Schools get Fresh Start with union

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Five of the schools slated for restructuring will partner with the Chicago Teachers Union in a five-year deal that gives teachers more say and schools more autonomy.

The $2 million program—called Fresh Start—is a retooled version of the old CTU partnership schools initiative. It will include a total of 10 low-performing schools that have been on probation for at least a year and have missed performance targets set by the NCLB law for at least two.

Participating schools will have a new governance structure. An instructional leadership team will make decisions related to budgets, staffing, training and curriculum. Those teams will be comprised of up to nine people, including the principal, a member of the school’s LSC, CTU’s Fresh Start supervisor, a counterpart from CPS central office and three to five teachers, depending on the school’s size.

Fresh Start also provides schools with more time to improve test scores. “We never give schools enough time to implement a plan,” says Connee Fitch-Blanks of the CTU’s Quest Center.

Two of the restructuring schools—Hamline Elementary and Marshall High School—are new to the program and will have to select a schoolwide reform curriculum. The other three—Medill Elementary and Collins and Richards high schools—were part of the old partnership and can continue using the models they’ve already adopted.

The first CTU partnership schools program was launched in 2003 in 10 low-performing schools and produced mixed academic results: Test scores went up at four of the eight schools that are still open; scores in the rest went down.

The reform programs worked best at schools where teachers, principals and community residents were on board, says University of Memphis researcher Steven Ross, who studied the partnership schools through surveys, interviews and classroom observation.

Bass Elementary, which adopted Direct Instruction, was one of the original partnership schools where scores rose. Principal Granzlee Banks notes that the scripted curriculum helped improve student discipline as well. The school has applied to Fresh Start.

Principal Frederic Metz of Medill, another partnership school that saw scores increase, says there was also more community involvement at the school. The entire faculty was on board with the decision to keep going.

Schools in Fresh Start will have more autonomy than partnership schools did. “That’s huge,” says Marc Wigler, CTU’s Fresh Start supervisor.

The accountability measures will be tailored for each participating school, Wigler notes. “We aren’t just looking at scores.” Yet, when it announced the program in June, CPS stipulated that Fresh Start schools must make significant academic gains or face closure.

Also new will be peer evaluations, where highly skilled teachers help inexperienced teachers improve their skills.

The first order of business for Fresh Start schools this fall will be putting together leadership teams and writing a new school improvement plan. “This year will really be a planning year,” Wigler says. “The last thing we want to do is rush.”

Contributing editor Alexander Russo contributed to this report.