Reform groups in, teachers out at first

Print More

With elementary school reforms underway, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas shifted focus last summer and revved up a team for high school redesign. In a kick-off speech last July he called for “quick and lasting” reforms for the city’s high schools.

A steering committee and seven task forces made up the redesign team. Vallas cast a wide net, drawing in reform groups with whom he had often been at odds, businesses, universities, local school council members, foundations and principals.

However, when the task forces convened last summer, no teacher had been appointed. Chicago Teachers Union President Thomas Reece, a steering committee member, urged Vallas to correct the oversight.

Vallas agreed, and two teachers and seven CTU officials and representatives joined the task forces. “We have been in this position before,” remarks CTU Vice President Norma White. “We squeak, and they put a little oil on us.” Still, with a total of some 130 task force members—the number fluctuated—White feels that teachers were underrepresented.

Among participants, satisfaction with the task force process varied.

Greg Darneider, executive director of the Steans Family Foundation, who chaired the Student Development task force, suspects that participation also varied from one group to another.

“If the co-chairs were coming to the table with specific philosophies, that limited the input,” he observes. “I think some committees kept themselves pretty tightly knit around 1819 Pershing Road and didn’t look for much outside input.”

Teacher Lawrence Laughlin of Kennedy High School says that due to the late invitation to teachers, he missed several Curriculum and Instruction task force meetings. On arrival, he found some proposals already set.

“You can have input, but if the decisions have already been made, it’s not going to make a difference,” he notes.

Also, the deadline prevented in-depth discussion, he believes. “For the most part, we didn’t touch on any issues related to instruction.”

The Vocational Technical Education task force had limited participation. Only four of 12 members were from outside the school system. Three did not attend, and the other declined to comment on the process. One member from outside the administrative staff also declined to comment.

However, Principal Lona Bibbs of Westinghouse Vocational felt “quite comfortable” with her task force. “We were free to express what concerns we had,” she says.

Other task forces report strong participation. Heather Steans of the Steans Family Foundation notes “very high” turnout for the High School Restructuring task force. She finds items in the draft plan “true to what the group had talked about.”

Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education was similarly satisfied with the Student Development group.

In November, each task force issued a thick report, which the administration distilled into a readable 79-page draft. Originally, the administration intended to distribute copies by mid-November, but it didn’t get them out until the first week of December.

Public hearings were held the following week at three area high schools. Many who testified said they’d received the draft report only that day. Perhaps as a result, many teachers addressed the plan’s most obvious impact: It might cut jobs for voc-ed, art and physical education.

Chief of Staff Cozette Buckney estimates that 60 percent of the complaints from the hearings were about potential job loss rather than about the impact of the plan on students.

She found most comments along the lines of: “‘I prepared my whole life to teach this course, and now you’re saying it’s not important.’ … That colors it,” she says.

Hearings continued into the third week of December—with six regional meetings for teachers and counselors, and three more at central office for the general public. Eight “informational sessions” were scheduled at regional offices over Christmas break.

Teacher Beverly Helm of Bowen High attended one on Christmas eve. “It was a joke,” she says, “There was no information. They showed us into a conference room, we sat down, we wrote our comments, and that was it. They obviously did not expect anybody to show up. We surprised them.”

Scheduling hearings for the hectic month of December led some to question the board’s sincerity about soliciting public feedback. Buckney regrets the rush but says it was unavoidable. The original goal was to have a final plan ready in time for schools to incorporate changes—initially, expected to be major—into their school improvement plans for next school year.

Now that the scope of change has been narrowed, school planning can proceed without benefit of the final report, she says, noting that schools on probation already have picked up on some items.

Currently departments are debating the proposals and consulting with Reform Board trustees and task force members, says Buckney. The final plan is scheduled for release in March.