Highlights of a decade: 1996

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Taking office under new financial and labor rules, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school leadership team abruptly reversed more than a decade of program cutbacks.

Throughout the year, CEO Paul Vallas and his administration would unveil a dizzying array of new programs. Principal training and mentoring. Direct Instruction in many elementary schools. Development of new standardized tests. Revamped vocational education. More small schools. Expanded preschool. Longer school days. Freshman academies in high schools. Alternative schools for troublemakers and dropouts. Hiring parents as truant officers, crossing guards and parent/teacher mentors. Infant and toddler programs at selected high schools. College-based summer classes for gifted elementary and high school students. Apprenticeship projects for high school students. Tutor recruitment.

And then there were the biggies: Mandatory summer school for low-achieving students and a multibillion dollar plan to repair and rebuild schools.

The CPS bounty of new programs reached other institutions and community groups. The Reform Board signed contracts with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the United Neighborhood Organization, among other groups, to run parent programs in African-American and Hispanic schools. It contracted with the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association for principal training and mentoring. It funneled grants to private non-profit organizations to expand services to dropouts and disruptive students. Vallas himself made the rounds of churches, encouraging them to adopt schools and join the board’s Interfaith Partnership.

In one sense, this approach was in keeping with the spirit of decentralization: It avoided bureaucracy buildup. In another, it was at odds: Central office decided how and where the newly available money would be spent.

In an interview, Vallas was asked whether CPS had bitten off more than it could chew. “No,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We have just the right amount.”

One new program—Parents as Teachers First—was particularly ambitious. The idea was to train hundreds of welfare mothers in preschool education, then hire them as parent mentors and tutors for 1,500 children who couldn’t get into state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. Today, the parent tutor program serves an average of 9,400 children per month through home visits and in partnership with homeless shelters, public health clinics and the Field Museum.

Meanwhile, there was good news on citywide elementary school test scores. Reading scores were up in nearly every grade, and math scores either were up or had held steady. High school scores, on the other hand, declined across the board. Still, the mayor’s team received widespread praise for the new numbers, though critics pointed out that at testing time it had been on the job only eight months.

Leaders of the previous phase of school reform maintained that their long-term efforts were beginning to pay off. “I think that the large part of the credit should go to schools that have been working for the last six years to improve achievement,” Donald R. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, told the Chicago Tribune.

A subsequent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that “taken overall, the 1996 results appear for the most part to be embedded in longer-term trends.”