These three musketeers dominated the last half of the decade with a juggernaut of political brawn, financial finesse, stellar salesmanship and gritty, get-it-done determination. Balancing budgets, buying labor peace, finding billions for school buildings, ending social promotion and putting schools on probation sit atop a long project list.
Lots of things troubled Pamela Price during the first blush of school reform. The first chairman of the local school council (LSC) at what is now Piccolo Specialty School, Price was concerned about low-performing students, the decrepit building and the rancor that existed between Principal Linda Sienkiewicz and James Stewart, head of the newly split-off middle school.
Diez años después, luego de amenazadoras llamadas telefónicas nocturnas, noches de insomnio, una ventana rota del automóvil, esa época aún es dolorosa como para hablar de ella. “No voy a decir que no valió la pena, pero dejó sus cicatrices,” dice Mary Cavey, una de las maestras quien años más tarde se convirtió en la directora de Spry.
In the fall of 1994, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s bid to control the city’s schools was blessed with a Republican take-over of state government. With the GOP in charge of the Senate, House and governor’s mansion, Daley not only got control of the school system some seven months later, but also got its finances untangled and its unions hobbled.
In 1998, the board also decided to drop mandatory summer school for 9th-graders with low test scores, following a poor turnout. Since low-scoring freshmen who passed their courses went on to take sophomore-level courses anyway, there was little incentive for them to attend, one official noted. However, Vallas has proposed bringing summer school back.
What was happening, principally, was a new emphasis on accountability for schools and students. Test-score targets had been set for both. If schools or students failed to meet them, they would be given extra help. If they still failed to meet them, they would suffer consequences. For schools, failure to progress could result in the dismissal of principals or local school councils or even school closings. For students, failure to progress could result in being held back.
One new program—Parents as Teachers First—was particularly ambitious. The idea was to train hundreds of welfare mothers in preschool education, then hire them as parent mentors and tutors for 1,500 children who couldn’t get into state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. Today, the parent tutor program serves an average of 9,400 children per month through home visits and in partnership with homeless shelters, public health clinics and the Field Museum.
Dee Smith lifts her slight frame onto a high, blue-padded stool and addresses her 5th-graders at Piccolo Specialty School in West Humboldt Park. Holding a dog-eared copy of C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” Smith asks her students to compare two characters in the book—Aslan, the lion-protagonist, and the witch.
Both characters engage in magic, several youngsters offer, and both want to lead the mythical kingdom of Narnia. “But what are they to each other?” inquires Smith, peering over the rims of her purple half-glasses. “Enemies!” shouts the class in unison.
“So they don’t want the same goals?” wonders Smith on this December morning. A girl pipes up: “Aslan wants to have goodness, and the witch wants evil, and the two qualities don’t go together.” Smith compliments the girl on her word choice (“Qualities—I like that”) and then asks the class to describe the points of view of two other characters.
Futurists who track education trends at the national level see other trends. As a tool of learning, textbooks are eclipsed by the Internet. Public education takes on more characteristics of the consumer-driven marketplace, offering families vouchers and more options on where to send their children to learn. Today, an estimated 25 percent send their child to a magnet, charter or some other “choice” school. By 2010, the number of families with children in choice schools will be closer to 40 percent, says education prognosticator Marvin Centron.
We envision a competition of sorts, with the board issuing a request for ambitious proposals. Planning grants would allow teachers, parents and community members to visit better- performing schools, to bring in speakers and consultants, and to think through the logistics of change. Blue-ribbon panels, including successful teachers and principals, could debate and select the best proposals on Cable Access TV, educating the broader public about school change. The winners would get substantial time and money to fulfill their dreams and become models for-dare we say it-schools across the country. They could also publicly share their successes and failures along the way. It would be a community endeavor.
Ten years ago, Spry elementary school was in turmoil as a brand-new local school council ousted a longtime principal. Piccolo School was unsettled following a Board of Education decision to split the school in two. Returning to Spry and Piccolo this school year, Catalyst writers found very different schools. Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin reports on the transformation at Spry, while contributor Grant Pick traces the evolution of a teacher leader at Piccolo.