A new class of public schools

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Chicago’s new small schools will have unprecedented freedom in how they spend money and set up curricula.

Called performance schools, they will operate under five-year performance agreements and will report directly to central office, not an area instructional officer. They will be encouraged to negotiate with the Chicago Teachers Union to waive work rules such as the length of the school day and year.

Increased flexibility will allow these schools to tailor programs to meet their students’ particular needs, says Lisa Scruggs, the newly hired CPS senior policy adviser who drafted the board’s Renaissance 2010 policy.

The framework for performance schools has features in common with an initiative in Boston created 10 years ago, where district-operated “pilot schools” were given budget autonomy and freed from union regulations. According to a recent report by the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), between 1998 and 2003, Boston’s 13 pilot schools ranked among the top schools in the district in attendance and among the lowest in suspensions. Ten of the 13 schools scored at or better than the district average on state tests.

Overall, pilot schools are demographically similar to the district.

One snag in the road, however, was a costly lesson related to facilities. “The first generation of pilot schools was housed in privately owned facilities,” says Dan French, executive director of CCE. “Very quickly it became a financial boondoggle.” Leases and construction costs ate up so much money that Boston would approve a new pilot only if it had lined up a facility first.

Giving schools financial freedom worked better, a lesson for Chicago, suggests Timothy Knowles, Boston’s former deputy superintendent who now oversees the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement. The budgeting formula used in Boston converted every district service to a dollar figure, then used those numbers to allocate funds to schools based on enrollment. Schools, in turn, were free to determine how much to spend with the district or take the money and shop elsewhere.

Many pilots found creative ways to stretch their dollars, Knowles says. For example, a school could hire a nonprofit arts program for less than an art teacher, and then use the savings to hire an additional classroom teacher to reduce class size.

Chicago’s performance schools likely will not have as much financial flexibility as Boston’s pilots, or other Renaissance 2010 schools for that matter, cautions Tamara Scheinfeld, deputy director of the CPS Office of Small Schools. If a performance school is housed in a CPS facility, for instance, they will have to use the district’s food service, security staff, maintenance and utilities, she says.

Potential performance school operators say they chose that route because it guarantees fully credentialed principals and teachers. Janice Muhammad, a Morgan Park parent who is proposing a K-6 school focused on math and science, says, “I want the community to be confident.”

By mid-September, CPS had received over a dozen letters of intent from groups and individuals interested in opening performance schools. Scheinfeld expects there will eventually be a mix of startups and conversions (regular CPS schools switching to performance schools).

Initially, most pilots in Boston were startups, but more existing schools are beginning to convert to the program, particularly large high schools that the district is looking to break into small schools.

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