Leadership from top to bottom

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By the time this issue of Catalyst In Depth reaches our readers, the dust will have settled on the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years. Daily picketing will be over, children will be back in school, misleading radio and TV ads will be off the airwaves and the overheated bluster and rhetoric about lazy teachers and greedy unions will, with any luck, be replaced by more rational discourse from cooler heads.

But an equally contentious fight over school closings is on the horizon. On one side will be grassroots activists and some parent groups accusing the district of neglecting neighborhood schools, leaving them to fail and then using failure as an excuse to close them and turn more buildings over to charter operators. On the other side will be district officials and their allies, insisting that they have no choice but to shut down under-utilized schools at a time of shrinking enrollment and scarce cash. (CPS has already claimed another rationale—the need to pay for raises in the new teachers’ contract—though officials have said for several years that they plan to shut down schools.)

Meanwhile, aldermen are entering the fray, with 32 of 50 aldermen adding their names to a resolution calling on district officials to explain their decision-making on school closings at City Council hearings. Some aldermen have even joined the chorus of voices calling for an elected School Board. Imagine that happening under Mayor Daley.

Before 1995, the public had some input into the composition of the board, granted by the 1988 School Reform Act. The mayor appointed board members from a list of candidates nominated by a committee that was comprised mostly of parent and community representatives. The Legislature killed that process and returned the system to complete mayoral control in 1995, so state law would have to be changed to create an elected board in Chicago.

One local representative, LaShawn K. Ford, held three town hall meetings in October on the issue and wants a task force to study it, though he has not taken a position on the matter.

The issue—a controversial one, with arguments both pro and con and differing opinions even among the Catalyst staff—raises critical issues of transparency and accountability. But controversy is sometimes a good thing. Issues like these must be addressed if the public is to have confidence in the school system’s leadership.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the recent strike. After the strike, one reader of noted education historian Diane Ravitch’s blog wrote about what the strike taught her grandchild, despite seven missed days of school. Here’s an excerpt (with my emphasis added):

The strike taught my grandchild and so many more children like her that people should stand up for what they believe in; thoroughly read any document you sign; join with people who have the same causes because many things can’t be done alone, and that democracy is messy and hard to achieve, but worth it in the end.

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At a recent panel discussion, the moderator asked those of us on the panel to talk about our views on the (very broad) question: The current state of education in the region is (fill in the blank).

One panelist cited a dearth of leadership that would rally the public, parents, civic groups and others around a common goal of better education. At the school level, though, is where the rubber really meets the road, and one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s strategies aims to raise the bar and improve the quality of principal candidates.  In this issue of Catalyst In Depth, Associate Editor Rebecca Harris reports on the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, the initiative that brings together four of the city’s top principal prep programs to share ideas and improve the quality of training.

The toughest test for a principal is in a failing neighborhood high school—where one reform after another, both locally and nationally, has brought little in the way of substantive, long-term improvement. Harris and Deputy Editor Sarah Karp also profile two very different principals who are facing the high school test. Doug Maclin of Chicago Vocational Career Academy is black, grew up not far from CVCA in Roseland and kept many of CVCA’s existing teachers when the school became a turnaround. Marcey Sorensen of Clemente High is white, grew up in the northwest suburbs and immediately became the center of controversy at the school when she fired nine teachers and edged out more by redefining their jobs.

Karp and Harris will continue to follow Maclin and Sorensen throughout the year and report on the progress at CVCA and Clemente. Our goal is to shed light on what makes a principal successful—or not—at this tough test.