‘We have a chance … to be the best school system in America’

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Arne Duncan and Barbara Eason-Watkins

Arne Duncan and Barbara Eason-Watkins

A major focus for the district’s two top leaders, CEO Arne Duncan and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, is to provide training and support for principals and teachers. Duncan and Eason-Watkins sat down with Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte to talk about their vision for CPS on the August 12 edition of “City Voices,” the monthly radio show broadcast on WNUA, 95.5 FM. Following is an edited version of the transcript.

Mayor Daley has said a longer school day is a priority for him. What are some of the ways to use an extended day?

EASON-WATKINS: Clearly, many of our students still need to have additional time to focus on the basics, reading and mathematics. But beyond that, it’s critical that our children have opportunities such as the robotics program that was part of our summer school. We need to make sure that our children have a variety of enrichment opportunities. Access to dance, arts and sports is key to ensuring that our children are well-rounded.

What is your vision for the next few years? What do both of you want to see?

EASON-WATKINS: Our vision remains unchanged. We’re committed to ensuring that Chicago Public Schools becomes a premier urban district. That means our children are progressing at high levels, we have high-quality instruction and the broader community is engaged in and supportive of our work.

DUNCAN: I’d echo that. Our goal is to become the best school system in America. Barbara and I, and our team, are convinced that not 10 years from now, but literally in the next two years, we have a chance to do that. We want to continue to drive student achievement [up]. We’re continuing to see more students graduate and go on to great universities. We want to get the dropout rate down absolutely as low as we can. On the elementary side, we’re thrilled with the number of students, basically two-thirds of all students and three-quarters of 8th-graders, meeting state standards. The next challenge is to get more of those students exceeding state standards. We don’t want to become complacent.

How do you motivate people and get the public aware of the level of work that still needs to be done to have kids, as you say, not just meet standards, but exceed them?

EASON-WATKINS: We’ve been trying to deliver the message that even if we have more than 60 percent of students meeting standards, we still don’t have 100 percent. We’ve been trying to talk about the critical issues that [affect] achievement. Our back-to-school message has been focused on attendance. We’ve tried to emphasize that the first day is a full day of quality instruction.

DUNCAN: One of the joys of working here in Chicago is that anywhere you go, whether it’s to churches or talking to community groups or the business community or religious leaders, everyone shares the goal of having Chicago be the best school system in America. Now, people have different ideas [on how to do that], which is healthy. Debate is great. So I don’t think we need to continue to push that. Everyone wants this to work. Everyone wants this to be successful. We need to continue to work together. The more we’re all pushing in the same direction, the quicker we’re going to get to that goal of being the best [school district] in the country.

One of the strategies you’ve taken with Renaissance 2010 is to have outside groups take over schools. Do you expect to see more of that, as opposed to closing schools?

DUNCAN: I wouldn’t consider them an outside group. It’s the Academy of Urban School Leadership. These are Chicago Public Schools [with] union teachers. I see it very much as a partnership led by great teachers rolling up their sleeves and going to work in some of our toughest communities. We’ve been thrilled with that. As you know, Sherman Elementary was the first school [in which] we tried that this year. We’ve had phenomenal results. We have a great young principal there, Lionel Allen, and that school in its first year has made huge, huge strides. They had almost 100 students come back who lived in the area and had escaped that school to go elsewhere because their families weren’t comfortable with the education there. We’re going to do the same kind of turnaround program at Harvard Elementary this [fall]. We’ll look to do other elementary schools going forward, and we need to look at that strategy in future years at the high school level as well.

Advocates for local school councils are nervous that you want to take away their main power, which is to pick a principal. How can the district work better with local school councils?

DUNCAN: LSC’s are just like our schools. When you have over 600 schools, you have some extraordinarily high-functioning LSC’s, some LSC’s in the middle and some LSC’s, in a small handful of situations, that unfortunately are hurting children. As I said earlier, there’s nothing more important than leadership. We had a very disturbing situation happen this year [involving] arguably one of our top four or five high school principals, Jerryelyn Jones at Curie High School. Everything was going in the right direction—three or four years in a row of dropout rates going down, graduation rates going up, test scores going up. Somehow, that LSC chose to terminate her contract. That was staggering to me. Where LSC’s are doing a great job, obviously let’s continue that, but I can’t stand by idly when you see great leaders and improvements being tossed away. We desperately need more great principals, and we desperately need them at the high school level. So we decided to take a stand and say, “This is a superstar principal. Based upon any objective criteria, how can [someone] say she’s not doing a good job?” It just doesn’t make sense. We’re going to challenge that.

