Rocky start for renaissance

Print More
CPS public hearing

John Booz

CPS public hearing

Renaissance 2010 has touched off a firestorm. Its leading edge, a Chicago Public Schools effort to transform public schools in tandem with another agency’s plan to redevelop public housing, provoked a lawsuit over school closings and protests from longtime residents who fear they will be shut out. Some activists charge that the district wants to erode local school councils’ authority, and union representatives decry privatization.

These protests, however, likely will be the least of the district’s worries. CPS faces steep political and financial challenges to meet its goal of creating 100 new schools. School officials continue to dodge questions about its school closings policy, which parents and activists complain is vague and makes no provision for input from the community. The district’s budget is already stretched, and private donors are concerned about the prospects of sustaining a long-term commitment. In late September, charter operators and the sole business that has stepped up so far charged the district with low-balling funding for next year’s Renaissance schools.

“With any initiative this bold and far reaching, you’ve got to expect there’ll be some turmoil along the way,” observes Robin Steans, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools whose family’s foundation helped create North Lawndale College Prep Charter High. “For Renaissance 2010 to work, CPS has got to develop a sustainable funding scheme.”

Still, she is cautiously optimistic about its future. “You are never going to have a better alignment of people who want to see good quality schools in neighborhoods across Chicago.”

Another concern is whether the system has enough strong, credentialed teachers and principals to staff the new schools. And if they do, how long it will take for those people to forge stable, high quality leadership teams?

“There really has to be a pretty thoughtful human capital strategy that will build a pipeline of new teachers and new leaders,” says Timothy Knowles, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, who supports the plan.

Even critics will admit that they support creating new innovative schools. Ironically, the district’s move to support innovative education comes at the same time it tightens control over regular schools.

Last month, 212 elementary and high schools were placed on probation—the most ever. Meanwhile, rank and file educators say they’re trudging through ever-increasing layers of bureaucracy.

“This is hard work, and it’s becoming harder,” says Carlos Azcoitia, a principal of two schools in Little Village who left central office a year ago. He complains that there are “more requirements, more meetings” than when he was principal of Spry Elementary in the 1990s and only “a little more support for instruction.”

Elements of the district’s new schools plan are borrowed from similar efforts in Boston and New York, where results so far have been mixed. In Boston, some schools have become star performers, but their instructional practices have not been picked up elsewhere in the district. New York’s small high schools initiative was recently exposed for leaving hundreds of students jockeying at the last minute for seats.

Silence on school closings

Despite short notice, dozens of people turned out for public hearings on Renaissance 2010, including Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart, who had previously declined to comment on the topic. “It’s not what CPS is telling you about Renaissance 2010, it’s what they aren’t telling you,” she warned the audience at the hearing.

At the same hearing, newly hired CPS Senior Policy Adviser Lisa Scruggs told the audience that the Renaissance 2010 policy governs the creation of new schools, not the closing of old ones. Later, at the September board meeting, she said CPS is creating a policy to determine which schools will close under the initiative.

In February, the Board of Education adopted a policy on school closings giving itself wide latitude to close schools for both academic and non-academic reasons. Over the past four years, CPS has closed about two dozen schools, including, Terrell, Dodge and Williams elementaries; the latter two were reopened in 2003 as prototypes of Renaissance schools.

Public outrage over this year’s school closings already has sparked a lawsuit. In September, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless went to Circuit Court of Cook County on behalf of homeless families whose children attended two schools that were closed, charging CPS had violated a court order to preserve homeless children’s right to remain enrolled in one school no matter where they live. The group is seeking, among other things, to prevent CPS from closing more schools without developing a plan to get input from homeless parents and to minimize “educational disruption.”

Speaking to the City Council Education Committee, Schools CEO Arne Duncan deflected questions about which schools would be closed.

“There is no list, and there won’t even be a proposed list until sometime after the new year,” Duncan insisted.

The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group proposes that CPS give communities a year’s notice about school closings, and that it collaborate with local school councils on how to proceed. The group also calls on the district to make sure schools where displaced students are assigned are not overcrowded and are meeting academic requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“By being very close-mouthed on who is next, people are operating on panic and hysteria,” warns Mildred Wiley, the group’s board president who is also a senior director at Bethel New Life, a West Side community organization.

