What’s the charter strategy?

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If Chicago’s charter, Fresh Start and other school innovations are part
of a grand design to improve all the city’s schools, the folks on the
ground don’t know it.

That was one of the conclusions that a recent visitor from England
made after visiting one charter school (Perspectives, Joslin campus),
two Fresh Start schools (Hamline Elementary and Wells High) and one
turn-around school (Harper High).

If Chicago’s charter, Fresh Start and other school innovations are part of a grand design to improve all the city’s schools, the folks on the ground don’t know it.

That was one of the conclusions that a recent visitor from England made after visiting one charter school (Perspectives, Joslin campus), two Fresh Start schools (Hamline Elementary and Wells High) and one turn-around school (Harper High). The visitor was Jane Wreford, who once was director of school district inspections for England and Wales – district inspections are part of those countries’ school choice and accountability system.

Wreford says there was “some really good work going on” in the Chicago schools — she noted teacher mentoring and support and savvy systems to improve instruction – but that it was going on in isolation.

“The piecemeal approach is striking,” she says. “We found a lot of common features between the projects but not much working across them. People didn’t talk of sharing learning or developing a strategic approach to improving the whole system. Maybe it’s happening higher up, but the people on the ground don’t know.”

Indeed, charter schools, Fresh Start schools and turnaround schools all operate in their own little universes.

Wreford also offered a caution that rings true in Chicago. England’s reliance on market forces to drive up school quality virtually sunk some schools, especially in inner-urban communities. As Catalyst first reported in its December, 2001 issue on high schools of last resort, urban choice leaves a residue of schools with dense concentrations of special education and low-scoring students. Our February 2008, “The Class of 2011,” provides an up-close look at one of those schools, Marshall High. 

“Like you, we are trying all sorts of approaches, with mixed success,” says Wreford. One of the better ones, she says, is “federating” failing schools with strong schools. That’s akin to a model that Don Moore of Designs for Change has been recommending for decades – use outstanding schools as learning sites.

—Linda Lenz