District amps up autonomy

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Chicago’s latest school autonomy effort appears to be an emperor with no clothes. Now in its second year, the Autonomous Management and Performance Schools initiative, better known as AMPS, offers schools a measure of freedom as reward for a track record of sound operations and high student achievement. But just how much freedom do they get? Not much more, at this point, than what’s available to regular public schools.

Of the 10 “autonomies” originally offered to AMPS schools, only three—budget flexibility, the option to drop area oversight and the freedom to train new teachers in-house—carved out substantial new turf for school control. And while freed from middle management out in the field, AMPS schools now report to a new management layer at central office.

Still, principals say the emperor is at the very least wearing a pair of socks. They credit the district’s fledgling AMPS office for helping them learn to operate and innovate with extra autonomy.

“They certainly are there if you need them,” says Cydney Fields, principal of Ray Elementary in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, school officials are hard at work crafting funding reforms that would substantially beef up the level of autonomy AMPS schools have and possibly revolutionize the way the district operates overall. Metaphorically, the emperor may soon don full ceremonial dress.

Here’s a snapshot of the big changes to come:

Want fries with that reading coach?

Work is already underway on a new financial model that will turn on its head the way central office currently interacts with schools. Cash for services, as it is called, requires that the district hammer out a pricing sheet for every service it offers to schools. This menu, of sorts, would include anything from reading coaches and literacy programs to extra help with school finances or even carpet cleaning.

In Edmonton, Alberta, where cash for services was pioneered, schools plan their budgets by paging through a nine-page catalog of district services that spells out terms and pricing for each. Principals are free to spend money as they see fit, even if that means tossing aside the catalog and buying the services and products from someone else. The idea is to treat schools as customers and force school districts to compete in the marketplace. They can earn their keep by providing top-notch services to schools, or not do so and wither on the vine.

Chicago wants to give that kind of buying power to principals, particularly those at the helm of the district’s top-performing schools. Timing for a full transformation remains unclear, but CPS plans to introduce a shortened menu of central services to schools when budgeting starts this spring, says Melissa Megliola, who oversees AMPS schools.

AMPS schools already have a preview of what’s to come. The district gives AMPS principals $800 for every first-year teacher on staff, plus a smaller amount for second-year staff, to be used for new teacher induction. Principals can purchase those services from the district’s GOLDEN teacher induction program, from an outside vendor, or create something in-house. Last year, more than half the 80 AMPS schools took the money elsewhere. This year, only about 40 percent opted out of GOLDEN.

Principal Karen Koegler from Onahan Elementary stayed with GOLDEN, noting that the program offers induction experts and a chance for Onahan’s new teachers to mingle with others from across the district. “It’s important to keep our new and young teachers in the city, and I think if this can help by having a little network of their own, then it’s very important,” she notes.

At Ariel Community Academy, Principal Lennette Coleman kept the extra money and spent it on in-house mentoring. Rather than sending new teachers to GOLDEN’S weekly mentoring session, Ariel’s seven new teachers get constant feedback from a teacher across the hall or just upstairs, she adds.

It’s your money—you decide

Setting a menu of services and pricing is the precursor to Chicago Public Schools’ ability to get another budgeting initiative—this one geared to ensure greater funding equity between schools—off the ground.

Per-pupil budgeting, which is also called weighted student funding or zero-based budgeting, sets a base level of money per student that will be provided to schools and then provides additional funds on a per-pupil basis to cover the costs of individual students’ special needs, such as poverty, learning disabilities or language barriers.

While traditional budgeting shells out resources to schools based on complicated staffing formulas, per-pupil budgeting offers schools a lump-sum of money based on student headcounts. Principals then can hire as many or as few teachers as they wish and purchase books and other goods as needed within the confines of their budgets.

Two years ago, district leaders championed its conversion to per-pupil budgeting and announced that AMPS and Renaissance 2010 schools would be among the first to try it out. But the idea has gained little traction since then, especially among principals, many of whom are unfamiliar with the concept and fear that a switch will result in their schools losing money.

“We’ve looked at this from every angle and no one wants it,” said one new school principal in 2005, when per-pupil budgeting was first introduced.

The original plan called for Renaissance schools to make the switch first, then AMPS schools, and then every school in the district. That didn’t happen. Today, five non-charter schools—Pershing West, Sherman, Tarkington, Uplift and Austin Entrepreneurship High—are currently using the per-pupil budgeting model. AMPS schools never got the chance, a snag that Executive Finance Officer Pedro Martinez wants to undo this fall by offering them the option.

If schools make the switch, the extra spending control they get dovetails with the district’s cash-for-services model. Budget officials are not yet sure which schools will get a crack at the new menu, but the more unmarked dollars in a school’s budget, the more money that school can use to buy extra services from the district.

Persuading schools to go per-pupil will be a tough sell, however.

All but one of the 12 AMPS principals interviewed by Catalyst Chicago feared the new approach would eat into their bottom line. That’s because compared to regular public schools, AMPS schools tend to employ a higher proportion of highly paid teachers—a cost that they don’t have to shoulder under the traditional budgeting system.

“I have a pretty experienced and educated staff,” notes Fields of Ray Elementary. “They are expensive people.”

Interns Sarah Levy and Marisol Mastrangelo contributed to this report

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.