Exemplary Schools winners still waiting for rewards

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A new program to honor outstanding Chicago public schools offered winners accolades from colleagues and up to $70,000 to set up learning sites for other schools. But so far, the Exemplary Schools Program has been long on praise and short on cash.

After a rigorous application process, three high schools and 13 elementary schools won either for improving academic achievement or for setting up model parent and community programs. Academic winners had been promised $23,000 for last school year and $70,000 during 1996-97; those that won for model programs were to receive $11,000 and $35,000, respectively.

But at a June awards ceremony, each received a check for only $5,000, at the direction of Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. Meanwhile, Vallas decided to honor schools with above-average test scores, too. That decision, made after the application process was complete, boosted the winners list by some 50 schools, including some with selective admissions. These additional winners also received $5,000 checks.

As Catalyst went to press, Vallas said that each of the 16 original winners would get another $20,000 before the school year begins but that the amount available after that has not been determined and may be tied to test scores. “We may factor in an academic threshold,” he says.

Vallas also revoked the award to Chicago Vocational High School, which won a grant for outstanding leadership, saying the school’s test scores were too low. Vallas changed the name of the initiative to Exemplary Programs Project, too.

“It’s not my program,” says Vallas. “I agreed to continue the program, but I did some editing.” The original exemplary schools program was designed by a committee of 43 business executives, civic leaders and educators, including public schools Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James.

His “editing” has forced some schools to postpone efforts to set up learning sites.

“It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what kind of money you’ll get,” said Principal Marjorie Joy of Lee Elementary in West Lawn, which was cited for primary-grade math instruction. “We would like to develop the [learning site], but we can’t do it without funding.”

When Principal Sally Acker inquired about the grant for Funston Elementary in Logan Square, board officials told her the program was still alive but that funding was uncertain.

“Needless to say we’re very disappointed about that,” says Acker, whose school won for its parent and community programs. “We were promised $37,000.”

School reform advocates say the intent of the program was to recognize troubled schools that had made significant improvements. Earhart Elementary in Calumet Heights, for instance, made dramatic gains in reading and math scores; it won the award for improved primary-grade language arts. In 1992, fewer than 32 percent of Earhart’s students scored at or above national averages. Three years later, 60 percent were at or above national averages in reading, and more than 65 percent hit the mark in math.

That kind of performance can inspire teachers and students at problem schools to do better, notes Donald Moore, executive director of the school reform group Designs for Change. “There’s no better mentor for schools that are having problems than one that has turned itself around,” Moore says.

The selection process was arduous. Schools had to complete a lengthy application and open their doors for site visits. Winners were chosen by a team of 75 business, civic and educational leaders, who reviewed proposals and visited schools.

Though Vallas’ administration didn’t initiate the project, the School Reform Board did approve it, notes Moore. “The current board of trustees made a written promise (to exemplary schools) that they would have funds to set up learning sites,” he says.

But, says Vallas, “We’re not going to send out money just to send out money.”

Adds Chief of Staff Cozette Buckney: “We think there’s a better way to recognize schools that costs less money.”

Meanwhile, Olivia Watkins, director of best practices, says a how-to handbook is being prepared for learning sites and that exemplary schools eventually will be paired with other schools with similar demographics.