Englewood certainly needed help when Williams took the helm in July 1997. Tommye Brown, who had been principal only a year, had just transferred to central office, citing health reasons. Previously an elementary school principal, Brown had been given the formidable assignment of reducing gang influence at the school.
However, Williams fought for a place for them to drop into. Englewood’s night school, which begins as the regular school day ends, was slated to shut its doors at the end of the 1996-97 school year because grant money had run out. Williams persuaded central office to fund the night school last school year, and he tapped Englewood’s discretionary funds to keep it open this school year.
At schools without small classes for retainees, promoted students may switch classes but get tutoring. “We’re not going to just dump them into a classroom without help,” says McGowan. Already, 325 retired teachers are tutoring in these schools, working with three retained students at a time for an hour each day. The board expects to recruit another 150 retirees shortly.
In a wrap-up of results from the summer Bridge program, the board reported that 74,168 students in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades had met “promotion criteria” in June, thereby averting mandatory summer school. What it didn’t report is that about 22,000 of those students were exempt from the testing program because they were in bilingual or special education classes; those students have different “promotion criteria.”
At a press conference, Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney also noted that in the wake of poor attendance among freshmen assigned to the summer Bridge program, the board decided funds would be better spent elsewhere. About $9.3 million had been budgeted for last summer’s program for 9th-graders.
Chicago is spending big bucks on school rehabilitation and construction. However, voters here have had no say because the School Reform Board has kept property tax increases below the level that would trigger a referendum. In addition, the City of Chicago, which is not subject to a property tax cap, sold bonds for school construction. Since 1995, the School Board and the city have approved the sale of $2 billion in capital improvement bonds.
The Reform Board of Trustees might call it accountability, but those of us in schools see it as motivation. Those of us whose schools are on probation are really motivated to get off, and those not on probation are motivated to stay off. The Office of Accountability’s designation of schools as “A,” “B,” and “C,” based on year-to-year changes in test scores, was so motivating that test scores rose to such an extent that almost all schools are now “A” schools.
What do elementary schools like Oriole Park on the Northwest Side, Otis in West Town and Beethoven in Grand Boulevard have in common?
They are among 111 Chicago public elementary schools whose reading scores displayed a trend of substantial, consistent improvement from 1990 to 1997. As a group, these schools’ scores rose from 29 percent of students at or above the national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to 44 percent at or above the national norms. For a school testing 700 students, this means that over the seven-year period, the number of students scoring at or above the norm had risen from about 200 to about 300. In our study of elementary school reading scores, we call these schools Substantially Improved Schools.
Repeatedly over the last two and a half years, Reform Board officials have responded when school principals, local school council members and parents have spoken up for their dilapidated or overcrowded schools. It shows on the bottom line. Following six public hearings last spring on its capital development plan, the board added or accelerated $259 million worth of projects. Only about $55 million, or 20 percent, were put in the “funded” category. However, the board has moved more projects into the sure-thing column in the last several months.
Board officials say that the original capital spending plan did not include the $33 million because the final budget for the move had not yet been approved. Chief Operating Officer Tim Martin says that savings on operating the new facility will be set aside to pay off the bond money. The Pershing Road headquarters, cost about $6 million a year in utilities and maintenance, he says, while the former Com Ed building will cost about $2.3 million a year.
Testifying at the School Board’s September meeting, Rosie Randle of the Northwest Austin Council said that an area of Austin High containing seven classrooms, the gym and part of the football field have been partitioned off for use by the sheriff’s department. Bathrooms have been remodeled, new carpeting put in and air conditioning installed in that section, she said.
Chief among those projects is a $45 million magnet high school that may be the most expensive new school, on a per-student basis, in the state. Board officials hope that the new North Side College Prep, located in Lincoln Square, will lure families who would otherwise leave Chicago’s public schools for private, parochial or suburban alternatives. They plan to open five more schools like North Side by the year 2001, some of them in rehabbed existing structures. In addition, the board’s capital dollars are being used to support the re-development of Cabrini-Green and to expand some elementary magnet schools.
When the School Reform Board unveiled its promotion policy, it sounded like such a good, commonsensical thing to do: Don’t move students ahead if they’re not prepared to do the next level of work. The threat of being retained might make them work harder, and they wouldn’t founder in lessons they weren’t ready to do. Yes, other school districts that tried to halt so-called social promotion had found that the cure was worse than the disease. But Chicago had gone an extra mile, providing summer school, after-school programs and a probation program, among other initiatives, aimed at improving schools in general. There seemed to be reason to hope that Chicago might succeed where others had failed. But hope is fading.