First semester status report

Print More

The leadership team Mayor Richard M. Daley sent to Pershing Road has had a whirlwind first semester, launching dozens of initiatives both great and small. Asked whether the Chicago Public Schools was becoming a “Christmas tree” system, CEO Paul Vallas responded with an emphatic “no,” saying, “It’s not like we don’t have a focus.” All the initiatives, he explained, are aimed at improving seven elements of good schooling: leadership, parent involvement, student achievement, instructional time, stability and predictability, safe and attractive schools, and small schools and classrooms.

BALANCED BUDGET With a new state law allowing it to tap pension, reserve, state Chapter 1 and other previously earmarked funds, the new leadership eliminated a projected $290 million deficit and presented a four-year balanced budget that also allows for massive borrowing to build and repair schools. Spending was cut, too—for example, transportation, employee benefits, and food items were renegotiated at lower costs.

BORROWING With its financial house finally in order, the School Board issued its own securities for the first time in nearly 20 years: $45 million for textbooks, computer hardware and software, an integrated financial database and to establish the Chicago Learning Mosaic, a computer network that will provide universal database access to every public school.

SALARIES A four-year contract with the Chicago Teachers Union provides raises ranging from 3 percent to 3.375 percent. Principals were boosted two pay grades, giving them a range of $65,200 to $90,018.

PRIVATIZATION The board cut 1,000 trade jobs, increasing school repair work for private contractors—although contractors were encouraged to hire former board employees. Four general contractors and a property advisor were hired for each of the school system’s six regions. The advisor bids out rehab work to the contractors and oversees the work. Contractors are not to be paid without principal approval, and the advisor receives a 2 percent commission on completed work. In other pilot programs, the board privatized maintenance at seven schools and enlisted three firms to manage food services at 31 schools.

CORRUPTION, WASTE: SYMBOLISM Only two weeks on the job, CEO Paul Vallas announced that he would forego a chauffeur and that he’d personally pay for donuts at meetings. Henceforth, administrators would not snack at taxpayers’ expense, which Vallas estimated cost taxpayers $90,000 last year. He also cancelled furniture orders by his top education administrators, Lynn St. James and Patricia Harvey.

CORRUPTION, WASTE: SUBSTANCE Doubled the staffs of the inspector general and budget offices, the latter to more closely review school spending plans. … Adopted a policy requiring schools to submit detailed educational justification forms for proposed spending of state Chapter 1 money on consultants, travel and retreats. Set limits on stipends for students, parents and community members. … Adopted an ethics policy that prohibits schools from hiring relatives of local school council members, and LSC members themselves for one year after they leave a council. The policy also prohibits board members and LSC members from having direct or indirect economic interest in any board contract. … Began to put schools with inadequate bookkeeping on “financial probation,” meaning that every month they must send copies of all financial transactions and reports to the board’s financial officers for review. Principals are put on notice that they can be dismissed if procedures are not rectified. First applied to Clemente High School.

CORRUPTION, WASTE: SACKINGS Dismissed the 15-member Desegregation Monitoring Commission following an audit questioning $213,000 in spending—e.g. $7,477 for a weekend retreat that included $53 for a massage, $450 for theater tickets and $600 for liquor. Replaced it with a seven-member, blue-ribbon panel that includes former state comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch. … Dismissed virtually all administrators in the scandal-plagued Facilities Department. … Fired the former principal of South Shore High School, who had been voted out by the LSC and was working as a teacher, for allegedly approving a 25-person Saturday outing to a Wisconsin dog track and depositing $7,000 of school funds into his money market account.

CRISIS INTERVENTION After sometimes heated debate with school reform advocates, adopted guidelines for declaring schools in “educational crisis.” Used interim guidelines to intervene at Prosser Vocational High School, removing three administrators and the local school council. The charges: grade changing, abuse of disciplinary actions against teachers and students, failure to report allegations that a teacher fondled a student and a “nonfunctional” council. Conducted investigations at Avalon Park, Disney Magnet and Revere. (See Updates, page 28.)

OVERCROWDING Rescinded a mandate by the previous School Board that would have required overcrowded schools to adopt year-round schedules, dual shifts, busing or other remedies. … Acquired mobile classrooms from other cities and distributed them among seven schools.

SMALL SCHOOLS Re-opened Cregier High as a multiplex for three small schools. Two, Nia and Foundations, already were running at other sites; both were developed by teachers. The third, Best Practice High School, will begin operation in September.

SCHOOL CLOSINGS Rescinded decision by the previous School Board to close Lindblom High and Dumas, Medill Primary, Schiller and Suder elementary schools. Added 7th and 8th grades to Lindblom, drawing students from Goodlow Magnet.

CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY Adopted a policy requiring parking ticket scofflaws and student loan deadbeats to clear their debts before getting a job or contract with the school system.

ADMINISTRATIVE REORGANIZATION Reconfigured 11 subdistricts into six regions. Created a central “ombudsman” office to field complaints.

