Putting the brakes on high school transformation

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An ambitious districtwide effort to overhaul high schools is in limbo.

After a three-year rollout that spanned 43 schools—just shy of the
target of 50—there are no schools in the pipeline for next year.
Previously, schools were selected each spring to adopt the beefed up
curricula that underpin High School Transformation.

Funding for the project, some $80 million ($20 million from the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation), has nearly run out, leaving a
cash-strapped CPS to foot the bill. Weeks ago, funding for a
long-planned evaluation of the project was pulled. Gates spokesman
Chris Williams declined to comment on whether the foundation will fund
the project in the future.

An ambitious districtwide effort to overhaul high schools is in limbo.

After a three-year rollout that spanned 43 schools—just shy of the target of 50—there are no schools in the pipeline for next year. Previously, schools were selected each spring to adopt the beefed up curricula that underpin High School Transformation.

Funding for the project, some $80 million ($20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), has nearly run out, leaving a cash-strapped CPS to foot the bill. Weeks ago, funding for a long-planned evaluation of the project was pulled. Gates spokesman Chris Williams declined to comment on whether the foundation will fund the project in the future. 

Even district officials have shown signs they don’t believe the process is working fast enough. Two of the original transformation high schools have been tagged for turnaround, a schoolwide reform that involves making all teachers reapply for their jobs, and sometimes, replacing the principal. Last year, Mose Vines was handed over to Academy for Urban School Leadership to manage; this year, Fenger is being turned around by CPS officials.

Yet central administrators insist that High School Transformation is not dead.

Every high school is part of the transformation process, says Karen Boran, who manages the curricular efforts related to high school transformation. Boran’s statement is in line with what district officials began saying about a year ago about High School Transformation including a broad range of efforts and not being a specific plan.

For instance, some turnaround high schools have picked up transformation’s rigorous core subject curriculum, dubbed IDS, she points out. (It’s unclear, though, whether Fenger will do so.)

Meanwhile, two principals working at the first group of transformation high schools say they are quietly evaluating whether the rigorous core subject curriculum, which include materials and intense training for teachers, has made any difference.

Initial data suggests that impact has been limited. The freshmen on-track rate has gone down in 8 of the original 14 transformation high schools, according to a Catalyst analysis of data.

ACT scores are crucial for transformation high schools this year, as those that have been in the program the longest will learn how whether the revamped academics will raise 11th graders’ performance.  

Soon, high school transformation will slide under CEO Ron Huberman’s performance management microscope, which requires specific goals be set and deciding what data will be evaluated, says Boran. Other more amorphous elements of the transformation project include smoothing students’ transition from 8th grade to high school, attracting better principals and providing more in-school support for students.

Boran says the project has been retooled on an ongoing basis and she believes it will stand up to close scrutiny. “I say bring it on.”