Q&A with Alan Anderson

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Alan Anderson

Photo by John Booz

Alan Anderson

Next school year, CPS is taking a gamble that its “turnaround” strategy will transform six underperforming schools with new principals, teachers and curricula. Signaling that the strategy is here to stay, the district created the new turnarounds office, led by Anderson, a one-time engineer who joined CPS as a Broad Foundation fellow. Data and Research Editor John Myers sat down with Anderson to talk about the challenges ahead.

This is only the start of the Academy for Urban School Leadership turnarounds at Harvard and Sherman. Is there convincing evidence for pushing ahead with more?

When you look at the performance of a school, the first thing everyone looks at is state assessments. There’s a lot more that goes into it—attendance, the number of violent incidents, teacher attendance, community engagement. We’ve seen those things improving, and we want to accelerate that progress.

What challenges will high schools present?

One challenge is, how are you going to find the staff?  One of the ways is by leveraging the human resources efforts of the district. Another is partnering with the New Teacher Project, Teach for America, local universities and AUSL. We have the same challenges of finding specialists, such as special education and math teachers. By partnering together, we’re not going to fight over the same people. 

Is there something unique about high schools versus elementary?

Just from one data point—parental involvement—it’s very different. There’s a lot more independence, more social ills, more pressure on a child. Part of our strategy to address social and emotional needs is being able to have targeted solutions at every stage of that child’s educational career.

What will CPS do differently from AUSL?

One of the main differences is with regard to staff.  AUSL will use staff from its training academies. Our philosophy is to hire people with more experience. We’ve been screening for leaders who’ve actually turned around schools, while AUSL found highly energetic, great leaders who haven’t necessarily been principals. Their philosophy is, “We know we’re nimble enough to provide support on a case-by-case basis a lot quicker than the district.”

How will incentive pay work at AUSL schools and the CPS turnarounds?

CEO Arne Duncan wants to have consistent incentives. One of the things we’re thinking about is performance contracts for principals based on ratings on a myriad of different metrics.

Only a few of the teachers at Harvard were rehired. Is that what teachers in these other schools can expect?

It could be. You want it to really feel like a new environment.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave AUSL $10.3 million, some of it to be used for two high schools yet to be named. Would those be South Shore and Bowen?

Those schools haven’t performed at the rate we love to see, but there are a number of schools performing even worse. So, the jury’s still out.

How much extra spending will go into these schools?

For FY08, the district may be putting up about $500,000 per school. The high schools may be closer to $750,000. We think we can sustain that for three to five years.

What did you take away from the public hearings on turnarounds and closings?

One thing parents said is, “You’ve got to have some dialogue with the students.” We need to discuss the challenges that they’re seeing—what are the attachment issues they may have with existing staff—and try to address that. We’re really committed to making sure that happens.