EFFICIENCY Directed suppliers to deliver shipments directly to schools rather than to the central warehouse. … Disclosed with great fanfare a number of storage areas filled with items schools needed, including toilet paper and basketball hoops; ordered the items distributed. … After discovering nearly $1 million worth of outdated, government-supplied food in a warehouse, negotiated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Illinois State Board of Education to replace it with locally purchased food. … Cut the number of cellular phones from 218 to 41, resulting in a reduction of charges from $17,200 in July to $3,500 in December.

BACK TO SCHOOL To encourage parents to enroll their children on time, set up phone banks at board headquarters and the Chicago Teachers Union, issued public service announcements and mailed postcards. The administration credits the effort for a 6,000-student increase in enrollment, which rose to 413,300.

In the works

PRINCIPAL TRAINING In conjunction with the Chicago Principals and Adminstrators Association, universities and other groups, is developing a training academy aimed mainly at the system’s many novice principals. In addition to attending training sessions, principals will be paired with seasoned colleagues who will coach them for six months. Partial funding is being supplied by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

ACADEMIC BELT-TIGHTENING Re-establishing a core curriculum of skills, knowledge and application. Requiring elementary schools, under certain circumstances, to adopt direct instruction to teach reading and math. Requiring 8th-graders to attend summer school if they have not met graduation requirements.

TESTING Developing a three-part assessment system: (1) a nationally normed test of “core skills” in language arts and math, (2) a variety of citywide assessments in all content areas for three benchmark years, and (3) local assessment systems, developed in conjunction with schools, to guide instruction and monitor progress.

CONSTRUCTION AND REPAIR More than $806 million is to be spent over the next five years to build 13 new schools and 40 annexes and additions. Also on the drawing board: 53 campus parks, upgraded athletic fields, new playlots, vocational and technical school improvements. Further: Increasing energy-efficiency by changing lighting fixtures and wattage, putting utilities on timers, and retrofitting buildings.

LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS About 80 of the 132 schools whose test scores have failed to meet state academic expectations for three years running will receive help either from universities or from current or former outstanding principals, including some recently promoted to central office. … 42 schools are being placed on remediation, signalling they must improve or face restaffing.

SMALL SCHOOLS In response to a request for proposals, will award grants of $6,000 to $10,000 to groups that want to create or improve small schools or schools-within-schools. … Developing a more flexible high school scheduling system to benefit schools-within-schools. … As part of the capital development plan, will create middle schools and freshman academies. Also plans to create a multiplex in each region as a home for new small schools.

VOCATIONAL EDUCATION Working with the business community to identify apprenticeship opportunities for high school juniors and seniors. Student participants will have to perform community service in their first two years of school. Shell Oil Company led the way with a $2 million after-school job training academy for up to 150 students. Students will receive school credit for 80 hours of classroom training and receive more than 200 hours of paid, on-the-job training at Shell service stations. … Recruiting tradesmen and retired teachers to help beef up instruction in the trades.

PRESCHOOLS In part by cutting administrators, plans to serve an additional 12,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds over the next couple years, which still would meet only half the eligible population.

RECOGNIZING SUCCESS Launching an Exemplary Schools program to recognize schools with exceptional results in student achievement and dropout reduction, or that are models of best practice in one of the five “Pathways to Achievement” areas. The former will receive $74,000; the latter, $35,000. In return, winners must become learning sites for other schools.

PEER TUTORING Sylvan Learning Systems is training 70 teachers who will each train and supervise 20 students in peer tutoring. The goal is to provide tutoring to 2,800 9th-graders this spring; the program may be expanded next year. Both the student-tutors and their teacher-supervisors will get stipends from the board. Signing contracts with private groups that provide tutoring. Long-term goal: 10,000 tutors in five years.

PRINCIPAL HELP Under an internship program with business departments at local universities, will send “business managers” to schools, especially those with troubled financial records.

TRUANTS The Department of Children and Family Services is to train parents to serve as attendance officers at each school; duties will include looking for possible child abuse. … In response to a new state law, at least 30 Chicago schools will participate in a pilot program that allows cutbacks in welfare benefits for parents of chronic truants.

STUDENT DISCIPLINE Contracting with private schools and agencies to create alternative schools for students who have been found guilty of the most severe discipline code violations. …In accord with a new federal law, students who bring firearms to school will be expelled. … Will require all LSCs to consider adopting school dress codes or uniforms.

DROPOUTS Contracting with private schools and agencies to create alternative schools for dropouts.

SAVING MONEY Central office will vacate Pershing Road, which is rent-free but costly to maintain. At press time, the new location had not been decided.

PARENT INVOLVEMENT Contracting with United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and Operation Push to provide orientation meetings, workshops and ongoing training for parents at 30 schools. Both organizations already were engaged in such activity.

AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMS Issued requests for proposals for schools to establish their own after-school programs. High schools are to develop programs for students and the community. Elementary schools are to establish partnerships with other agencies. Funding comes from the savings the board realized when it eliminated field house supervisors; the inspector general found that many weren’t putting in the hours they were supposed to.

JOBS FOR PARENTS, KIDS Hiring parents and students part time for custodial chores such as shoveling snow. CEO Vallas says the custodians’ union has agreed to go along with the plan so long as the number of full-time custodial jobs aren’t cut back.

DESEGREGATION Exploring the possibility of getting relief from the federal consent decree’s provision for racial balance among the faculty at each school.