Feeling the pinch of conversion

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Chicago Discovery Academy

photo by Christine Oliva

Chicago Discovery Academy

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-March, and nine students from one of Bowen’s new small schools line up in the gymnasium for a weekly boxing workshop.

Boxers take turns throwing punches against target-pad gloves worn by park district instructor Henry Sims, who works his way down the line. Each student throws the same combination—jab, reverse, lead hook punch—into Sims’ padded hands. Boom-boom boom.

Just outside, a face appears in the wire-reinforced glass window on the gym door. A young boy wearing a purple and yellow T-shirt, standard garb for those still enrolled in Bowen’s regular program, waves and taps the glass, trying to catch someone’s attention.

The boxers, however, remain focused on their punches. Unnoticed, the boy disappears.

The unnoticed boy is a metaphor for one of the major challenges Bowen faces as it breaks up into smaller schools: Finding the best way to serve the students who are left behind.

This year, about half of the 1,000 students attending the three schools are enrolled in Bowen’s regular program. The rest are enrolled in the small schools. A third small school slated to open in the fall will pick up another 125, and a fourth school will open in the fall of 2004. Meanwhile, a shrinking number of students will remain in Bowen’s regular program through 2006. “We’ve got several more years of Bowen left,” says Neil Bosanko, chair of the Bowen local school council. “Our kids feel like stepchildren. Our teachers feel like step-teachers.”

“It ain’t going to be a good feeling” to be among the last to graduate from Bowen, says one freshman girl. “We probably won’t be able to get the things seniors did when we were freshmen.”

Bowen teachers say the conversion hasn’t affected them much, but students have been left in the dark about how the transition will impact them. “They don’t know what’s going on,” says Rose Mosley, a special education teacher on Bowen’s local school council.

Among the three high schools participating in Chicago’s High School Redesign Initiative, Bowen has the most experience with the small schools model. It’s also the only one whose principal, Fausto Lopez, survived the transition from intervention. The intervention principals at both Orr and South Shore have been reassigned.

But experience and stable leadership have given Bowen relatively little advantage. Its two small schools, Chicago Discovery Academy (CDA) and BEST, which stands for Bowen Environmental Studies Team, are experiencing start-up pains similar to those at their counterparts at South Shore and Orr.

Before the conversion, there was someone who was responsible for student registration, observes Beverly Helm, a Bowen veteran teacher who now works for the Chicago Discovery Academy. “Now you’re the somebody.”

At the same time, Bowen’s traditional program is scrounging to support its students—about a quarter of whom have special needs—with a shrinking pot of discretionary funds it had from the previous year.

Veteran teachers and top academic programs have migrated to the small schools, leaving Bowen without its flagship art and architecture programs and with teachers who average three years experience.

Meanwhile, the opening of New Millennium, one of the two small schools that planned to open this fall, was postponed until fall 2004, forcing its 90 prospective freshmen to scramble to find a high school to attend. Some were applying to another small school at Bowen, others were considering leaving CPS altogether.

Global Visions, the other nascent small school, will open this fall as planned with 125 freshmen. The curricular focus is global technology.

For all the bumps in the road, small schools directors credit Lopez for his collaborative leadership style. He understands how his role is different from that of a traditional high school principal. “I am here to suggest, to mentor, to make it work,” Lopez explains.

“That was my commitment to the small schools office and to [CEO Arne] Duncan.”

For now, Lopez’s future as principal rests with Duncan, though the LSC would like to know whether they will regain the power to evaluate and hire a principal, stripped from them when Bowen was placed on intervention. Whether the final conversion will have a “super-principal” for the entire building has yet to be decided.

For now, Lopez’s position is unique in another way. None of the directors of Bowen’s small schools is a certified principal, so he has become, in essence, a teacher. “Mr. Lopez has been really instructive,” says CDA Director Lauralei Jancaric, a former guidance counselor with no administrative credentials. “His experience has helped me quite a bit to learn the job.”

Smooth relationships between the principal and small school directors have made it possible for the schools to walk together through some mine fields, such as figuring out how to share resources. “We were able to define which space we wanted without any difficulty,” says Joann Podkul, lead teacher of BEST. The three schools also joined forces to offer athletic activities and After School Matters, an after-school program and pet project of Duncan’s.

