As part of district shakeup, Brizard to hire schools portfolio officer

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In Austin on the city’s far west edge are two small charter elementary
schools and one magnet high school. Yet east of Austin, in the shadow of
downtown, the Near West Side has four magnet elementary schools, six
charter schools, one classical elementary school and one selective
enrollment high school.

In Austin on the city’s far west edge are two small charter elementary schools and one magnet high school. Yet east of Austin, in the shadow of downtown, the Near West Side has four magnet elementary schools, six charter schools, one classical elementary school and one selective enrollment high school.

Community members in Austin and three other neighborhoods have met on a regular basis for the last year, at the behest of CPS leadership, to come up with ways to correct this disparity. The promise: The opinions of community groups, often over-looked in decisions about school openings and closings, would finally be taken into account.

But leadership came and went, and on Wednesday, members of these groups came to the regular meeting of the Board of Education to ask that their recommendations still be heeded.

Ironically, at the same meeting, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced that a new position—chief portfolio officer—would be created that would address their concerns. The position, part of a system-wide restructuring, will report directly to Brizard and will have the job of “ensuring that all students have multiple high-performing school options to choose from.”

Members of the family and community engagement teams got a warm reception from board members. Board President David Vitale said he looked forward to working with them.  But Bill Gerstein, a former school principal who is now leading the family and community engagement effort, says there’s anxiety among the members about whether their work will be respected.

“The idea is that we should not put the wrong school in the neighborhood,” Gerstein says. “In the past, what [central office] would do is make a decision and then tell the community, and then they are not on the same page.”

And while the job description of the chief portfolio officer sounds fairly straightforward, the title is linked to a way of thinking about school districts. A portfolio school district is one in which a school’s very existence is contingent on performance, as opposed to traditional districts in which schools are seen as permanent investments, according to a May 2011 report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Chicago Public Schools already has a diverse portfolio of schools, in that there are charter schools as well as magnet, neighborhood and selective enrollment schools. But only charter schools (along with the handful of performance and contract schools) have a direct process by which they can be closed if they don’t reach performance targets. 

In the past, it has been unclear what the determining criteria are for closing a traditional school.  Some low-achieving ones have been closed, but others are still open.

Having a portfolio officer is in line with one of the ideas Mayor Rahm Emanuel has floated: As a mayoral candidate, he said he would require each principal to sign a contract tied to student performance goals—as do charter operators.

New York Chancellor Joel Klein in 2007 was among the first school leaders to appoint a chief portfolio officer, replacing that district’s Office of New Schools.

On the new CPS organization chart released Wednesday by Brizard, there is no Office of New Schools, but spokeswoman Becky Carroll says she believes that the office will still exist under the new administration.

Networks replace area offices

Brizard is also adding the position of chief of family and community engagement, to bring together local school council support, parent engagement, external partnerships and health and wellness partnerships.

Even with the two positions, Brizard will have fewer people in his cabinet. Unlike Huberman, Brizard will not have a chief performance officer, and Brizard’s financial officer and facilities chief will report to Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer. 

Brizard also plans to scale back the number of area offices, a move that had been carried out in previous administrations. In the 1970s, the district had 27 sub-districts. In cost-cutting moves over the following two decades, the number first was reduced to 23, then to 11 and, then, to six regions.

In 2002, Arne Duncan, who had just been named CEO, created 24 area offices and called their leaders instructional officers. Then Ron Huberman reshuffled the area offices, creating more for high schools and cutting the number for elementary schools, and called the leaders chief area officers. More supports were sent to the areas as well, such as reading coaches.

Now, Brizard and his Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso plan to close out five area offices and rename them networks. There will be 14 elementary networks and five high school networks.  Instead of chief area officers, the networks will have “chiefs of schools.”

Donoso says that the elementary areas have been re-drawn “to keep communities and neighborhoods whole” and the high school area boundaries have changed accordingly. Rather than numbers, each network will have a name reflecting its community identity.

Carroll says the current area officers will not be laid off, at least not immediately. The area office staff will stay intact for the next 60 days so they can help manage the opening of schools. Several of the current officers will stay in their position, but Carroll says seven of the positions are currently filled by interims and CPS is looking to fill them.

CPS schools also will be divided into five larger geographic areas, groups of schools called “collaboratives.’’

“Many of them are the size of small cities in America. So these folks, in essence, are leading school districts,” Brizard said. “They will play a key role in working with parents and community organizations.”

Brizard’s presentation on the reorganization is called “Reinventing Chicago Public Schools to Better Serve All Students.”