Educators skeptical about Mayor Daley’s teacher academy

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In a Jan. 4 campaign speech, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans for a new $30 million school that would be staffed by master teachers and double as a center for training new and veteran teachers—as many as 500 a year.

This National Teaching Academy of Chicago would be a joint venture of the Chicago Public Schools, the Golden Apple Foundation and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The announcement threw Chicago’s education community for a loop. In interviews with more than a dozen education leaders, Catalyst repeatedly was told that the mayor had run with an embryonic idea that few people even knew about. Most of these leaders were skeptical, if not down right derisive, and asked not to be identified.

“I’ve got a lot of questions,” said the head of one professional development organization. “For instance, who’s going to pay for this? I don’t think it should have been offered up until it was thought out, but this is an election year.”

Questions included:

Why the UIC and not other universities?

“UIC was chosen because the dean, Vicki Chou, and the programs there are very thoughtful and creative and are relative to the real world,” says Jean Franczek, chief of staff to the Reform Board. “Plus, I believe it is one of our top five suppliers of teachers for our schools.”

However, Chou says, “It is very important to me that other organizations and universities be involved in this. I don’t want this to be closed to other institutions.”

Cozette Buckney, the school system’s chief education officer, agrees, “We will work with other universities because we’ll want to know how can we provide positive experiences for their students for the entire time they are in school.”

Why spend $30 million on bricks and mortar?

“We are talking about a K-through-12 school, so we need the room,” explains Buckney. “It also is going to be a training facility, as well as a school.”

Franczek adds, “When you look at the cost that it will take to renovate and rehab an existing building, sometimes it’s cost efficient to go with something new.”

In the case of old Cregier High School, which now houses two small elementary schools and a high school, the board was able to rehab a building for less than it is spending on new ones. It spent $5.8 million on Cregier, while new elementary schools are costing $12.5 million to $23.5 million and new high schools are costing $30 million to $45 million.

Why a K-12 school when research as well as board policy support small schools?

“K-12 schools can have some problems,” says Paula Barron, a retired CPS teacher who works with student teachers at Northeastern Illinois University. “Sometimes the older kids harass the younger kids. They have different needs. Why not look at smaller buildings for different sets of kids?”

“We could use modules,” says Buckney. “Say the kindergarten through 3rd-graders are put in one wing, and the high school is in another wing. We have to look at all that. We want to design a school to accommodate our kids.”

In addition, Buckney says it will be several years before the academy will be K-12. “I think we may start out with just kindergarten through 3rd grade the first year, and add more grades as we go along,” she says.

How could the academy train 500 teachers a year?

“Five hundred students in a year— that’s off the wall,” says Genevieve Lopardo, dean of the College of Education at Chicago State University. “I don’t see how that will fly.”

Buckney agrees. “I have no idea where that number came from,” she says. “I know we can’t train that many students at one facility in a year. Someone must have thought that sounded like a good number.”

Where will the school’s students come from?

“This will be a neighborhood school,” says Buckney.

A number of individuals interviewed by Catalyst questioned whether poor children would be shortchanged because of the booming gentrification around the UIC. In mid-January, the Chicago Plan Commission agreed to expand a Near West Side redevelopment district, allowing the UIC to build 850 housing units as part of a $500 million campus expansion. Currently townhouses in the area cost some $300,000 to $400,000.

However, Buckney points out that the nearby ABLA public housing projects are being redeveloped. “Those families will not be displaced,” she says. “They will be moving to the new facilities built in the area. Those children will be able to go there. We want this school to be as normal a school as possible so our student teachers can get a feel for an average public school.”

So how will this work?

“Our main priority is to try to recruit new teachers into the system,” says Franczek. The academy will do that by serving student teachers, who then would get to know the system, she explains.

“This will not be a 10-week semester program,” says Buckney. “We are pushing the envelope on this one. We’d like to do a four-year program. Maybe the first year, student teachers are only observing; the second, being mentored; the third, being in front of the classroom for part of the time and, finally, their last year, student teaching.”

One education dean even questioned the master-teacher approach. “If you have a school of master teachers, that alone makes it not normal. I’m not saying [student teachers] need to be thrown in a school that is on remediation, but a school where 70 percent of the students are not reading on grade level and where many teachers are not board-certified, that’s the experience teachers need. I don’t think these teachers will be exposed to a variety of problems in this laboratory-school model. There are many universities that are paired with schools right now for teacher preparation in the field-based model, not in a lab.”

And in a departure from the mayor’s speech, Franczek says, “We’re not even thinking about retraining [current] teachers. That’s down the road. In fact, that’s not even part of Phase II.

Buckney has not ruled out retraining veterans, though. “Once we get the facilities open, we will look at that. We are not backing off of our original idea.”

In newspaper reports on the mayor’s speech, Buckney was quoted as saying principals should be allowed to mandate training for teachers doing unsatisfactory work. “They’d better be careful here,” said one teacher leader. “If teachers are mandated to attend this academy, you’ll have teachers hiding under their desks, and that will not help them do their jobs better. However, if this is not seen as something negative and they are invited to participate, teachers will beat down the door to get in.”

Who will pay for the building and program?

In his speech, the mayor singled out three foundations whose support would be sought, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. That was news to the foundations.

“I only know what I read in the newspapers,” said Ken Rollings, executive director of Annenberg. “We haven’t had any discussions with them. I can’t comment because I don’t know what this is yet.”

Both Peter Martinez of the MacArthur Foundation and Warren Chapman of the Joyce Foundation said the same thing.

Says Buckney: “MacArthur approached me about two years ago about some type of teaching facility. The UIC will kick in some funding, and we may possibly receive state funding. We’re looking at all of this now.”

Peg Cain, executive director of the Golden Apple Foundation, acknowledges, “We know there are lots of questions and not enough answers. We don’t have a site, a curriculum, a school, but we have a passion. We have an outline of an idea and are very much in the planning stages.”