Three school turnarounds get final OK

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Two CPS board members had serious questions—some of which went unanswered–about handing over three elementary schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership. But in the end, the turnarounds were approved at a meeting where opponents as well as supporters of the turnaround model dominated the public participation..  

CPS invests heavily in turnarounds, and the big-ticket spending has angered some parents and others, who question why the district is willing to spend the money only when a school becomes a turnaround. AUSL, a non-profit teacher training program, receives $300,000 for start-up costs and an extra $420 per student every year for at least five years.  

The turnaround of Gresham Elementary was unanimously approved by the five members in attendance. (Board members Mahalia Hines and Deborah Quazzo were not there.)

Board member Andrea Zopp voted against turning around Dvorak and McNair. During the meeting, she was particularly concerned about why the Dvorak principal was being replaced when she had only been in her position for a year and had been trained in one of the premier principal training programs.

“Why not give her a chance?” Zopp asked.

Denise Little, chief officer of network quality, told her that in conversations with the principal’s boss—the network officer—they agreed she “was not the right the principal to do the turnaround.” Little did not elaborate.

Board member Carlos Azcoita asked about teacher stability in turnaround schools, and the level of suspensions. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told him that staff would get him that information, but it is unclear if he received it before the vote.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of state and CPS data shows that AUSL turnarounds have particularly low teacher retention. Under the turnaround model, all the staff, including teachers, must reapply for their jobs and most are typically not rehired. The analysis showed, however, that the turnover continues in subsequent years.

Other data show turnarounds have high rates of student suspensions. Because Byrd-Bennett did not present the information in the meeting, there was no discussion around it.

Zopp also raised questions about declines in test scores at the three schools. McNair, she said, had been improving and then went down a bit last year.

Annette Gurley, chief officer of teaching and learning, told her that McNair responds well to “interventions,” but tends to retreat after the intervention is done. “It is not able to sustain progress,” she said.

Supporters of turnarounds

Public participation at the meeting was dominated by speakers for and against the turnarounds. Supporters of AUSL turnarounds had 11 of the 60 public participation slots, which must be signed up for online beforehand. Each of their speakers was given the two minutes of allowed time.

Shimaya Hudson, whose children attend Marquette Elementary, which was turned around last year, said she originally was skeptical. “But after seeing all the changes, I feel good about it,” she says.

Hudson said the principal and staff work with the parents and that together they make changes. Other parents said they were happy with all the after-school programs and field trips that their children now have access to at turnaround schools. One said she likes that now “you can hear a pin drop” when children come into the school.

If there are numerous speakers on one subject, CPS officials often group them and ask them to designate one or two speakers.  On Wednesday, they attempted to do this with people speaking against the turnarounds. However, speakers from Gresham identified themselves as representatives of different issues or schools so they would each have chance to address the board.

Board members scolded the people who misrepresented themselves as trying to “game the system.”

In response to the AUSL parents and principals, those against the turnarounds said that if Gresham, McNair and Dvorak were given the same resources as AUSL, they would have more of a chance to do better.

“To the AUSL parents, you have a lot of nerve coming in here talking about all AUSL can offer,” said Dion Stone, whose children attend McNair. “Our teachers do not have working computers and they have to buy their own printer paper. You have the nerve to compare us to you.”

Gresham Elementary Principal Diedrus Brown said her school did well when it got an infusion of money, but then lost ground when it lost money. “Give us some of the money you already have earmarked for AUSL and our test scores will go up,” she said. “… Scores go up and down and you don’t reduce children to statistics. Don’t be a good person doing the devil’s work.”

The board also approved putting International Baccalaureate middle-years programs in five elementary schools—Peirce, Moos, Ebinger, Seward and Agassiz. Everyone, including CTU President Karen Lewis, applauded the move.