Schools divided on project price tag; some buy in, others back out

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Beginning in September, 14 CPS schools will test run the district’s multimillion dollar high school transformation project, an initiative designed to improve curriculum and instruction in core subjects.

Two months ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was giving $21 million for the effort. Initially, 15 schools were to be involved during year one, but cost was a factor for at least one school that considered the idea, then backed out.

Participation was voluntary, and the selection process was designed to check for buy-in among staff, as well as other indicators of readiness, says Angus Mairs, who has shepherded the project through its initial stages. “We had always said we are not going to force [it] if there are not 15 schools ready to go.”

Most principals interviewed by Catalyst Chicago thought highly of the new curriculum being offered, yet concerns about coaching, curricular fit with existing approaches and costs kept some schools out. “I was into it until I saw the cost on the school end,” says Principal John Butterfield of Mather High in West Ridge.

During the first year, participating high schools only pick up $250 of the $1,250 per pupil price tag for the new curricula. But later their share grows. By year three, Butterfield estimates that Mather would spend about 25 percent of its discretionary budget, which this year is $1.8 million. “No way could I gut what I’m already doing,” he says.

Schools like Mather, where 32 percent of juniors met or exceeded state academic standards last year, have the luxury of taking a pass. But some schools with rock-bottom scores see things differently.

At Dyett High in Washington Park, where only 8 percent of juniors met state standards, Principal Jacquelyn Lemon has no problem with the cost. “We have to transform this school and this school community,” says Lemon, who notes Dyett’s ongoing struggle with student achievement and discipline. “For what we’re getting, the price is minimal.”

The project is the second systemwide effort in nine years aimed at reforming Chicago’s high schools. The first time, the only lasting change was an increase in coursework required for graduation, which researchers say has contributed to a slight improvement in graduation rates.

This time, the district is hoping for dramatic improvements in students’ academic achievement. The project is focused on bringing tougher, more engaging curriculum into high school classrooms and giving teachers the tools and coaching they need to shift away from lecture format and toward project-based, individualized teaching. CPS has also contracted with American Institutes for Research to create new ways to assess what students have learned and to evaluate the new curricula.

CPS has hired seven curricular vendors—two for math and English; three for science. Each of them will hire a manager to oversee a staff of core subject coaches, who are slated to be on board by mid-June.

In mid-May, the district advertised nationally for coaches, but curriculum developers say they welcome hires from within. “I’m pretty confident we’ll find qualified coaches within CPS,” says David Hart, chief operating officer for Carnegie Learning, which has already tapped a district employee to oversee its coaches. Coaches will be considered teachers on loan, and will be paid union scale salaries based on education and experience.

Leading the work is Allan Alson, who will supervise all the vendors as they implement curriculum, coaching and student assessments. Alson will also meet with principals monthly to troubleshoot and provide professional development. The district is also advertising for a replacement for Donald Pittman, the outgoing head of high school programs. How the transformation project will work with that office has yet to be determined.

Alson says a national search is also being conducted for two coaches to work with principals.

Principals welcome the intensive coaching, for themselves and their faculties. “It gives you much more opportunity to ask questions,” observes Principal Euel Bunton of Phillips High in Douglas.

“We’ve been making gradual improvement,” says Bunton. “This would move us forward at a much faster rate.”

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