First Renaissance schools chosen as charter leaders depart

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Renaissance 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s signature effort to turn around failing schools, has kicked into gear amid leadership turnover both inside and outside the school system.

John Ayers, who as executive director of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE) was a leader in charter school law and development, tendered his resignation in December. Greg Richmond, who spearheaded charter school development inside the system, resigned in early February.

Multiple sources say both decided to quit after they saw significant parts of their portfolios moved elsewhere.

Instead of LQE, New Schools for Chicago, a new business-civic venture, will serve as the school system’s major external partner for Renaissance 2010, raising funds for and helping open new schools. New Schools for Chicago is based at the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which launched LQE in the late 1980s.

Phyllis Martin, the executive director of another Civic Committee offshoot, the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), began working with New Schools behind the scenes in November, and was tapped to lead it.

Meanwhile, within the Chicago Public Schools, a project team was put in place to oversee Renaissance start-ups, limiting the authority of Richmond’s team to the selection process. Lisa Schneider, who managed the public housing redevelopment plan for the Chicago Housing Authority, then joined CPS and led the short-lived Mid-South Initiative (another new schools effort that was bundled into Renaissance), was chosen to head the new team. Another key player on the team is Karen Daniels, a former Boston principal who joined CPS last summer to work on Mid-South.

Martin insists hiring a new project manager was not her doing, but says she thinks it is a good idea. “I’m sad that Greg’s leaving, [but] now you’re trying to do 100 schools,” says Martin. “It requires more than one person to make that happen.”

Richmond will leave his CPS post March 4 to become the full-time president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, an organization he co-founded in 2000.

The leadership changes came on the heels of the first concrete actions under Renaissance 2010. Here are the highlights:

JAN. 18 New schools chosen. The School Board presents the first 18 schools to be opened under Renaissance 2010—seven charter schools, eight regular schools and three so-called “performance schools,” which will operate inside the system but with greater flexibility.

The charter community was surprised at a number of the board’s choices. Neither Perspectives nor Chicago International, charters often praised by the administration, won its bid to take over Uptown’s Arai Middle School. Instead, the board chose a team of Arai teachers who partnered with some faculty members at Best Practice High to open a performance school that will extend through 12th grade.

Ald. Helen Shiller, whose ward includes Arai, acknowledges that she is not a charter-school fan, but she says, “I went into this with a willingness to look into everything.” Shiller says she was “really turned off” by the charter applicants because she felt they were more concerned with promoting their philosophies and replicating their programs than with the particulars of the community and its children. “It was all about their philosophy, even before the children,” she says.

The Arai teacher team initially proposed a performance middle school, but the board insisted that the new school be a high school, says team member Chor Ng. Best Practice, one of the city’s first free-standing small schools, had fallen on hard times with changes in leadership.

Perspectives will continue to search for a site where a new school could open next fall, says Diana Shulla-Cose, who co-founded Perspectives and is spearheading its replication efforts. Since Perspectives is among the charters allowed to have multiple campuses, it could expand simply by getting board approval to amend its charter.

The seven new charters are broadly distributed across the city: three on the West Side, three on the South Side and one on the Northwest Side.

This pattern is in contrast to a December report by the Chicago Tribune, which identified five charters likely to make the cut, all but one of them on the West Side. Insiders speculate Mayor Richard M. Daley raised concerns about the geographic concentration, prompting the board to spread out the schools. In the end, only three of the five applicants named by the Tribune got charters.

Meanwhile, another school effort named in the Tribune article is still percolating. “We were pretty jarred by a news story that said we were about to be approved for a charter at Flower, when we were still in the application process,” says Lila Leff, executive director of Umoja Student Development Corporation.

Umoja’s school proposal is one of a number under consideration by the Flower Transition Advisory Council, which will make recommendations to Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan. Duncan decides which schools go to the board for approval.

Meanwhile, leaders of the small high schools that will be housed in the new Little Village facility are jousting with central office over whether to operate as a regular small schools or performance schools, which get greater flexibility in return for meeting standards set in a five-year contract. The local leaders want the new schools, which emerged from the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, not Renaissance 2010, to be regular small schools, in part for financial reasons. (See related story)

JAN. 25 Charter failing. Meanwhile, one charter applicant that launched its program in September under the umbrella of another charter was falling apart. City as Classroom High School, which started the school year with 45 freshmen under the umbrella of the Youth Connection Charter School, failed to get a charter of its own and withdrew its application. At a Youth Connection Charter board meeting in late January, executive director Sheila Venson said the school was already losing students and might have to close before the end of the school year.

JAN 28. Closing guidelines. The School Board announced guidelines for closing schools under Renaissance 2010, addressing both academic and logistical issues. Elementary schools will be eligible for closing if they fall into all of these categories:

For the previous four years, fewer than 25 percent of students scored at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS).

For the previous four years, fewer than 25 percent met standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests.

Their average yearly gains in reading on the ITBS were less than nine months.

The school was on probation for more than one year.

The principal was in place for more than two years.

The school is located near a better-performing school that can accept students.

The criteria for high schools are the same except in the area of test scores and proximity to alternative attendance centers. For high schools, the test-score standard is fewer than 10 percent of students meeting standards on the Prairie State Achievement Test. And, while elementary school alternatives must be within safe walking distance, CPS does not specify how close alternative placements must be for high schools.

Moreover, schools that fall into all the categories would be spared if closing them would spell multiple moves for students within two years, as happened with other recent closings.

Senior policy advisor Lisa Scruggs says the guidelines reflect community concerns arising from previously announced closings and garnered through a public comment process that brought in more than 500 responses.

FEB. 1 School closings. The board announced that three elementary schools—Bunche on the South Side and Grant and Howland, both on the West Side—would be closed in June, and that Englewood High would stop taking in freshmen.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.