until September 2002. The reason: major renovations were not yet complete, and too few students had applied for admission.

Three months later and just weeks before classes were to resume, students attending Jones Academic Magnet were told they would be dispersed to two high schools and four colleges instead of moved en masse to a North Side school while their Loop campus was being rehabbed.

“The building at Near North [Career High School] had been painted, and we had moved everything out of Jones into Near North,” says Valencia Rias, a Jones parent council member. “The gym was filled with computers, books, everything. We were stunned.”

And at Lindblom, the board locked into a summer-long battle with the local school council over who would lead the school. In the end, the council’s hand-picked choice for principal won the contract.

By the time classes were back in session, the situation at two of the three schools had calmed.

Rias reports Jones students are comfortably settled in at Near North, a school that will be demolished to make way for Cabrini Green redevelopment. When parents got wind of the board’s plan to disperse students, they launched a massive campaign of phone calls and letters to the mayor, aldermen, state representatives and the media. CPS reversed its decision.

And King College Prep has trained and sent out recruiters to acquaint elementary schools with an impressive proposed new curriculum, and it’s beginning to get nibbles of interest from prospective students. Lindblom, however, remains in turmoil as it continues an extended transition into a college prep.

Meanwhile, the new CPS administration wants to make several changes to the program over all. For one, this elite group of schools will no longer be called college preps. They will be considered either magnet or selective enrollment high schools.

“Every high school has a college prep curriculum,” says Wilfredo Ortiz, who heads CPS’ Office of High School Development. “So we are no longer going to call them that. These schools are more like magnet high schools.”

As a result, the new and newly configured schools will join longtime selective magnets Whitney Young and Lane rather than the other way around. Last school year, the board added these schools to the college prep list.

Also, one school christened a college prep—John Hope—may lose the title. Under former Schools and Regions chief Blondean Davis, the 5th- through 11th-grade school, was given a college prep status. But according to Ortiz, school officials are taking another look at the school to see if it really fits this category.

“It could just be a magnet program within an elementary school,” says Ortiz. “We’ll see. I don’t know much about it.”

In a more controversial arena, the board is also considering how students get assigned. Currently, college prep principals choose top-scoring candidates from a list of eligible students. However, one source says central office is proposing to bring a general lottery instead.

School officials say they are still working on the details and decline to comment.

Meanwhile, LSC representatives from each of these schools formed the Friends of College Preps to keep abreast of the goings on at each school and to track whether resources are being distributed equitably among the elite schools. (In December, CATALYST reported the college preps on the North Side of the city had gotten more resources than the ones located on the South Side.)

The group is scheduled to meet with Ortiz at the end of October to discuss these proposed changes.

King: Not yet off the ground

Of all the new college preparatory high schools, King had the most time to plan.

Two and a half years ago, the school stopped accepting freshmen so that this year it could open with only its outgoing senior class and its college prep freshmen.

But neither central office or the school took advantage of that time. While King did some recruiting, it was not enough. This spring, only 71 freshmen applied to the school.

“Last year, we had open houses, but we didn’t visit enough. We didn’t push enough,” says Marguerite Mariama, a consultant at King who is also a performing artist and a former professor of educational psychology from New York.

And it was unclear to outsiders what the school was trying to become, says 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle. “There needed to be some clarity in the community about the school’s mission—that this would be a college prep and one of the finest schools in the city,” she says.

In the meantime, the building also started undergoing major rehab work so the school would look like a state-of-the-art facility. Contractors have begun work to install a distance learning lab, new science and computer labs and wiring for Internet access. Work is also underway to refurbish classrooms and offices, and to update the campus landscaping and fencing.

However, school officials underestimated how long rehab at the building would take.

“A day long project turned into a three-week project; a two-week project turned into 10 weeks,” explains Carolyn Tucker, communications director for operations. “This stuff is old and in some cases, we had to go slower than we expected for safety reasons.”

Still one CPS insider says there were delays because the administration gave, then took back money earmarked for capital improvements at King. “The board jerked [King] around,” says one school official. “The money for the repairs disappeared, which delayed the contractors.”

