Renaissance Watch: Applicants face new review process

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Chicago International Charter School-Avalon/South Shore

photo by John Booz

Chicago International Charter School-Avalon/South Shore

Last year, applicants for Renaissance 2010 schools ran a three-tiered gauntlet to win approval.

First, they faced a team of experts from inside and outside the system. Next, some schools had to sell themselves to a Transition Advisory Council made up of community representatives. Finally, schools competed for startup funds from New Schools for Chicago, the business-backed nonprofit group that is funneling private support for Renaissance 2010 schools.

But the setup was cumbersome and, in one case, led to friction between CPS and the transition council for Lucy Flower Campus when the Chicago Tribune reported that the district was planning to approve a second school for Flower—before the council had weighed in with its recommendation.

This year, Chicago Public Schools sought to improve the selection process by bringing together all the stakeholder groups to review applications from the start. In addition, the district will hold public forums to give communities a chance to meet and question some prospective school operators before the School Board makes its final selection.

Overall, those who served on the new teams praised the new process. “Chicago is pushing to be at the edge of innovation,” says Elizabeth Evans, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. She says she spent about four hours reading each of the eight proposals her team reviewed, and that her team spent two hours on each interview, including preparation and debriefing. “This group was extremely respectful. Everyone had value to add.”

But some activists say the forum setup still falls short of giving the community a real voice in choosing new schools. And some schools will be left out in the cold without grants. New Schools for Chicago has yet to meet its $50 million fundraising goal, and the group recently hired the Alford Group, a consulting firm that works with non-profit organizations, to help raise money. New Schools declined to say how much cash it has raised so far.

Community forums just window dressing?

The public forums were instituted as a result of focus groups held by the district with school applicants, transition council members and district staff after the first round of Renaissance selection last year.

The district will begin hosting the forums later this fall, in an effort to give communities a chance to meet and talk with groups that submitted applications for schools in non-CPS facilities.

Since independent applications did not face a transition council review, “there was a feeling that individual sites did not have to show a high burden of proof that communities desired to work with them,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski, director of the office of small schools for CPS. Community forums “would provide a more thorough vetting of their proposals, in public and in neighborhoods. That’s why we’re going to try it.” District officials will be watching to see how applicants are received, she adds.

“We hope that there will be a perception emerging whether the community likes the school group and the group likes the community,” says Nowaczewski.

One neighborhood leader says the district needs to do more to make the forums a real opportunity for community input.

“If it was a genuine process, they would partner [ahead of time] with a group that has roots in the community, to bring out the people,” says Jitu Brown, president of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. “There would be a survey in the community to see what people want.”

Guidelines help eliminate bias in selection

The forums will be part of the second phase of the new review process. In the first phase, Comprehensive Evaluation Teams—made up of district officials, outside experts and transition council representatives—read proposals and interviewed representatives from the institutions that submitted them. The new teams worked this summer on proposals submitted in August for the 2006-07 school year.

Each CPS facility slated to be part of Renaissance was assigned one team to evaluate all the applications for schools seeking to open in the building. Other teams evaluated the proposals that did not have a site yet.

After the interviews, the teams work together to decide which applications should move to the second round.

To help teams rate the interviews and proposals, New Schools for Chicago and the district created a rubric to guide the process. Applicants are rated in five areas: school mission and pedagogy, community involvement, leadership and governance, educational plan, and operations and finance.

The rubric gave teams common ground for ranking the applications, says Phyllis Lockett, executive director of New Schools for Chicago. “You’ve got to have some kind of measure,” she says. “We have a much better benchmark for that this year. It takes away the subjectivity and bias that anyone would have coming into a process like this.”

The evaluation teams will narrow the pile of applications presented to the full transition councils in the second phase of the process.

Meanwhile, board members from New Schools for Chicago will review the narrowed pool and determine grant awards. The group provided guidelines to this year’s applicants, saying they are more likely to fund small schools in neighborhoods where existing schools have failed for long periods.

Schools of choice that demonstrate innovation in some way—such as a specialized curriculum, non-traditional school calendar, or a new way of teacher evaluation—will be favored.

“We’re happy to look at charter, contract or performance schools,” says Sandy Guthman, president of the Polk Bros. Foundation and a New Schools board member. “We want schools that really are going to make their own decisions in the best interest of the kids. We want to have the best proposals, and the ones with the team that has the capacity to pull them off.”

Renaissance Watch is an occasional feature that casts an analytical, behind-the-headlines eye on the ambitious yet controversial Renaissance 2010 plan.