Good way but not only way

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With some money here and a push there, Paul Vallas and Gery Chico have gotten almost all of the city’s public high schools to adopt one or more features of what they are calling freshman academies. The focus is well placed, for roughly half of all freshmen fail at least one first-semester course, and few of them recover the second semester, according to a study of 1992 transcripts by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. And the students who fail are not just those who enter high school with poor basic skills.

For some high schools, like Hyde Park and Robeson, the board’s campaign is validation: They have been laboring over academy-like features for years, creating a cadre of freshmen-only teachers or doubling up class periods to allow for alternatives to teacher lectures.

Still other schools were pressed into last-minute action. Bowen High School, for example, quickly arranged voluntary, after-school tutorials; few students have shown up. It’s not as though Bowen had been twiddling its thumbs; the Far South Side school has been working to develop schools-within-schools, which is another way to reach out and save struggling students. Like some schools’ freshman academies, schools-within-schools promote a greater sense of community among students and teachers, and a greater sense of responsibility among teachers for their students. And as a Johns Hopkins University researcher told Catalyst Managing Editor Veronica Anderson, pegging small schools to career themes shows students what academics are good for. If schools are honestly working to create the conditions identified with success, then the board should take care that it doesn’t divert teachers’ attention and energy with peripheral projects.

In what now appears to be standard practice, the administration is looking for an outside evaluator for its freshman academy program. Earlier, it contracted for reviews of its alternative schools program and its Parents as Teachers First Program—in both cases, tapping respected experts in the field. This is a welcome change from prior administrations.

As writer Lisa Lewis reports in Updates, the administration has listened to critics and is changing its proposed standards for the hiring and retention of principals. As Lewis also reports, the original proposal for three years of prior administrative experience would have kept some of the system’s best principals from heading up schools. The revised hiring requirements boil down to more training, which, assuming the training is good, is a plus. But helping local school councils learn to identify good leaders would serve kids better in the long run.

One practice used in other cities and states is particularly well suited to Chicago’s reform effort. It’s a principal assessment center, which puts candidates through simulated trials and tribulations to pinpoint leadership and management pluses and minuses. (See Catalyst, February 1990.) With applicants’ assessment center scores in hand, local school councils would have a concrete, non-political way to make comparisons.

ABOUT US After writing for Catalyst part time for more than five years, first as an intern and then as a contributing editor, Dan Weissmann has become a full-time staffer with the title associate editor. During his part-time years, his other occupation was experimental theater. … Also, the Catalyst Editorial Board has two new members, Frank Horton, principal of South Shore High School, and Elizabeth Bueschel, newly elected chair of the Community Renewal Society. … Finally, a “thank you” to Philip Harper, the immediate past chair of the CRS Board, for his faithful attendance and enthusiastic participation in our editorial board discussions.

Catalyst ON THE AIR Our discussion of the difficult transition between 8th grade and high school will continue on the Feb. 9 edition of “City Voices,” which is broadcast from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on WNUA-FM 95.5.