At Bowen’s local school council meeting in March, Lopez announced that he was working with small school directors to draw up a conversion plan that would allocate resources fairly as the regular enrollment shrinks and small school enrollment grows.

“The idea is that every school will have set aside the same amount of common property.”

Still, all sides agree that the scarcity of equipment, like copy machines and computers, and the use of office staff will remain a problem. “We’re all shortchanged in that regard,” says Podkul.

Bowen proper is also feeling the pinch of sharing discretionary money with small schools. Last year, the school received just over $1 million in supplemental general state aid (formerly known as state Chapter 1) and federal Title 1 money. This year, the three schools combined received nearly $1 million, but Bowen picked up just over half of that.

Meanwhile, Bowen is still footing the bill for most building services and personnel. State funds are paying for three security officers and federal money is picking up the tab for a technology coordinator.

(BEST is paying for one security guard and CDA pays for three.) Global Visions will likely pick up expenses for one of Bowen’s extra guards in the fall.

Still, Bowen will continue to cover a large share of certain expenses. For instance, budget cuts forced Bowen to eliminate some clerical positions this year, but the remaining staff could not keep up with the volume of transcript requests from seniors and alums as they change jobs or pursue higher education.

The conversion also has made it difficult for Bowen to hire teachers. All of the school’s veteran art and architecture teachers moved en masse to Chicago Discovery Academy, taking many, but not all, of their students with them. Freshmen left behind who were interested in art or architecture courses were out of luck since Bowen couldn’t afford to hire replacements, says Bosanko.

Bowen faces another hiring hurdle: lack of job security. This spring, there were four openings for special education teachers. But as Bowen’s student population continues to shrink, fewer slots may be needed for the regular program, and there’s no guarantee that the small schools will hire them.

LSC Chair Neil Bosanko had planned to ask for extra money at the School Board meeting in January, but central office called to set up a face-to-face with Duncan. Bosanko says he argued that if they were starting new schools in a brand-new building, equipment like photocopiers would be included in the budget. New schools in an existing facility shouldn’t be deprived of those resources, he concluded.

According to Bosanko, Duncan conceded the point but told him the district did not have additional money. The Office of High School Redesign may help fill the gap. It is offering grants of up to $100,000 over two years to all three high schools undergoing conversion.

Bowen has submitted a proposal to use the extra funds to cover professional development for teachers, field trips and extra counseling for students and overtime for clerical staff.

As students feed into the small schools, Bosanko also worries about meeting accountability expectations. He fears CDA has creamed the school’s top academic talent, leaving Bowen and BEST more vulnerable to low test scores. Special education enrollment is 24 percent at Bowen and BEST; only 11 percent at CDA.

“Can we make the strides that CPS and the state have set on us?” Bosanko asks rhetorically. “No. We’re gonna do worse. Bowen [is] going to have a difficult time just maintaining scores.”

The small schools see a promising future. All three exceeded their recruiting goal for next year’s freshman class. BEST was shooting for 70 and got 128.

“We’ve done pretty good selling the small schools to our feeder schools,” says Bosanko.

Bowen insiders feel they’re making progress on equity in the distribution of special education students, too. “That’s something that everyone’s aware of,” says Bob Hartwig, Bowen’s union delegate and a member of the planning team for Global Visions.

“We are talking about a process that might help to make that more equitable,” notes Patricia Ford, director of the Redesign Initiative. Schools are prohibited from asking about a student’s special education status on applications, however small schools may work with elementary special education case managers to recruit their students, she says.

“We’ve always talked about making certain that the small schools aren’t set up as tracking mechanisms.”

Bosanko believes from past experience that the struggle to convert to small schools will be worth it in the long run. Before Bowen was placed on intervention in 2000, small schools had been making progress there. Intervention rolled back the clock.

When intervention was lifted, many in the school community were itching to reinstate them.

“We were going that route whether or not [the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] and CPS were going to formalize it,” says Bosanko. “We had tremendous gains in attendance [and] reduction of crime because of the nurturing atmosphere of small schools.”