Tucker counters that some of the money may have been diverted to pay for unexpected emergency repairs at other schools. “There is only a finite amount of money we have to work with,” she says. “We stretch it anyway we can. There have been more pressing needs, but King is getting its work done. We’re doing the best we can.”

Besides, doing renovations while school was in session at Brooks and Jones proved to be a bad idea, she adds. King’s delayed opening will alleviate such disruptions.

“It is beautiful now and everyone is happy, but [Brooks] … was chaotic,” says Tucker. “That’s why we decided to move kids at Jones.”

The first phase of construction at King, making the school habitable, is scheduled for completion next fall. Work will continue through 2005.

This year, King has licked its wounds and is trying again to craft its pitch and take it on the road.

Athletics, for instance, will no longer be the school’s spotlight. Now King’s focus is academics with a choice of three elective programs—architecture and engineering, information technology and the performing arts.

“All the kids will take the college prep curriculum,” says Barbara Sizemore, a retired DePaul University education dean whose pet project is King. “The curriculum has been planned, … and has been approved by CPS. The staff is in place. I’ve been helping King connect with colleges like DePaul, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago and Columbia College.”

College instructors will serve as mentors to students. Someone who teaches film or lighting, for instance, may mentor a performing arts student.

King is also working with its university partners to align its curriculum to university standards. That would allow students the possibility of dual-enrollment—taking classes at King, for example, and getting college credits for it at DePaul.

“Students will not only be getting the credits they need to graduate, but will be preparing for careers,” says Mariama.

King is also developing relationships with other organizations. For example, in the performing arts program the school is talking to several theater companies, says Mariama, and has formed a partnership with Ravinia Festival. Similar partnerships will be developed for the other two

To sell its new school, King has cast a wider net to aggressively get the word out.

First, Mariama trained 10 recruiters—five new and five veteran teachers from King—for six weeks on how to effectively represent the school. Then they went to visit schools in the neighborhood and communities across the city to “tell King’s story.”

“King does not have a great reputation,” she says. “So we had to fix the image from the inside first, then go out and tell people what we are about. Our recruiters and their image is what sells the school. We couldn’t just send them out cold.”

The recruiters, who travel in pairs, visit about six schools a week. They make presentations to principals, school staff, students and parents. The group has also sent e-mails to schools, presented at individual school high school fairs and plans to hold an open house each month.

So far, King has gotten a good response. Administrators at Gillespie Elementary in Roseland has asked for a tour the school. After making a presentation at Reavis in Kenwood, Mariama says eager parents and kids who wanted to hear more surrounded her. She returned to King with 70 letters of interest.

“Teachers have been talking it up and people are really showing interest,” says Mariama. “I think we will have to turn people away next year.”

Lindblom: Infighting keeps conversion on hold

Since 1999, when the board decided to convert Lindblom High into a college prep and replace principal Cheryl Rutherford, the school has been in an upheaval.

In the last 12 months, the school has had three principals. Teachers say staff morale is low and the college-prep curriculum is not yet fully in place. (Under each new principal, staff had to reapply for their jobs.)

“We don’t know what’s going on,” said one teacher last year.

This summer, the local school council tried to replace its latest interim principal, Loleta McDowell with its own choice to lead the school. According to the council, McDowell failed to keep the LSC updated on the school improvement plan, spent internal accounts and other funds without LSC approval and would not follow LSC approved motions and policies. There was a laundry list of minor infractions as well.

However, the board balked, and a summer-long battle ensued.

“Lindblom is transitioning into a college prep,” said Deputy Chief Education Officer Carlos Azcoitia, in July, explaining the decision. “It’s important that that school have consistency and someone who knows the staff and the school. A new person can’t come in and know about these things.”

The board also alleged that the council hired its choice—former DuSable High School teacher Fulton Nolen, Jr.—illegally.

CPS contended that the LSC issued Nolen a contract before the applicant screening process was officially closed, and that it did not have enough votes to hire him. But later the board backed down.

Says Elaine Segal, the council’s attorney, “[CPS attorney] Marilyn Johnson determined that the vote was legit and the LSC had complied with the selection process.”

Nolen was installed; McDowell was reassigned to the Office of High School Development.

Battle fallout

The tug-of-wag over a principal has cost Lindblom any progress it could have made toward becoming a college prep high school.

