Shift course on renaissance

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Ask Wanda Taylor to give her view on Renaissance 2010, and you get a brief sigh and a “Where do you start?” Her story is a parent’s-eye view of what has happened since Mayor Richard M. Daley and then-CEO Arne Duncan launched the plan in 2004.

Back then, Taylor had two children at Price, a struggling school at 44th Street and South Drexel Avenue in Bronzeville. She and other parents had heard rumors that “something big” was about to happen with schools. But they were “horrified” by Renaissance, Taylor recalls. Where would their children go? What curricula would the new schools offer? Most important, how would parents get their children into the new schools?

Taylor vehemently disputes the idea that parents didn’t realize how badly their schools were failing and wanted to keep them open regardless of performance. And parents felt the district just brushed off their questions. “They thought we were just these rabble-rousers,” Taylor says. “Our kids were going to these schools. We knew they needed help.”


Top performers

Just 16 of the 92 Renaissance schools have a majority of students scoring at or above the state average on the ISAT, according to a Catalyst analysis of 2010 scores. Eight of the 16 are charters:

  • Alain Locke
  • LEARN—North Lawndale
  • Legacy—North Lawndale
  • UNO—Marquez, Brighton Park
  • Chicago International—West Belden                                     
  • University of Chicago—North Kenwood-Oakland
  • Chicago International—Bucktown     
  • Noble Street Charter—Pritzker College Prep, Belmont-Cragin

Renaissance 2010 didn’t include a clear strategy for improving neighborhood schools. Price was given the chance to “transform,” Taylor says. That sounded good in theory, but in her view, it was a bad deal.

“We were promised a lot of stuff and didn’t get it,” Taylor recalls. “We were promised the principal would be able to hire [new] teachers, that we would be given resources to prepare kids to go to King,” just a stone’s-throw down Drexel Avenue from Price. (King had become a selective, college prep high school.) Some parents talked about bringing in the well-respected International Baccalaureate program, but the plan never materialized.

Price became a middle school and cycled through several principals. Taylor moved her children to Frazier, a newly created magnet school with the IB program she had wanted. “When I heard about Frazier, I jumped on it. I ran over there,” Taylor says.

Now Taylor is happy with Frazier, although it’s a long commute—“we take the bus, or if my car is working, we drive”—from Englewood, where she moved when Bronzeville became too expensive. The commute is about to get even longer: Taylor’s apartment building is in foreclosure, and she is moving farther west to Marquette Park.

Looking back over the past six years, Taylor says Renaissance, “is a plan of the haves and have-nots. Being very honest, it’s not been a success. If you’re the type of parent who researches [schools], you can make it work for you. If you’re not so involved, no.”

There has been one unexpected benefit: Communities and parents began to organize around education. “It made us talk to one another about funding, about why things weren’t happening the way the district was saying. Like, they tell us more kids are graduating, but we’re still seeing kids hanging out on the corner. It made us take a hard look at education in general.”

Taking a hard look at Renaissance 2010 is what we set out to do with this issue of Catalyst In Depth. Other assessments, including a 2009 report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research that found most displaced students ended up at another failing school, have not been encouraging. Neither is ours.

In this issue, Deputy Editor Sarah Karp gives another parent’s-eye view, from two Far South Side mothers who are hard-pressed to find decent schools for their children. That’s because 11 of 25 neighborhoods most in need of better schools have yet to get them under Renaissance—and top officials acknowledge that politics plays a role in where schools end up.

Karp’s analysis of charter financial documents found that many are struggling to stay afloat. And her first-ever analysis of charter teacher lists found concrete evidence of a trend that has been only anecdotal until now: high teacher turnover.

So what to make of all this? For one, the time is ripe for an independent authorizer to eliminate politics from decisions on which operators get charters and where they locate. Charter schools should also be required, without exception, to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Karp went back-and-forth for weeks to get budget documents and teacher lists from some charters, although such information is readily available for regular public schools. Charters can’t make the case that they deserve more public money if they aren’t forthcoming about how they’re spending what they already get and how dependent they may be on the largesse of foundations and wealthy individuals.

Charters also need to be upfront about the training, experience, salary levels and other characteristics of their teaching force. Public school teachers across the country are facing seismic shifts in how they are evaluated and compensated. Charter teachers shouldn’t be left out.

Charters and turnarounds have taken the national center stage under President Obama’s Race to the Top program. Some charters are top-notch, and a forthcoming Consortium report will tell us more about turnarounds. But these schools cannot be expected to transform an entire city’s, or nation’s, educational landscape.

Renaissance was supposed to create equity by opening new, better schools in needy neighborhoods.

But real equity won’t be achieved by giving parents a confusing array of “options” to sift through until they find a good “choice” of school several bus rides away.

Real equity will happen when leaders provide the leadership and resources to improve the schools down the street.