EASON-WATKINS: We value parental and community engagement in our schools. We encourage all of our schools to have strong parent programs, and we want to ensure that each and every school is moving forward with parents as our partners. We know that there aren’t any great schools that don’t have strong parent involvement.

We talked to several parents about school choice, and they say that they’re not so much interested in choice as much as having a good neighborhood school. How do you reconcile those two views?

DUNCAN: I think it has a little bit to do with the age of children. When children are in elementary school, you want a great local neighborhood school. That equation changes a bit at the high school level. As your children get older, you know what their skills and interests are, and having a diversity of options makes sense. So we have schools that focus on the trades, college preparatory schools, schools that focus on the International Baccalaureate curriculum and military academies. Your basic point is exactly right. We need every school to be a school of choice.

One issue, though, even with older kids, is getting to school. Traveling across the city can be dangerous. What can the district do to make it safer?

DUNCAN: That’s obviously something not just we as a district, but we as a society need to do. Over half of our high school students, about 52 percent, don’t go to the neighborhood school. We have to continue to work with the police and [community policing] programs. We’re trying to do more with ministers to ensure safe passage of students to and from school. The number of students that were killed this year is absolutely tragic. It was by far the hardest thing any of us had to deal with. We, as a society, have to do something about the availability of guns. We value our right to bear arms more than we value our children, and that has to change dramatically.

Let’s talk about principal leadership. A number of principals went to Harvard and the University of Virginia for extensive training this summer. How do you want to develop principals and teachers?

EASON-WATKINS: We have over 150 new principals this year, and we have spent a great deal of time thinking through what a quality leadership support program should look like. For the first time this year, we have leadership coaches for all of our new principals. These are retired principals and principals from other areas who are coming in to support our newcomers. In addition, all of our new principals have been part of a weeklong leadership program and they’ll have ongoing support. We’ve had our operations departments working with them. We’ve offered a lot of principal workshops over the summer, to help our principals refine their skills in a variety of ways.

We’re very pleased with the partnership we’ve had with Harvard [the Public Education Leadership Project] over the past few years. The University of Virginia has been supporting our turnaround schools. [That program] doesn’t just involve the principal—it’s for the [school] leadership team and that includes parents.

How did that work?

EASON-WATKINS: The leadership teams went to the University of Virginia and they’re going to have a follow-up retreat here. The goal is to ensure that everyone’s on the same page and they’re all working together to improve the schools. Earle is a turnaround school that had tremendous results last year under the leadership of Adrian Willis. As Arne mentioned with Sherman, the community is coming back to that school.

The district has more teachers who are National Board Certified. How do you get those teachers to have an impact on the whole school?

EASON-WATKINS: In many cases, our National Board Certified teachers are working in our turnaround schools. They can use their leadership to help improve the performance of other teachers in the building. More broadly, we are working to ensure that all of our teachers are improving their practice. We had 2,000 teachers participate in a week-long training for our new core literacy program. This morning, I attended a Striving Readers workshop [with] 500 teachers working on the middle school curriculum. That included not only reading [teachers], but other teachers who are going to be integrating reading strategies throughout the curriculum. About 400 teachers who started [math and science training] last fall are continuing their work with various universities.

The teachers’ contract is in negotiations now. What are your priorities for that?

DUNCAN: Our biggest priority is to do a fair contract that will be good for our teachers, good for students and good for our schools. The [labor] stability we’ve had over the past years, we want to continue. We have signed five-year agreements with all the [school] unions. Long-term stability is hugely important for our students, their families and our employees. We want to have a fair contract that doesn’t just maintain labor peace and stability, but helps to drive district improvements and helps us continue to get better.

You’ve been here six years, going into your seventh year. How long are you going to be here and what would you like to see in your successor? And people say they’d like to see an educator—Barbara, what about you as successor?

EASON-WATKINS: We’re a great team. We’re fully committed to becoming a premier urban school district. Our partnership, along with the collaboration with our board president, has just been phenomenal.

Arne, are you going anywhere any time soon?

DUNCAN: No, absolutely not. I’m in this for the long haul. I couldn’t be more proud of the team and how hard people are working. Part of the reason public education struggles is because there’s so much dramatic turnover. The average life span for someone in my job is two-and-a-half to three years. And then you wonder why children suffer at the back end. Having people of Barbara’s caliber, a board that’s absolutely committed, great talent throughout the district…I’m going to be clear: Barbara and I can’t begin to do this alone. Whether it’s the administrative team, whether it’s principals, whether it’s teachers, whether it’s local school council members, it takes all of us working extraordinarily hard. This is much bigger than education. We’re really trying to reverse or end poverty—85 percent of our students live in poverty. We all need to continue to work very hard to change our students’ lives through great educational opportunities.