11th-hour takeover on turnarounds

Print More

The Academy for Urban School Leadership already has a full plate of turnarounds, but the district has once again tapped the group to take on two more this year. 

The last-minute surprise move came after CPS failed to broker an agreement with charter-based operators to handle turnarounds at Dulles and Johnson elementary schools.

Community groups say CPS is moving too quickly to increase the workload of AUSL, claiming the group is, at best, untested over the long term.

But AUSL’s Tim Cawley, managing director of finance and administration, says his organization has the financial backing and teacher pipeline needed to get the job done.

The Academy for Urban School Leadership already has a full plate of turnarounds, but the district has once again tapped the group to take on two more this year. 

The last-minute surprise move came after CPS failed to broker an agreement with charter-based operators to handle turnarounds at Dulles and Johnson elementary schools.

Community groups say CPS is moving too quickly to increase the workload of AUSL, claiming the group is, at best, untested over the long term.

But AUSL’s Tim Cawley, managing director of finance and administration, says his organization has the financial backing and teacher pipeline needed to get the job done.

Indeed, AUSL has deep pockets, including three heavy-hitting backers: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund. Last year, AUSL reaped $10 million from Gates. The organization has also raised money from local philanthropists, including Bruce Rauner with the Chicago Public Education Fund, who helped bankroll upgrades to the track and football facilities on the campus of Orr High–AUSL’s first high school turnaround.

The organization is also well-funded by the district and has strong connections with CPS. David Vitale, the district’s former chief administration officer, is chairman of the AUSL board, for example.

As unionized performance schools, staff salaries are paid directly by CPS. The district also grants AUSL $300,000 for the so-called “incubation” phase of each turnaround. ($520,000 is paid out for high schools). The funding pays for a principal, an extra assistant principal and two other positions that focus on planning. In the first year of turnaround operation, the district also shells out an extra $120,000 for an extra assistant principal and an extra $420 per student ($500 for high schools) in operational funds.

Cawley maintains that adding two turnarounds won’t really increase AUSL’s workload. The organization was cleared to run three turnarounds this year, he says, but was originally given just two, Bethune and Holmes elementary schools. Adding Johnson and Dulles means just one more school than AUSL had originally planned. Because the four schools have small enrollments, the organization will actually be educating about 250 fewer kids than it had expected, Cawley explains.

AUSL has retained few teachers and other staff at its turnarounds, something that has tarnished its reputation with grassroots activists. Overall, about one to three teachers at elementary schools and 17 at the lone turnaround high school have stayed on board. But the teacher pipeline won’t be substantially affected by the last-minute turnarounds, Cawley maintains. The organization aims to fill 50 to 60 percent of the teaching jobs at elementary schools, and about 35 to 50 percent of the jobs at high schools, with graduates from its teacher residency program. Other open slots are filled with teachers who apply from elsewhere. (Cawley says teacher turnover is very low among the graduates of the AUSL residency program, which is now in its seventh year. More than 80 percent of the 243 graduates are still working in CPS, and altogether, nearly 90 percent of graduates are still in the field of education.)

Still, AUSL will have to set up new leadership teams at each school—principals and curriculum coaches—and stretch its resources to reach out to four new communities. The organization has identified three principals already, but declined to name them until the Board of Education officially approves the turnaround contracts. As for community outreach, AUSL has a bit of a leg up—the existing local school councils will not be disbanded, although they have been downgraded to advisory-only.