Smaller schools learn to live together

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Principals Doug Maclin and Bill Gerstein

photo by John Booz

Principals Doug Maclin and Bill Gerstein

LaCael Palmer-Pratt, the internship coordinator at one of the new small schools at South Shore High, has always dressed smartly for work, wearing business shoes and attire. This year, though, she quickly switched to jeans and gym shoes on Wednesdays, the day she has to get students on buses to their internships.

“The first three weeks, Wednesdays were a nightmare, so I stopped dressing up,” says Palmer-Pratt, “It’s actually a lot smoother now, but I’m still running.”

The same could be said for the small-schools experiment at South Shore, which began to refashion itself this year by launching two small specialty schools, one in entrepreneurship and one in the arts.

The traditional school, which now serves about three-fifths of the student body, is to disappear over the next three years. In its place will be four or five small, teacher-led schools, each with its own academic program and culture.

Subdividing South Shore into smaller learning units is part of the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, which is also funding small school conversions at Bowen and Orr high schools. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a consortium of local funders are underwriting the $18.6 million effort.

Funding glitches, communication breakdowns and the strain of reordering roles have all taken some of the luster off the first year, with the fits and starts taking place in full view.

Despite the hassles, the principals of the two small schools feel they’re making progress. “We’re trying a lot of new things with our school,” says Bill Gerstein, principal of the entrepreneurship school. “Some of them are working, some aren’t. But we feel, overall, we’re satisfied with how things are going.

“It’s so much better than last year,” he adds, referring to when the entrepreneurship school was a program and not a separate school. Being housed with the arts school in one of South Shore’s two buildings, away from the tumult of the general school population, has made it easier for entrepreneurship teachers to keep an eye on their students.

“The building has a safer feel,” Gerstein adds. “There are fewer discipline problems. Because of the small school structure, you have teachers working together to solve problems, and they know the kids and know when things are going to happen.”

Still, the small schools began the school year on shaky financial footing.

Each school had to wait until October to get the first allocation of a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Redesign Initiative. The entrepreneurship school was counting on $250,000, the arts school $170,000, to be paid in two installments over the school year. Next year, the process to cut checks will begin earlier so schools will receive funding at the start of the school year, says Redesign Initiative Director Pat Ford.

The small schools also started the year with no discretionary money of their own. When budgets were planned last spring, a decision was made to allocate all of the discretionary dollars to the general school.

Empty pockets forced arts school Principal Doug Maclin to pick up the tab for several thousand dollars worth of basic school supplies during the first week of school.

Former South Shore Principal Larry Thomas says when he allocated all discretionary funding to the general school’s budget, his intention was to divvy up the money as needed. First-time principals Maclin and Gerstein had no experience with the CPS budget process, he notes. “I was going to share and re-deploy staff to make a smooth transition until they got the feel for it.”

But that didn’t happen. Amid mounting tensions last summer over the small schools’ autonomy, central office sent Thomas back to his former principal post at Coles Elementary and replaced him with Leonard Kenebrew, an administrative assistant to Arne Duncan.

Without their own discretionary accounts, the small schools initially had to negotiate with Kenebrew to get a share of South Shore’s funds. “We had a lot of kinks to work out,” says Maclin. “Some of the sharing things worked out, some didn’t.”

By November, central office stepped in and mandated that discretionary money had to follow students. Principals at Redesign Initiative high schools were directed to shift such funds into small schools budgets.

Dividing resources among all three schools was a challenge, says Kenebrew. “You never have enough books, enough space, enough technology, so you try to divide those things, and you keep tweaking it until you get it right.”

Negotiating over resources was not a painless process. By November, Gerstein and Maclin, who meet informally daily, were no longer having weekly sessions with Kenebrew. “It’s an awkward situation with three principals in two buildings, but I’m confident we can work it out,” Gerstein says optimistically.

By mid-January, the meetings resumed. “It’s a lot better now,” says Gerstein. “The meetings have been very productive.”

Teachers in charge

One tenet of the small school model calls for them to be teacher-led institutions. Learning how to create policy—and finding enough time to do so—has been an adjustment for small schools teachers.

At the entrepreneurship school, teachers take turns setting the agenda and chairing Wednesday staff meetings. Decisions are made by consensus.

The arts school has a school leadership team, comprised mostly of faculty who make policy decisions that Maclin enacts. Two other bodies, an advisory council and a student town hall, provide input on school-related issues.

Town hall meetings are held weekly in the cafeteria. So far, students have successfully lobbied for healthier cafeteria food and bathroom repairs.

Initially, some teachers at both schools balked over the additional responsibility of creating policy. “At first it irritated us that [Gerstein] wouldn’t make the decisions,” says entrepreneurship teacher Linda Stone. “It was stressful. Sometimes, it creates conflict, but we’ve learned to work through it.”

Both small schools are paying National-Louis University’s Center for City Schools to provide staff development several days a week. Teacher consultant Yolanda Simmons works with teachers individually and in groups, sharing instructional strategies.

This year, she says, has been a big adjustment for everyone in the building.

“Things are going quite well when you consider that change happens over time,” she says. “You have teachers who are used to simply managing a classroom, who now have to balance that with making major decisions about the school. I’m trying to help them understand that this is a really messy business, and they need to embrace the mess.”

Getting the word out

On top of the challenges of creating a new school in a glass house, Gerstein and Maclin have to figure out how to recruit students to schools that have not yet established reputations.

An open house held in November for parents of 8th-graders at nearby feeder schools yielded only a handful of parents. The following month, Gerstein asks his advisory council members to talk up small schools with other neighborhood parents. (Small schools created under the Redesign Initiative have appointed advisory councils; local school councils may replace them in 2004.) Principals at feeder elementary schools are not encouraging graduates to take a chance on the small schools, he says.

Thomas says that’s because feeder school principals are miffed. “They really wanted to be part of the planning, but it didn’t pan out,” he says.

Larry Turner of Mann Elementary says he didn’t feel snubbed—he was one of two feeder school principals who served on South Shore’s small schools planning committee. But he declines to comment on whether he is a fan of the model.

Instead, he says that he presents the range of high school options to his students and leaves the decision up to them and their parents.

Arts school teacher Twumwa Grant says there was some resistance to the arts school at first because community leaders preferred college prep to an arts curriculum. “We have enough singers and dancers,” Grant recalls them saying. Students are getting both.

Each small school is looking to recruit 100 freshman for next year. Their strategy centers on Kenebrew as the pitch man. “He’ll work the community and the feeder schools and get them interested,” Gerstein says. “Then, we’ll have them choose which small school they want to attend.”