CPS looks to do “transformations” next year, not “turnarounds”

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School watchers may have noticed something missing from the list of
school actions proposed by CPS officials this year: No schools were
selected for the turnaround program, in which the district fires
virtually the entire staff at a school and replaces them with new
teachers and administrators.

School watchers may have noticed something missing from the list of school actions proposed by CPS officials this year: No schools were selected for the turnaround program, in which the district fires virtually the entire staff at a school and replaces them with new teachers and administrators.

Officials decided to step back from turnarounds for a year, to assess what is working and to do a cost-benefit analysis.

In the meantime, officials decided instead to pursue another avenue, called transformation–a much less drastic strategy that entails pouring money into a school for additional teacher training and social supports for students while keeping the staff intact.

The list of targeted schools—all of them high schools—includes a charter, the first charter to go through such an overhaul.

However, given the budget deficit faced by CPS, at the moment, officials say they will only pursue these transformations if they receive a federal grant to pay for it.

In a position to improve

Officials in charge of turnarounds are excited by the opportunity to do what some veteran teachers have long wanted: Give them all the resources provided to a turnaround. But new CEO Jean-Claude Brizard raised his eyebrows a bit when he heard that CPS was pursuing “transformations” rather than turnarounds.

“Transformations are difficult,” he said in a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago. “You are talking about fixing the plane while you are flying it.”

Randel Josserand, director of High School Strategy & Execution, notes that the schools that would be transformed are in a good position to improve without drastic measures. Among the ones for which grants were submitted are Tilden, Richards, Hancock, Wells, Kelvyn Park, Juarez and North Lawndale College Prep—the first charter school to be put through such a process.

“They all have fantastic staffs and have good leaders,” Josserand says, noting that the principals are either new and energetic or have proven to be strong leaders. While the schools’ test scores are low, they are not rock-bottom, as at others, including Robeson, Dyett and Crane.

Though the district’s leadership is in transition, officials have been working with the potential transformation schools throughout the last year. The deadline to apply for the grant was May 2; awards will be made by July.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan started turnarounds here during his tenure as CEO, and now is pushing them on a national scale. In 2009, Congress set aside $3 billion to be doled out over three years. 

The Illinois State Board of Education, which administers the federal grant, has $102 million to dole out this year and expects to award grants to 12 schools.  ISBE awarded $57 million last year to 10 schools, including Fenger, Harper, Marshall and Phillips in Chicago.

Randel says the district would be lucky to win grants for all of the schools for which it applyed. However, he notes that the grant targets the lowest-performing schools in the state and CPS high schools make up the majority of schools in this category.

With the federal School Improvement Grant program, officials can choose one of three strategies for fixing a school: transformation; turnaround (though only 5 percent of staff must be fired, unlike in Chicago, where a majority of staff have been let go); or closing the school and restarting it under the management of a charter operator or an educational management company. 

In the past, Chicago has stuck with the turnaround model, overseen by the district or an outside contractor, the non-profit Academy of Urban School Leadership. AUSL currently manages 14 turnaround schools and the CPS Office of School Improvement runs five.

With the transformation schools, CPS plans also to use an outside group. Some will work with America’s Choice, which provides coaching and professional development for teachers and materials for students. Others will work with the Network of College Success, a University of Chicago entity which focuses on getting more students into college.