Washington Park charter school gets ‘turnaround’

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Several Chicago International Charter School campuses made teachers reapply for their jobs earlier this year, including one campus, Washington Park, that is undergoing a ‘turnaround’-type restructuring. 


Five CICS campuses changed managerial hands from American Quality Schools to Distinctive Schools (another nonprofit) and Victory Education Partners.

At the West Belden and Bucktown campuses, the vast majority of teachers returned and existing administrators were promoted to become the schools’ directors.  At the Prairie and Avalon/South Shore campuses, the principals remained, as did about three-quarters of staff – largely as a result of normal turnover because charters “tend to have a young teaching staff,” says Beth Purvis, executive director of CICS. (The charter network contracts with outside groups to manage its campuses.)

But the Washington Park campus lost its principal and a sizable portion of its teachers – though still less than half. 

“I will be very candid with you, it was one of our underperforming [schools],” Purvis says. “We were very clear with Victory, when they came in, that they should make any changes they deemed necessary to improve performance for those kids.”

Eric Grodsky, Chicago regional director at Victory Education Partners, says that his group is taking a “turnaround model” approach at the school and brought in a new administration committed to the task.

“We think there is significant room for growth,” Grodsky says.

The first year of the effort, Grodsky says, will focus on “reestablishing student expectations for culture and climate” – a step he says was necessary based on interviews with staff members.

Another key goal for the school will be parent involvement. “When attendance at parent events throughout the year is higher [and] you have more parents at the school, scores are better,” he says. To this end, the school is holding meetings with parents in an effort to increase involvement.

Victory is also trying to bring in additional community resources. For instance, volunteers from the company LinkedIn helped paint hallways at the school, a move that “contributes to the culture and climate – a brighter, happier environment,” Grodsky maintains.

Purvis says the split with American Quality Schools was amicable and notes that several of their campuses were among the organization’s highest-performing.

“After 11 years, we thought it was good to bring in some new ideas,” Purvis says. The management organization had been on a year-to-year contract.

She says the new management organizations will focus more on “21st-century skills,” which are often defined as including life and career skills, experience with technology, and soft skills like critical thinking, communication, and teamwork.

American Quality Schools, in contrast, teaches students to master a core curriculum.

Who they are

CICS has made similar management changes in the past. In 1999, the organization ended its agreement with Sabis and brought in Edison and American Quality Schools, which at the time was a start-up organization.

American Quality Schools manages charters in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri and is run by Michael Bakalis, a former Illinois education superintendent and deputy undersecretary of education for the federal government who has also served as the dean of Loyola University’s School of Education.
 
Victory Education Partners runs schools in several other urban districts, and two other CICS campuses, Basil and Irving Park, as well as the Washington Park and Avalon/South Shore schools.

Distinctive Schools is a new organization whose chief education officer is Joseph Wise, a former school district superintendent turned education consultant whose work has influenced the Northwest Evaluation Association, creators of the widely used NWEA benchmark assessments.

Victory Education Partners has “innovative plans for technology” in the campuses, as well as for strengthening teacher professional development, Purvis says, so that it is targeted at the specific needs of teachers.

The Prairie, West Belden and Bucktown campuses will be run by Distinctive Schools, which does not currently manage any other schools.

Although the transition was rubber-stamped by the Board of Education at the August board meeting, it began earlier this year, Purvis says, “just to make sure there would be no effect on kids and families.”

An organizer at Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which represents teachers at three Chicago International Charter School campuses (but none of those affected by the change in management), declined to comment on whether organizing drives were under way at any of the affected schools.

Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, notes that high teacher turnover – such as the turnover experienced at the campuses – is “a key concern with charter schools.”

“We certainly do believe that part of that is related to teachers’ dissatisfaction,” he says.

Andrew Broy, director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, notes that the funding situation in CPS, which included a 4 percent cut to charter budgets’ per-pupil allotment, has increasingly put the squeeze on charter operators and made it more difficult for them to offer competitive teacher salaries – particularly for more experienced  teachers.

“I’m not sure whether that factored into this decision with AQS, but any good governing board is going to look at those costs and then make decisions about how to allocate those increasingly scarce resources,” Broy says.

The move also comes at a time when schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has put an increasing amount of pressure on charter schools, vocally calling for underperforming charters to be held accountable.

Over the past year and a half, it’s become increasingly common for charter schools, too, to be turned around. Young Women’s Leadership Academy recently hired Edison Learning to manage the school in a bid to improve its performance. “Chicago has not done that very effectively, historically, but I’m optimistic [Brizard] will,” Broy says.

In addition to shutting schools down, which Broy calls the “nuclear option,” districts can encourage charter schools to hire a new board or bring in an outside management agency.
They can also shorten the length of a school’s charter, giving the district more leverage if a school doesn’t shape up.

Unless a company is underperforming, Broy adds, “it’s not terribly common to have this kind of shifting out of management companies.”

However, the Chicago International Charter School model – where a local organization, CICS, contracts with a variety of different education management groups – is unique in Chicago and even nationwide, Broy says.

Broy says the fact that CICS had made management changes more than once is “a healthy sign that the board is doing its due diligence to decide what partnership works best to achieve their goals.”