A third of schools switch partners

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Of more than 100 schools that have been on probation sometime over the past two years, 36 have switched external partners, and four of those have switched more than once.

In some cases, schools were dissatisfied with the program; in others, with the program’s representative at their school. In a couple cases, according to Intervention Director Albert Foster, schools expected miracles and filed for divorce when they didn’t get them.

Douglass Middle School in Austin stayed with the Washington D.C.-based National Center on Education and Economy (NARE), also called America’s Choice, for years before the frustration of working with an out-of-state organization became too great to bear. “The schedule had to be very regimented, especially when it came to getting professional development, because NARE’s staff had to travel in from out of town,” explains Principal Betty Smith. “They were not always able to help us when we needed it.”

“Good teaching is good teaching anywhere,” Smith acknowledges. “But we needed someone who knew specifics about how Chicago operates. We had people from California [who] were not familiar with the ITBS [Iowa Tests of Basic Skills], the IGAP [state tests] or the Chicago Academic Standards. There were other things like union rules—what you could ask teachers to do and what you couldn’t.

“[NARE] was a good shoe,” she concludes, “but it just didn’t fit, so this year we looked for someone locally.”

Douglass got off probation at the end of last year, but must retain an external partner for one more year; it chose DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, whose list of probation schools has grown from 14 in 1996 to 31 today.

Nash Elementary School in Austin had a similar experience. Principal Richard Kerr chose NARE as the school’s external partner when Nash was placed on probation in 1996. After the school moved to probation, Kerr had second thoughts.

“When I was given the option to exercise a choice, I switched to DePaul,” says Kerr. “NARE had good points. They got us thinking about performance standards, but I had heard positive things about DePaul and since they were closer, I thought they might make a better fit.”

“We certainly understand that some schools need more localized services and we agreed with those schools that wanted to make that switch,” says Joseph Garcia, a spokesman for NARE. “At the same time, we’ve heard from schools that they got a lot of focused attention from NARE staff when they were on hand, which they appreciated, and they benefited from our national network of education.”

In the first year, NARE worked in Chicago with 17 schools on probation. This year, the number is down to nine; three were taken off probation.

Principal Freddie McGee of Ross Elementary School, however, had nothing positive to say about his first external partner, Quality Education Seminars. “I don’t think they had a program that enhanced our children at all. They didn’t produce anything,” he says.

QES has lost four of the five schools it initially was assigned to by the Office of Accountability. The program’s main focus is to analyze school assessment data to determine students’ reading and math deficiencies and then to design staff development seminars to teach teachers better instructional strategies to eliminate these deficiencies.

“Many times we were not privy to why a school switched from us, but we know they want to try something different,” says Ron Warwick, who heads QES. “After all, it’s the principal’s job on the line, not mine. If they want to try another strategy, that’s fine. I respect that.”

Warwick says that despite the losses, central administrators have approached QES to partner with other schools, but that he has decided not to expand. “I’ve learned my lesson over these past three years,” says Warwick. “If I pick up vibes that we don’t share the same philosophy, then we will not work with those schools. Schools have to value the same things we do and be willing to work with us toward the same goals.”

One external partner that lost a school acknowledges that friction between the program’s representative and the principal was to blame. “Salazar wanted a new partner because of intense personal differences,” says Prof. Timothy Shanahan, who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Both of the center’s schools, Salazar and Jungman, got off probation while they worked with it. However, Salazar Principal Martha Miranda dropped the program for the required extra year with an external partner while Jungman Principal Fausto Lopez continues to sing its praises.

“I would not change him [Shanahan] for anyone,” says Lopez. “It’s good to have someone who shares the same goals. He created the idea that there is nothing better to improve scores than the power of good teaching and helping teachers do that.”

“Some programs really have bad relationships with schools,” says Shanahan. “If schools are upset, they don’t want to pay.”

Foster says that in some cases, schools expected the external partners to do all the work. “Some schools said, ‘I’m going to lie down and let you operate on me, and I expect to be well,'” he chuckles. “‘If I’m not, then you’re not a good doctor.’ But [what] if the doctor tells you that you have to eat well and walk around after surgery and you don’t do it? Well? Some schools did not do the things they were suppose to do on their end.”

“They didn’t look at their school improvement plans and say, ‘These are our problems, what remedies do you have?'” he adds. “Instead it was, ‘This isn’t working. I want a divorce. I’m firing you.'”

Conflicting roles

Conversely, one school observer who works in schools says that some principals are afraid to buck what they perceive as the will of central office. “The first time, schools had no choice [in partners],” she says. “The second go-around, schools were given recommended choices. … I think the fear factor is still operative. Principals think ‘Oh, I’ll lose my job,’ so they take whoever they are told to take and they do whatever their external partners tell them to do, and it may not be the best thing for the school.

But she agrees with Foster that some schools “are in such a frenzy to find a quick solution, when things don’t work fast, they immediately look for something else.”

Marva Collins Seminars, Inc. was dropped by all three of its probation schools.

Daryl Ramsey, an assistant to Marva Collins, says money was behind at least one loss. “We thought we had McNair,” he says. “Our program cost $82,000, but when we knew they wanted to save money, we cut our costs to $50,000. However, the last week of July, they chose someone else.”

McNair Principal Solomon Gibbs agrees with that assessment. The school applied for a $50,000 grant under the federal Obey-Porter legislation, but Marva Collins was not on the approved list of external partners, Gibbs explains. (For more on Obey-Porter, see story.)

Ramsey says Collins lost another school, Pope Elementary in North Lawndale, when a new principal took over. “We think the new principal was courted by someone else, and after six months in her position, she chose someone else,” he says.

However, Pope Principal Jacqueline Baker says her decision was based on Collins’s conflicting roles at the school. “When I got to the school, Collins was both the probation manager and the external partner,” she explains. “The probation manager usually monitors the external partner. When we wanted to get a new probation manager, [Collins] still wanted to hold both positions.”

So Baker negotiated a deal with National School Services to take over as external partner, and Collins left as probation manager. National School Services works with schools using the total quality management approach.

The principal of Beidler Elementary, Collins’ third school, declines to talk about their split, but teachers say she criticized them more than she helped them. (See story.)

Ramsey says his organization has been trying to return as an external partner and was in negotiations with the local school council at Thorp Elementary in South Shore until the probation manager decided to choose someone else.

“The real problem behind the loses is that Collins was lax about attending probation and external partners meeting and was not visible enough in schools,” says one school observer familiar with Collins’ schools.

In September, six high schools—Calumet, Richards, Austin, Hirsch, Fenger and Marshall—dropped their external partners to work with an internal “external partner” created by the Office of Accountability. (Richards still works with DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education on a limited basis.)

“The reading scores were really stagnant,” says Hansen. “And none of them had a reading plan as part of their school’s curriculum.”

So he hired reading consultant Mary Dunn, Ken Hunter, an assistant principal at Amundsen High, and Ron Brown, a teacher at Kelvyn Park High, to work with them. Dunn created reading plans for each school based on best practices of other high schools and some of her own.