Some donors skittish

CPS says it will need $125 million to launch new schools, and expects $50 million of that to come in private money. Startup funds are earmarked for early hiring, planning expenses, computers, desks and other equipment.

In June, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago announced it already had raised $30 million. President R. Eden Martin says they’ve raised “quite a lot more” from corporations since then, but declined to give specifics. The most prominent corporate donation to date comes from the law firm of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, which pledged $1 million over five years to support the launch of Legacy Charter School in North Lawndale.

With the exception of the Chicago Community Trust, which helped lead the Civic Committee’s fundraising effort, the foundation community appears to be skittish. Foundation officers Catalyst Chicago spoke with expressed concern that private funders will be asked to pick up more of the tab than they can sustain.

History indicates they have a point. The Corporate Community School of America was founded by businessman Joseph Kellman in 1988. The North Lawndale school attracted a variety of heavy-hitting donors and, during the years prior to the passage of Illinois’ charter school law, it was cited as a model for what charter schools might be. However, by 1995 the school could no longer sustain itself financially, and CPS took it over.

“This school had no books” and only three certified teachers, recalls Brenda Browder, now principal, who arrived as a teacher that summer. Now known as the Kellman Corporate Community School, it continues to receive support from Kellman’s foundation.

Unlike Kellman in its early days, Renaissance schools will receive public money from the start. But some will get more than others.

Those housed in CPS facilities, for instance, will be required to pay back to the district a portion of their per-pupil allotment for rent. As a result, the net per-pupil funds for those schools will be lower than charters and lower than the amount CPS spends in regular district schools. (See chart) Though some have raised concerns that the base funding is too low, CPS Budget Director Pedro Martinez says new schools are actually getting a break on the cost of a building. “They’re getting a building for such a low cost on a per pupil basis, it’s something they don’t have to worry about.”

However, others inside and outside CPS have expressed concern that the base funding amounts are so low they may scare off higher-quality providers. “Quality providers won’t respond, mediocre ones will,”notes one insider.

Currently, the district allocates about $5,000 per elementary school pupil and $6,000 per high school student, and additional money is allocated on a student basis for special education, bilingual and other services. Although charter school per pupil allotments are comparable, some are complaining about getting shortchanged. At public hearings, representatives from two schools asked the board to allocate more money for charters.

Facilities are another expense. While CPS says most Renaissance 2010 schools will share existing facilities, some will be housed in new buildings. The new North-Grand High, for instance, was built to relieve overcrowding at Kelvyn Park High in Hermosa. And CPS can expect the Latino community to continue pressing for Renaissance 2010 to include building more new schools in overcrowded, predominantly Latino areas.

Duncan has proposed housing schools in non-CPS facilities such as storefronts and other leased space. Boston’s pilot schools tried that, but it rapidly became too expensive. (See related story)

Some fear leadership brain drain

Optimism about the pipeline of high-quality principals and teachers is tempered by signs of trouble. Skeptics point to teachers’ hesitance to jump into school leadership, the likelihood of brain drain from existing schools, and staff turnover as startups gain their footing.

On the plus side, Chicago has 49 aspiring principals training in three programs this year—Leadership Academy and Urban Network for Chicago (LAUNCH), New Leaders for New Schools, and the Center for School Leadership at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). “Among the three programs you’ve got sufficient capacity to turn out principals you could have some high expectations about,” says Peter Martinez, director of the UIC Principals’ Center.

Despite these programs, growing a pool of strong principals remains difficult. Talented teachers who have administrative credentials sometimes shy away from leadership positions, especially in startup schools.

That increases the chances of ‘brain drain.’ Already, one charter school has been poached: Sonnenschein recruited Legacy Charter’s new principal, Lisa Kenner, from Triumphant Charter School.

And even when a new school’s staff is in place, the early years are often marked by turnover. Phoenix Academy churned through three principals in its first two years, and it took six years for Triumphant’s entire faculty to remain in place from one year to the next.

So far, privatizing schools has a mixed record of success, says Clive Belfield, research director for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Projecting best—and worst—case scenarios for Renaissance 2010, Belfield hones in on school quality and local politics. At best, he says, “is a bit of competition and a quiet life. The worst scenario is the union’s going to spend a lot of time fighting these schools, teacher turnover is going to be high, [and] parents won’t be satisfied with the quality.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.