CPS proposes record number of school turnarounds

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Chicago Public Schools leaders propose to “turn around” 10 schools next year, more than the district has ever done in a single year. The turnaround process, under which the principal is replaced and most teachers are fired, has now become a national education strategy. The announcement is the first of the school actions to be announced for next year. With a state law now requiring that CPS make its proposed facilities decisions by Dec. 1, leaders are expected to reveal more plans, including perhaps a record number of school closings, later in the week. After a slew of public hearings, the Board of Education will vote on the proposed school actions at their February meeting.

Among the schools are Tilden High School, which last year got a $6 million federal School Improvement Grant to engage its existing teachers in an effort to improve. The other high school on the list is Chicago Vocational Career Academy, a large high school on the Southeast Side of the city.

Marquette Elementary School, one of the district’s largest elementary schools, is also on the list. It is in the last year of a grant that paid for extended-day programs, and is one of three schools with significant Latino populations. So far, all existing turnaround schools have had a predominantly black student body. 

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the proposed turnarounds are in the “emergency room and need help.” They are being turned around, instead of closed, because other nearby schools could not accommodate their students or were not markedly better, added Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat. One promise made by CPS officials to parents and community activists is that they wouldn’t close one school and send its students to a lower-achieving one.

But Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis immediately took issue with the announcement. “It is a very expensive and destabilizing process,” Lewis said of turnarounds.

While about 5400 students attend the schools on the list, CPS officials declined to say how many staff would face job uncertainty because of these actions. Brizard insisted that he is worried about the children, not the adults.

$20 million investment

The district expects to spend about $20 million on these turnarounds over the next year and a half as they hire new staff, including extra people to provide social-emotional and instructional support, and provide them with intense professional development.

Much of that money will go to the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a not-for-profit teacher training organization that already manages 19 CPS schools, including 12 turnarounds. CPS leaders chose AUSL to take over six schools, while the district’s Office of School Improvement will do four, including both high schools.

Brizard insisted that AUSL has done a laudable job with its current schools. He said that he could feel the difference when he walked into Howe Elementary School, an AUSL turnaround on the West Side.

“I would love to take you on a walking tour before and after,” said Brizard, who arrived in Chicago a year after Howe’s turnaround began.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, who, up until taking the post at CPS this Spring, worked for AUSL, added that turnaround schools were the “worst of the worst.” (Board President David Vitale served as AUSL’s chairman.)

CPS leaders pointed to strong Illinois State Achievement Test results. For example, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT at Morton Elementary School shot up 40 points within two years after the AUSL turnaround. (On Tuesday, Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be at Morton to showcase happy parents.)

However, in recent months, leaders have distanced themselves from the ISAT as the district moves to a more rigorous test. Also, no definitive study has shown that turnarounds take the same students and improve their outcomes. A University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study on turnarounds has yet to be released. Spokeswoman Emily Krone said that study is being “held up” by the Institutes of Education Sciences review process.

Last year, CPS took a break from turnaround schools. Instead, it won eight federal School Improvement Grants for “transformation” by making a financial investment without replacing the entire staff. (Tilden was one of the transformation schools.) However, Brizard in the past has likened transformation to “trying to fix a plane while flying it.”

Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso said that many of the teachers who underwent the transformation professional development over the summer have already left the school. Others might lose their position at Tilden, but be hired at other schools and therefore their training won’t be for naught.

CPS officials said 70 percent of teachers laid off because of a turnaround find jobs at other schools.

TURNAROUND SCHOOLS

Casals and Piccolo elementary schools in Humboldt Park

Fuller and Woodson South elementary schools in Grand Boulevard

Herzl Elementary in North Lawndale

Marquette Elementary in Marquette Park

Stagg Elementary in Englewood

Tilden High School in Back of the Yards

Smith Elementary in Pullman

Chicago Vocational Career Academy in Calumet Heights