CPS awarded grants to “transform” four high schools

June 20, 2012

This story has been updated to reflect the actions of the Illinois State Board of Education at their June 21 meeting.

CPS was awarded on Thursday a $25 million federal School Improvement Grant to perform what is called "transformation" on four high schools and to turnaround one.

Transformation is a process in which a newer principal works with an outside institution--sometimes a curriculum company or a university--to improve the school without firing all the staff, as in a turnaround. Transformation schools must extend learning time and analyze student data to improve instruction. 

The desire to use the transformation strategy might signal that CPS leaders are not convinced that turnarounds work in high schools. A recent study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research showed that turnaround high schools showed initial improvements in student attendance, but, in other measures, did not make impressive progress.

At its meeting Thursday, the Illinois State Board of Education approved school improvement grants to do transformation for Clemente Community Academy, Bowen High School, Bogan High and Al Raby High. Chicago Vocational will undergo a turnaround. Outside of Chicago, East St. Louis Senior High and Cahokia High also are up for grants. Washington High School was originally on the list to be transformed, but was pulled at the last minute, according to ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus.

The ISBE board packet says Chicago Vocational Career Academy will be transformed, but CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler says the packet is wrong and the school will be turned around as planned.  At the May Board of Education meeting, Principal Doug Maclin talked about the improvements he has been able to initiate since taking over last year--and without bringing in an entirely new staff. Maclin said student misconducts were down and attendance was up.

The $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program is the federal initiative to try to improve the nation's lowest-performing schools. Al Raby and Bowen, which have fewer than 500 students, will receive about $2.6 million over three years. The other Chicago high schools, with more than 1,400 students each, will get $5.5 million.

Districts can choose one of three methods for reform: turnaround, transformation and restart, which entails a charter school operator taking over a school.

CPS is doing eight elementary school turnarounds this year and only one high school turnaround. CPS did not ask for SIG money for the elementary school turnarounds.

Last year was the first year CPS used the transformation method and, while it is too early for results, initial indicators show some progress. Transformation schools typically use the extra resources to provide more social-emotional and academic supports for students, such as social workers and writing coaches.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the School Improvement Grant program, he considered transformation the least optimal of the three methods of reform because it doesn’t bring a cohort of fresh people into the school. However, transformation is by far the most popular of the reform methods, in part because of the difficulty of finding replacement teachers and staff in some communities.

One of the provisions of getting a School Improvement Grant is that the school must work with an outside entity. In an unusual set-up, CPS’ Office of School Improvement is an approved outside vendor and all the transformation schools on tap are slated to partner with the office.

At the same time, OSI is undergoing changes itself.  At a meeting last Saturday, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the office will no longer take on turnarounds. Instead, the unit will work with schools that are on academic probation and in danger of being targets for drastic action.

Brizard says the office will develop systems for schools to use when they are on the edge of failing. “We want them to put in place concrete processes that schools will be required to follow,” he said.

Brizard will also look for more outside organizations to do turnarounds. Currently, 12 turnaround schools are managed by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. In the past, CPS has looked for other groups to do turnarounds, including a charter school operator, but none has entered the picture.

 Of the 250 schools currently on probation, 150 have had that status for at least five years.