Doing good over the long haul

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When one approaches school reform you can stay at the wading pool level or dive into the deep end. Either way you’re engaged. But the deeper you go, the closer you come to the intractable problems in the neighborhoods, where for generations schools have been failing and kids drowning.

I’ve certainly been at the wading pool level. But gradually over the last 25 years, I’ve realized that meaningful change will come only when talented professional educators are given the freedom and opportunity to truly change the circumstances for children in public schools.

The real heavy lifting is not done by do gooders like me. It must be done by extraordinary principals, assistant principals, and teachers who have talent and training. Too few of us actually have an opportunity to work with talented educators who can make it happen at the school level. The work is harder, it’s dirtier, and it’s not as much fun.

After generations of deprivation, these kids have learned how to survive in a world that lies to them. They’ve seen people come and go, and their eyes just glaze over. Who can blame them? They’ve seen it too often. But when you see the real thing happening with professionals like Jarvis Sanford and his staff at Dodge, then you know you’re backing people who will make a real difference.

Here’s an example of misguided activity on my part. Not that many years ago, I had an idea to improve Englewood High School—one of the city’s worst—through a combination of curricular enhancement, such as athletics, music and so forth. I said to then-CEO Paul Vallas that if he found a good principal, I would raise the money for music, athletics and other after-school activities.

Well that was an incredibly well meaning, but naïve idea. We did add some surface things, but the principal was not up to it, other leadership was not strong, and there were far too few teachers who were really devoted to change. I could show up at a football game, and parents would cheer.

But nothing was happening at Englewood. Maybe just a better football team. The school remained a mess.

So beware of the do-gooder who hasn’t learned the hard lessons of what it takes to change an elementary school or a high school. It requires a major infusion of men and women who are trained and deeply committed to working with those kids over a five-, ten-year period to change the dynamic and the culture of that school.

Smarter people than I might have seen from the beginning that this was the correct approach. Looking back, I would have been far more efficient, more far-sighted and would have listened more carefully to smart, experienced principals and teachers. It took me a long time to get there.

Everybody counts Golden Apple as a success. I do too. Most Chicagoans know about the 10 teachers awarded each year. Less well known is that the Golden Apple Scholars program graduates 125 young people each year from college who are mentored by Golden Apple teachers and dedicated and committed to teaching in schools of need for at least five years. Teachers for Chicago was my first attempt at teacher training. We were trying to capture mid-career people, bring them into schools and train them. It was a good idea at the time., but until it evolved into the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) of today, it was a weak sister, a mere shadow. But we didn’t know any better.

Then there was LAUNCH, the principal training program. It was not very effective and needs to be revitalized or replaced. The district no longer supports it, but surely there must be an initiative that is capable of training 40 or 50 principal candidates each year.

Those years of dabbling at Englewood and starting and stopping Teachers for Chicago gradually led to creation of an entity that would do a first-rate, thorough job of training men and women as teachers, and then finding a way to place them at disadvantaged schools. That then led to the idea of turnaround schools. Years ago, we talked to Arne Duncan and asked if he was willing to consider a conversion strategy. His leadership has given AUSL the opportunity to create turnaround schools in Chicago’s most disadvantaged situations. Sherman was the first such turnaround school staffed by Residents trained by AUSL together with a group of master teachers. Harvard, the second such school, will open in September. We expect a steady stream of elementary and high schools to follow in this pattern. All schools will be staffed by mentor teacher leaders and AUSL trained Residents.

The biggest challenge has been getting everyone to come together to make the American dream come alive for these kids and not wasting time fighting with each other about whether it’s better to be a contract school or a charter or this or that. As long as they’re staffed with well-trained men and women, they will show the way to real change.

There’s a plan that says the bottom 100 schools in Chicago must not be allowed to prevail. We must attack those schools and see to it that life for those kids is simply better. That they are well educated. That they can read and compute. That they understand their history and are eager to go on to high school, not waiting to drop out.

As good as district leaders are in Chicago—and there is positive movement—they are so beset with day-to-day problems and outside criticisms that, politically, they are forced to talk about successes. That’s human nature. But by the same token, we have to draw lines in the sand. Mayor Daley is drawing those lines. One of those lines must be raising the high school graduation rate to 80 percent or 90 percent.

Chicago has been fortunate among big American cities to have a unique civic culture, but today, business people are so committed to success in their businesses, they really don’t have a lot of time to devote to outside activities, particularly not for a hands-on effort. We need to look to retired businessmen and women or people who have achieved success and can stop doing what they’re doing to look for new avenues for their experiences and talents.

For these people to make a real difference in schools, they need to be briefed on the essential elements that can change a school and change a neighborhood. They’ve got to listen to educators and people who are doing a good job in secondary schools having to do with job readiness. What does it take for a kid to be job ready in today’s world? I don’t think we yet have a good fix on that in Chicago. Businessmen helping Chicago Public Schools could do a hell of a job.

If there were 10 more business people deeply involved in improving public education, I think that you’d find a fair number of high schools would be performing better.

As far as improving schools goes, we’re about one third of the way to the finish line. We’ve got to get this Governor to raise more money for schools. At a time like this, a no-tax increase pledge is ludicrous. We’ve got to have more money. Job readiness programs don’t happen without thoughtful expenditure. Curricular enhancement—whether it’s dance or music or drama or athletics or whatever—is necessary, too. Starting in 3rd and 4th grade, it’s important to capture kids, to get them hooked. When I was in high school I didn’t care a whole lot about algebra, but I knew if I didn’t show up for class I wasn’t going to make the baseball team.

Three things must be on Chicago Public Schools’ agenda going forward: principal recruitment and training, teacher quality and school turnarounds. In a good year, New Leaders for New Schools trains about 20 principal candidates in Chicago and the doctoral program at the University of Illinois-Chicago trains another 15.

We have to consciously prepare literally hundreds of men and women for work in our most demanding schools. And frankly, what I’ve learned is that it takes a yearlong program like the Academy for Urban School Leadership to accomplish this, and this General Assembly has got to be prepared to raise more money for such quality programs.

Last, we must execute more school turnarounds. Whether they’re managed by AUSL or several other vendors, we must have a conscious effort to turn around those lowest-performing 75 elementaries and 20 high schools. For the next decade, that should be the highest priority for CPS.

Our team at the Academy for Urban School Leadership is looking to take on up to 15 more elementaries and four more high schools. I think CPS must also turn to Noble Street, Perspectives, San Miguel’s Catalyst and others to manage future turnaround schools.

Martin “Mike” J. Koldyke is founder and chairman of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which manages six elementary schools and two high schools. Koldyke also created the Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching, which is annually presented to 10 teachers in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, and Will counties. He is the retired founder of Frontenac Co., a venture capital firm.