WebExtra: McMagnet schools for Chicago?

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Posted June 18, 2007– CEO Arne Duncan is floating the idea of “franchising” Chicago’s stellar schools, but the concept is in its infancy and no one knows exactly how it would work.

The question is whether sought-after programs like Whitney Young or Lincoln Park high schools and magnet elementary schools have branding power in the same way that well-regarded universities do, notes one school official. “Would those names draw people’s interest?” asks Steve Washington, chief of staff to School Board President Rufus Williams.

Top-level district officials have tapped the school demographics department to figure out where such highly-touted schools are needed and whether replicating them would work.

“We are still thinking about what would it mean,” Washington says. “Is it a good idea, a bad idea? Does it make sense?”

Still unclear is whether these franchise schools would selectively admit students, Washington adds. For instance, Lincoln Park High—often ranked the best school in the nation—admits many students solely on the basis of the school’s attendance boundaries.

Last month, Duncan brought up the idea of franchising good high schools at a talk he gave to visiting state education officials from across the country. He noted three types of high schools in Chicago: Those that are among the best in the state, those in the middle and those at the bottom that historically have struggled and continue to do so.

Schools at or near the bottom in performance are being nudged toward the district’s high school transformation initiative, which seeks to raise academic rigor and student performance. But Duncan argued that there also needs to be more opportunities for those students who are high performing.

Currently, there are about 7,000 students who test well enough to get into selective enrollment high schools, but there is only enough room for some 3,200 students among eight schools.

“We need to create more seats,” Duncan said.

Principals weigh in on franchising

District officials are forming a loose-knit working group of principals to explore the idea of franchising schools.

Principal Joyce Kenner of Whitney Young says Duncan has mentioned franchising to her before, and she thinks the idea to create more schools that have the same standards, structure and curriculum as hers is a good one.

As elementary schools in Chicago improve, they should be producing more students who qualify for selective secondary schools, she says. However, Kenner is not so sure that she could handle overseeing another campus or, if the other campus had a different principal, that she would trust the brand-name Whitney Young to someone else.

“Let’s put it this way, there’s only one Joyce Kenner,” she says.

Bessie Karvelas, principal of Lincoln Park High School, has not yet been approached with the franchise idea. However, students travel long distances to attend Lincoln Park and she can envision creating extensions in other neighborhoods.

“This could be like the main corporate office,” she says.

At LaSalle Language Academy, a magnet elementary school, 92 percent of students meet or exceed state standards. Some 900 parents from across the city apply for their children to be admitted to LaSalle’s kindergarten class of 60.

Principal Amy Narea says she has always thought her school would be replicated. Another campus of LaSalle would be based on the same model as the original, but flexible enough for the staff there to add their own touches, Narea proposes. “Like a model home where you can customize the finishes,” she says.

Charters paved the way

Franchising is already familiar ground for charter schools. KIPP charter schools across the country, for instance, share the same name and some core values, such as a longer school day and hours and a college-preparatory mission. Yet each KIPP schools’ principal and faculty are free to develop their own curriculum.

Likewise, Noble Network of Charter Schools runs three campuses in Chicago. Chief Operating Officer and Superintendent Mike Milkie says this is partly because there are limited licenses for charter schools in Illinois so instead of creating new schools, they are forced to franchise the existing one.

Noble Street campuses all have their own principals and curriculum. However, principals of new Noble Street schools spend a year interning at an existing campus to learn the ropes. Then, they meet regularly with each other and Milkie. Each campus has the same discipline code, which is different from the district’s, and they share a common culture.

Going to any campus, “you sort of feel as though you are in the same school, but on another level there’s differences,” Milkie says.