Getting the juices flowing again

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Chicago can be proud of itself. For more than a decade, it has sustained a broad-based, aggressive school reform movement. The 1988 Chicago School Reform Act threw open the school system to new ideas and energy. Scores of schools embraced the freedom of decentralization and started moving-some in too many directions, but many of them straight ahead. The 1995 Amendatory Act was a course correction that brought focus and accountability, as well as financial stability, labor peace, new and rehabbed schools and strong political support. By making accountability its hallmark, Mayor Daley’s school leadership team pulled on board many of the schools that sat out School Reform Phase I or had flailed about. While schools chief Paul Vallas has slapped lagging schools with one hand, he has beckoned new ideas with the other. Bring him a good one, and you’ll likely walk away with financial backing.

But school reform is a political movement that needs to be rallied from time to time, as the politicians who run the system surely understand. One of those times may be now. Unlike in 1988 and 1995, there is no legislation that can propel us to the next level. But the reform movement does have one thing it didn’t have in either of those years—10 years worth of experience. Everyone has made mistakes and learned. Some no doubt have visions for how they might leap ahead—if only. The School Board could give them the chance

We envision a competition of sorts, with the board issuing a request for ambitious proposals. Planning grants would allow teachers, parents and community members to visit better- performing schools, to bring in speakers and consultants, and to think through the logistics of change. Blue-ribbon panels, including successful teachers and principals, could debate and select the best proposals on Cable Access TV, educating the broader public about school change. The winners would get substantial time and money to fulfill their dreams and become models for-dare we say it-schools across the country. They could also publicly share their successes and failures along the way. It would be a community endeavor.

Alternatively, the School Board could conduct a contest for the best ideas for addressing one or more of the most critical issues in school improvement and then lead a campaign to carry them out. One might be: “A 1st-rate Reading Teacher for Every 1st-grader.” Or: “Toward a World-Class Principal Corps.”Or something. The point is to treat those who have embraced reform and prospered under it as the resources they are, and the highly committed teachers and principals in the school system as the professionals they are. Give them the tools and the time to carry out big, outside-the-box plans, and reform will continue to make Chicagoans proud.

THANK YOUS ALL AROUND To journalist Averil Massie, who once covered schools in Florida, for coming on board for three months to get us through this issue. … To five longtime partners for making this expanded, four-color issue possible: The Chicago Community Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Albert Pick, Jr. Fund, Polk Bros. Foundation and The Spencer Foundation. To Luis Rossi, publisher of LaRaza newspaper, for helping us get the Spanish-language edition of this issue to more than 100,000 of his readers. … To the best staff that an editor could have: Veronica, Dan, Debra, Durrett, Ericka, Liz, Maureen, and Steve.