Anyone want a turnaround?

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Updated April 22, 2008–The city’s biggest charter school operator is gearing up to enter the school turnaround game, and the district is taking the first steps to coax more private managers into the mix.

Chicago International Charter Schools has partnered with the NewSchools Venture Fund, based in San Francisco, to form a new nonprofit subsidiary to handle turnarounds. Dubbed ChicagoRise, the subsidiary plans to take over at least one elementary school by September 2009.

Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of CICS, says the district and her organization discussed the idea for years before moving forward, since stepping into an established but struggling school and making sweeping changes over the summer poses high hurdles.
“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s hard,” Purvis says.

CPS recently issued a special call for turnaround projects with its annual request for Renaissance 2010 proposals—a move that prompted an initial rebuke from a spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union, which opposes the firing of teachers under the turnaround approach and wants the district to turn over more schools to the union-run Fresh Start program. (See graphic.) The union’s rocky relationship with charter operators adds yet another combustible element.

The new Office of School Turnarounds has met with charter operators in California—including the well-known Green Dot—to discuss the turnaround strategy. Another prospective deal appears to be in the works with Victory Schools, which operates several East Coast charter schools and already runs two charters in Chicago under the CICS flag.

Meanwhile, the head of one group notes that CPS must do more to pave the way for prospective operators by addressing community concerns about the turnaround strategy.
Invited to the fast track?

In November, CPS invited Victory, CICS, American Quality Schools and the Academy for Urban School Leadership—all management groups with Renaissance 2010 schools in their portfolios—to pilot the turnaround application process. Two months later, AUSL was selected to take over Orr High (which houses three small schools) and Morton and Howe elementary schools this fall.

The invitation suggests these organizations are on the fast track to win turnaround contracts for 2009. The new schools office, however, says each proposal—solicited and unsolicited alike—will be considered carefully and equally.

Michael Bakalis, president and CEO for American Quality Schools, says it’s premature for any organization to consider its bid a shoo-in. It’s also premature for the district to assume his group will reapply, he notes.

Under the pilot process, AQS submitted a plan to turn around an unspecified elementary school in the Austin neighborhood that would feed into the group’s new Renaissance high school, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy. Bakalis says he may very well submit an updated proposal this spring, but only if the district has a well-formed plan to address community concerns.

“This is as much political as it is educational,” Bakalis says. “The first step is that the community has to believe that the schools they have are not serving their kids well.” Even if schools are low-performing, he adds, “sometimes, people are very attached to their neighborhood schools.”

Alan Anderson, who heads the CPS turnarounds office, says the district is “trying to work very much in sync” with CICS and other potential operators. “We try to meet frequently around some of the challenges with regard to how to create a school, how to deal with issues of climate and so forth.”

Margaret Harrington, Victory’s chief operating officer, says she needed little coaxing to consider getting into Chicago’s market, where financial and organizational help for new school operators abounds. Victory is well-schooled in the turnaround game, she contends, having launched six turnaround efforts in Philadelphia six years ago.

Victory’s nonprofit spin-off, Chicago Schools Performance Group, appears poised to jump into the game. Harrington says district officials have all but assured her that the group will take over at least one elementary school in 2009. Also under consideration, she says, are turnarounds at a high school and another elementary.

Union wants input

The ChicagoRise school, if it wins its bid, will operate as a contract school. The NewSchools Venture Fund—which has already committed nearly $150,000 to find the right senior leadership for ChicagoRise—will chip in another $200,000 once a deal is inked with CPS and other milestones are reached.

 

CICS, like Victory, is a charter operator, and getting it into the business of running a contract school that operates outside its charter could stir up trouble with the teachers union. The union has long opposed lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed to operate in the city. Legislative proposals are in the works in Springfield to bring more charters to Chicago.

John Ostenburg, chief of staff to union president Marilyn Stewart, says the CTU will wait for more details before attacking district plans to further expand the turnaround initiative. But the union’s opposition seems assured.

“Even principals tell us that the board is just gung-ho on the idea of contracting out [school operations],” he says. “Chicago International is a good example of the public education system being turned over to a private system. The only thing that is public about them is they’re using public dollars.”

The CTU recently filed a grievance with the district over turnaround schools, arguing that the district violated the union contract by failing to engage a joint union-board committee to negotiate over turnaround expansion.

Says Ostenburg: “We want to have legitimate input.”

Ready, willing, able

Under CEO Arne Duncan, the district has warmed up considerably to the turnaround approach. Rather than closing schools outright—and sparking community anger—the district has used the turnaround approach.  New school leaders are brought in to hand-pick new staff and overhaul the curriculum over the summer, creating a radically different learning environment for kids the following school year.

 

To date, the district has tried the strategy only with AUSL, which specializes in developing new teachers and their skills. Under that group’s watch, test scores have increased faster than citywide rates at Sherman and Dodge elementary schools.

In January, CPS announced a major expansion of turnarounds, with AUSL’s takeover at Orr and two of its feeders and the district’s own turnaround of Harper High and two of its feeder schools.

The new Office of School Turnarounds will manage the Harper initiative, but it’s also charged with drumming up more management groups for future turnarounds. Having several operators fits neatly into the district’s overall strategy to create competition at every level of school governance, says Anderson.

“[Duncan] is a big competition guy,” notes Anderson. “He wants to be able to say, ‘Hey look, here’s a model that’s shown successes in this regard, and here’s another model that can show success in this other regard.’ ”

One of the first jobs that Anderson assigned to his staff: Visit Green Dot and St. Hope, both California-based charters with burgeoning reputations, to begin a dialog.

“The point is, they’ve gone out to just identify all the potential folks who may want to be looking to do this in future years,” says Anderson. “If there were 30 providers that were ready and basically positioned to actually do the work, we’d probably be using [them].”

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