Teacher-led school reform gets another year of funding

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Ten public schools are nearing the end of a last-ditch effort initiated by the Chicago Teachers Union to keep them open despite low test scores.

The 10 “partnership schools” were selected last spring to receive additional resources from the union and the School Board to jumpstart student performance.

While the results are not yet in, Schools CEO Arne Duncan has earmarked $2 million in next year’s budget to keep the experiment in joint responsibility going. “I really think we’re onto something,” he says. “If things are going in the right direction, then yes, [schools will] be open.”

“To be fair, we’re not looking for miracles,” Duncan says. “We’re looking for incremental change. Most of the visits I’ve been on, I’ve been very encouraged.”

Even so, a cloud hangs over the effort. Nine of the partnership schools are underutilized, meaning enrollment is less than 65 percent of building capacity, according to a report by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization. That makes them subject to closing for low enrollment.

Three elementary schools located along the State Street corridor, where public housing demolition is nearly complete, will be consolidated this fall. Raymond and Hartigan, both at less than 30 percent capacity, will close and send their students to Attucks. (See related story)

Only Bass Elementary in Englewood is fully utilizing its space, according to the report.

Duncan says he’s more concerned with academic progress than enrollment at partnership schools. One union official is not surprised by the closings.

“We know about the gentrification of the city,” says Saungktakhu Richey, who oversees five partnership schools for the union. “We know that the [School Board’s] focus isn’t necessarily on educating the population that is currently in these neighborhoods. We have to serve the teachers and the students as best we know how.”

Scores may decline initially

This month, researchers from the University of Memphis will release the findings of their evaluation of the partnership school initiative. The report, based on surveys, interviews and classroom observations, will assess school climate and changes in teaching practices.

CPS will consider those findings along with this year’s test scores to determine whether partnership schools have shown enough improvement and commitment to remain open.

On paper, partnership schools are required to hit a complicated mix of accountability targets set by CPS and the Illinois Board of Education. (See related WebExtra) However, experts say it is unlikely any of the schools will meet them.

Occasionally schools undergoing reform may see an immediate spike in test scores, but “it’s unrealistic to expect that,” says Steven Ross, who led the evaluation research team. Generally, elementary schools can expect to see test score gains faster than high schools, where student discipline and knowledge gaps are bigger issues, and scripted, reading-based programs tend to boost scores faster than holistic models, he adds. Two partnership schools are high schools.

Reform expert Sam Stringfield of Johns Hopkins University warns test scores could drop initially as teachers struggle to master reform practices in the first year. “You’ve got to go through neutral,” he says, noting it usually takes two to four years for reform to take hold.

Partnership schools are expecting, at best, modest progress this year.

The partnership deal called for faculties to approve by majority vote which reform model their school would use.

Among the elementary schools, five picked Success for All, a school-wide overhaul of reading instruction; two opted for Direct Instruction, a phonics-based, scripted reading program; and one chose Comer School Development Project, a community-based program that focuses on students’ social and psychological health.

The high schools—Collins and Richards—chose High Schools That Work, a model that blends traditional college prep coursework with vocational skills.

Last summer, the union hired Richey, a former instructor for Success for All, to oversee the five schools using that program, and it tapped Martin McGreal, a former teacher working at the union’s Quest Center, to work with high schools and the remaining elementary schools.

During the first year, partnership schools focused on training school faculties to use the models and fine tuning teaching based on assessment data and classroom observations, says McGreal.

Extra effort for ‘hot list’ students

Schools using Success for All meet monthly at union headquarters to discuss their efforts and analyze students’ test results. Every eight weeks, students take a reading test and the schools use results to estimate how test scores on state and national exams may change overall.

Each school has created a “hot list” of students who are closest to meeting state and district standards, and then paired them with more experienced teachers and provided extra tutoring. Using these strategies, Hartigan Elementary hoped to get off probation, says Principal Betty Greer.

Probation status is no longer an issue for Hartigan, which is facing closure. Still, its reading scores on this year’s Iowa Test of Basic Skills went up 10 percentage points.

Principal Frederic Metz is looking for Medill’s test scores to improve after stagnating in recent years. The school’s Success for All facilitator has made sure teachers follow guidelines for reading instruction and use assessment data to target instruction.

Schools using Direct Instruction have focused reform on changing teaching practices, too, says McGreal. Chalmers, which has adopted the Comer program, hired a reading specialist and counselor to complement efforts to upgrade teachers’ skills.

However, the High Schools That Work program downplays changing instruction, focusing instead on getting schools to share best practices, says McGreal. Collins High School, for instance, recently sent nearly 30 teachers to visit a high school in Ohio to learn how to integrate English and social studies courses with shop class.

Unique role for union

Since 1995, low-performing schools have undergone a host of district-imposed reform initiatives, including intervention and reconstitution.

Such efforts usually failed because teachers were left out, say union officials. The last straw for teachers union President Deborah Lynch was Duncan’s abrupt decision to close three schools in 2002.

Seeking to avoid another round of school closures in 2003, the union inked a deal with CPS to delay closing any of the 51 schools languishing on probation and allow teachers to call the shots at 10 of them.

The agreement casts the teachers union in what is believed to be a unique role in school-wide improvement.

In Memphis, the teachers union endorsed a district reform effort in the 1990s, but did not participate in the process, says Ross. Chicago’s effort may see positive results if it receives adequate funding, regular evaluations and strong support from teachers and the community.

Duncan’s $2 million commitment for next year may satisfy the funding needs, but school closings and a plan to add new schools to the partnership will change how the money is distributed, says Richey.

She says the partnership can add up to four new schools, possibly more given the school closings.

Duncan has not committed to expand the program, and he says CPS may ask schools to compete for any new slots.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.