Overhaul moves closer for 22 schools

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As many as 22 Chicago schools could be converted into charter schools, taken over by the district or state, restaffed with new teachers and administrators, or turned into contract schools for the 2005-06 school year, according to CPS officials.

The 22 schools are those that have already gone four years without making what the federal No Child Left Behind Act calls “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math, putting them into what is called “corrective action.” If they don’t hit test score targets either this year or the next, “restructuring” is to take place in year six.

The schools have not yet been formally notified that they are in danger of being closed or converted, according to Xavier Botana, the CPS official in charge of implementing No Child Left Behind. However, initial planning for restructuring between school and board officials is scheduled to begin this summer and fall.

Most of the schools are already well aware that their performance is considered sub-par and have taken actions to improve student achievement, according to Botana.

For example, three schools—Collins and Richards high schools and Medill Elementary School—have new curricula and shared governance by CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. These schools were identified in 2003 as some of the lowest-performing in the city and threatened with closure.

At the start of the school year, two schools—Bethune and Cather—had their principals removed for academic reasons by the Board of Education. (See related story: Catalyst, October 2003.)

The remaining 17 schools—Carver, Farragut, Harper, Marshall, Orr, Tilden, Wells and Manley high schools, and Carver, Faraday, Howland, Hamline, Farren, Pope, Tilton, Doolittle East and Morton elementary schools—have taken some action as a result of being on CPS probation or not making adequate yearly progress in the past.

Critics of No Child Left Behind, like Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Richard Elmore, suggest that putting the screws on struggling schools is not going to generate improvement. “‘Corrective action’ does nothing about increasing knowledge and skills,” he says.

Northwestern University Professor G. Alfred Hess Jr. notes that restaffing schools has failed in the past and that school improvement depends on whether school faculties take restructuring threats seriously. “The real question is what people at the local schools are thinking,” he says. “Does [the threat] really get the attention of the faculty?”

He speculates that the law may be softened before any closings take place.

“Everybody agrees that there are problems with the way the Act is put together, even though it has spurred a lot of school districts into doing important things for minority kids,” Hess says.

If the law isn’t changed, however, the number of schools in danger of being closed or converted will soon grow dramatically. According to Botana, more than 200 additional schools are likely to enter corrective action next year, giving them until 2007 to improve or face closure.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan has used authority granted by the state to close low-performing schools regardless of No Child Left Behind. However, the federal law requires closing or converting schools that fail to make progress after six years.

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor.

E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.