No Child restructuring plans reveal familiar school reforms

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Chicago Public Schools closed three schools this year for poor academic performance. One of them was Howland Elementary in North Lawndale, a long-troubled school that consistently has missed annual progress targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

But the law is not what prompted Howland’s closure. Rather, the impetus was the district’s new schools initiative, Renaissance 2010, which calls for closing, revamping and reopening schools under new leadership.

When it comes to complying with the mandates of NCLB, the School Board’s usual strategy is to remain a step ahead, putting forth its own reform efforts as sufficient remedies to turn schools around. Howland is one of the most recent examples.

As one of 21 CPS schools that have failed to make “adequate yearly progress” for five years in a row, Howland was tagged under NCLB to be “restructured.”

Restructuring is a two-year process that in its second year can lead to state takeover, replacing teachers and leadership, converting into a charter school or even closure. Federal law requires that districts submit detailed restructuring plans for these schools a year before they are to be implemented.

Responding to a mid-August deadline, district officials assert that many of the schools slated for restructuring had already begun the process. All 21 of them are or had been on probation, a status that education officials consider to be restructuring because it gives greater financial and instructional authority to area instruction officers, who oversee principals.

In addition, two of the schools have been closed or consolidated, two have had new principals installed, one has been converted into a military school and five were to be teamed with the Chicago Teachers Union under a retooled agreement. (See story on p. 21)

The only new effort described in the district’s restructuring plan is a partnership with Learning Point Associates, a nonprofit education research organization. Consultants with the Naperville-based group will work with district officials to assess, reorganize and operate 14 schools. The arrangement resembles CPS’s old external partners program, which teamed more than 100 schools on probation with outside experts who were hired to fix them. (The research laboratory that founded Learning Point Associates was one of those experts.)

Terms of the $1.4 million deal were not final as Catalyst Chicago went to press, and Learning Point Associates declined to discuss its plans for the coming year. By early September, “the scope of work will be ironed out,” says Chief Marketing Officer Pamela Becker Dean.

Firm helps district with NCLB

Learning Point Associates grew out of the North Central Regional Education Laboratory (NCREL) two years ago to tap the growing market for data and research expertise as school districts here and around the country struggle to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.

“We provide research-based strategies and services that produce measurable results,” says a statement on the Learning Point Associates website.

Among the clients listed are Illinois school districts in Canton and Carpentersville that hired the firm to help them organize and analyze data on student performance. Several schools in Carpentersville were removed from the state watch list as a result of that work, Becker Dean says.

Recently, the firm’s consultants developed a series of tests to determine whether students and teachers are literate in technology.

Heading up the Learning Point Associates team that will work on restructuring CPS schools is Kate Nolan, a former Erickson Institute research associate who also worked in 2003 with a high-profile commission that was charged with recommending a more useful system for assessing students in pre-K through high school.

In addition to tapping outside research experts, the district should consider another resource for schools undergoing restructuring, suggests Donald Moore of Designs for Change. “The best resource for schools that are not doing well are schools that serve similar students that are succeeding,” he says.

Also, developing capacity is more important than changing governance, Moore notes. So far, “we don’t see any significant assistance” for schools that require restructuring. “They’re simply being told that their AIO is in charge and that they must spend their money in certain ways.”

District-led efforts to turn around low performing schools in Chicago have a long and largely unsuccessful history. Skeptics recall reconstitution, intervention and the ongoing, yet largely ineffective, probation policies.

CPS’s moderate response to NCLB restructuring in some ways reflects the modest budget available to pay for it. An additional $9.3 million in state and federal funds is earmarked for school improvement in Chicago, says Rebecca Watts, public information director for the Illinois State Board of Education.

The plan also reflects officials’ concerns about the process itself. The law outlines several restructuring options, but CPS argues that two of them—converting schools to charters and replacing staff—are limited by state law. (Illinois law caps the number of charters in Chicago at 30 and spells out a lengthy process for firing faculty.) Another option, state takeover, was deemed “not feasible.”

Another concern is related to volume: Restructuring strategies must work for large numbers of schools. With the release of this year’s ISAT scores, more schools are likely to be added to the restructuring list for next year.

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.

To contact Veronica Anderson, call (312) 673-3847 or e-mail anderson@catalyst-chicago.org.