Says one teacher, “This school has had two problems: fighting over who is going to be its principal and transitioning into a college prep. The issue of becoming a college prep has been secondary.”

Just weeks before the first day of class, Lindblom was not ready for school to open. “Computers were still in boxes and had not been installed, the building was dirty and dusty and there was no running water in the bathrooms,” says Sheila Frazier, a teacher rep on the LSC.

Rehab work was underway on the building’s exterior, not inside where the need was greater. Although, Nolen had already replaced McDowell, he did not assume responsibility for the school until three days before class started.

“When McDowell found out she was being replaced, she sat on her hands and put stuff on hold,” Frazier says. The board, which promised to conduct a safety inspection before students arrived, didn’t do its part either, she adds.

To try to get the work done, the council stalked CEO Arne Duncan, showing up at functions where he was scheduled to appear to get his attention.

Finally, the day before school started, the council played hardball and invited Channel 2 News and representatives from the alderman’s office to tour the school and view its condition. When school officials got wind of the plan, the work was then done overnight.

“I didn’t know it was possible to do so much in so little time,” laughs Richard Anderson, Lindblom’s LSC chair. At Catalyst press time, Lindblom’s school improvement plan had not been approved. Anderson says the council amended the SIP to include some curriculum changes, but McDowell would not approve them.

While McDowell had created three different programs in the curriculum—computer science, engineering, and fine arts—the council had polled students and wanted to add two more, law and pre-medicine.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t approve of what she had done, but we wanted to add some other areas,” says Frazier. “She wouldn’t do it.”

Now that Nolen is in place as principal, the council is currently reexamining the SIP to make sure its changes are included before final approval.

Meanwhile, the board’s commitment to converting Lindblom changed when the new leadership was installed this summer, say school staff.

Says one staffer, who asked not to be identified, “When the CEO left [Paul Vallas], all bets were off. Dr. Blondean Davis disappeared. She never returned phone calls when we had questions about curriculum. It was if she was sitting on her hands to see what the new administration wanted. No one knew what was going on.”

Davis later resigned.

Backlash hits teachers

When McDowell was shown the door, she took some of the faculty out with her—firing 13 teachers including Frazier and the other LSC teacher rep. Frazier also discovered that she’d also received a warning resolution from the board courtesy of McDowell. She plans to fight it.

However Ortiz, director of High School Development, says that McDowell was within her rights to get rid of the group, and that she was not acting vindictively.

“She was going through the college prep process by selecting her staff. They were interviewed and not selected,” he says.

However, when teachers complained and filed grievances, the board told union representatives the teachers could return to Lindblom. Five took the offer; the others accepted jobs at other schools.

“We asked repeatedly, ‘What was the criteria for displacing these teachers’,” says Earl Kelly Prince with the Chicago Teachers Union. “And we questioned why would an interim principal be able to replace staff a few weeks before she was to leave. They couldn’t tell us, so they invited the teachers back.”

In the meantime, the board assigned Ron Gibbs, the former principal of Near North Career Academy, to mentor Nolen.

“This is just on a temporary basis, for five or six weeks,” explains Ortiz. “[Nolen’s] never been a principal. There are construction issues, curriculum issues. We’re providing technical support.”

One Lindblom staffer says the LSC’s decision to hire a new principal was ill-timed. “McDowell should have stayed. I didn’t agree with everything she did, but she had hired smart, professional people. She was familiar with the school’s contracts and architects.

“To bring in another principal now is nuts, especially one without a distinguished background. There is nothing that shows me he can lead a first-class academic institution.”

Better recruitment

The new leadership will also have to find a way to attract more students. This year, Lindblom admitted 80 freshmen—only five more than it had the previous fall.

Repeated calls to Fulton Nolen to inquire about his vision for Lindblom and his plans to boost enrollment were not returned. Some observers say he is already distancing himself from the LSC, and the council may have to do battle again.

“He’s got too many people telling him what to do,” says one Lindblom insider. “Everybody is in his ear.” Still, Ortiz acknowledges Lindblom continues to have problems that need to be worked out. “It’s confusing to some people what’s going on over there,” he says. “That’s one school we plan to work with closely.”