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Chicago schools begin Tuesday under ‘Rahm Emanuel Generation’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel front holds press conference about preparations for first day school Soldier Field Saturday Sept. 3 2011 Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, front, holds a press conference about preparations for the first day of school at Soldier Field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011, in Chicago. Emanuel held the press conference before the start of the Chicago Football Classic. Behind him is CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 5, 2011 1:29PM

After 16 years under the watchful eye of former Mayor Daley, Chicago’s public school system begins a new school year Tuesday — and launches a new generation of students — amid signs of promise as well as uncertainty.

The Rahm Emanuel Generation seems destined for a longer school day and year — as well as a tougher, more rigorous curriculum — than their Daley Generation counterparts.

But the children who walk through Chicago’s school doors Tuesday also face the biggest prospect of labor unrest and financial instability since a Republican-led Legislature handed the mayor of Chicago the ultimate responsibility for Chicago Public Schools in 1995.

Emanuel’s handpicked school leaders and the head of the Chicago Teachers Union are locked in a showdown over when the longer day will start. They face even more contentious issues in the coming months as talks begin on a new teachers contract and a new teacher evaluation tool linked in part to student test scores. Two years from now, a crippling pension tab awaits the cash-strapped district.

“There’s reason to be hopeful but there’s also a lot of uncertainty hanging over the system,” said Robin Steans of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Even critics are buoyed by the fact that, for the first time in 16 years, an educator is leading the nation’s third-largest school system.

And, after weathering four Schools CEOs over four years — three in the last year alone — the Emmanuel Generation has one clear advantage over its predecessor: the prospect of stable leadership. Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a former New York City physics teacher and principal, has a three-year performance contract — another first here.

“One of the deepest pathologies of urban school districts is the constant flux and churn of people and projects that leads to no progress for children,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.

“There’s been so much instability in Chicago over the last four years in terms of the district and its priorities and shifting leadership, I think there’s a sense with the mayor and the new administration that this is the beginning of a different era. Everybody hopes this era will last — the Emanuel era.”

Brizard: ‘I am in charge’

Although Brizard’s penchant for playing second-fiddle to Emanuel at education news conferences has led some to wonder who is really running the system, Brizard insists he’s in charge.

“Unequivocally, I am the one running the system,” Brizard told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

“I don’t care what anyone says. ... I am in charge of the system. I have a boss, it’s called the school board. I have a boss as well called Rahm Emanuel. We all have bosses. That’s the way the world works. ... If I didn’t have the latitude, if I didn’t have the freedom to do what I need to do to be successful, I wouldn’t do this job.”

But much of Brizard’s early agenda has reflected Emanuel’s campaign pledges: principal performance pay, which Brizard hopes to dole out by next summer; teacher performance pay, an issue to be tackled in upcoming contract talks; a parent contract, which Brizard may tweak into a “partnership” at parents’ urging and unveil in a few months; and a longer school day and year.

However, CPS cannot impose more school hours systemwide until after the current teacher contract expires June 30. Until then, it needs the union’s approval — and CTU President Karen Lewis says she’s not going to give it for this coming school year.

After being denied previously negotiated 4 percent teacher raises due to budget constraints, Lewis rejected Brizard’s offer of 2 percent raises for only some teachers — those in elementary schools — in exchange for 90 extra minutes a day, starting this January. The CTU is working on a “white paper” of what a longer day could look like, and Lewis says she won’t be “bullied’’ into a slapdash plan.

“We will not have a longer school day this school year, regardless of what they want to do,” Lewis told the Sun-Times last week. “We want to plan for next school year.”

However, on Friday, CPS officials revealed that teachers at three schools had broken with the union and approved a longer day—with two schools starting later this month, and the third in January. Only a simple majority of teachers had to approve a waiver of the existing contract to do so.

In a joint statement, Emanuel and Brizard hailed the three schools as “courageous.” Brizard said he was looking for “pioneers” to create longer-day templates. Teachers will not only get a lump sum equal to 2 percent raises prorated to their time, but each school will get $150,000.

“If they want to pick us off one at a time, then they will do that,” Lewis said. “I would hope our members would see that the value we have is in our solidarity and our unity.’’

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carrol said Friday several schools have indicated a “strong appetite to move toward a longer school day” to boost what CPS says is the shortest day among the nation’s 10 largest cities. However, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey accused CPS of using “pressure, coercion and bribing’’ to achieve its desired results.

Principals wary of ‘union-busting’

Last month, some principals, too, felt pressured. One of Brizard’s new mid-level managers e-mailed principals he oversees on Aug. 22 – before teachers started work -- with a request to “click on the voting button (Yes or No) by noon tomorrow if you feel the majority of your teachers would agree” to join a longer-school-day pilot, starting in January. No other details were offered.

“We did not sign on for union-busting,” said Chicago Principal Association President Clarice Berry. “They [teachers] have a union representing them. ... We should not be in a conversation with [teachers] about that because we do not negotiate their salaries and benefits.”

Brizard said principals will “get guidance” about using the 90 minutes, and, if their school is academically successful, they may choose to spend it in enrichment activities, such as music, art and physical education. But if it’s struggling in math and reading it should expand math and reading, he said. A 25-minute lunch and 20-minute recess should be included, CPS officials say. Most schools have no regular recess.

“I believe in autonomy, but I believe in bounded autonomy,” Brizard said. “We don’t want everyone doing helter-skelter whatever they want because we have some non-negotiables. ... I don’t want 90 minutes of lunch and physical education, or lunch and recess.”

‘More opportunities to learn’

U of C’s Knowles is heartened that Brizard wants to limit the variety of curriculums and to start training teachers on new, more rigorous “common core” learning standards that should be reflected in state tests by 2014. The CPS goal is to create a coherent curriculum, based on the tougher standards, for kindergarten through 12th graders that will thoroughly prepare the next generation for college or careers, Knowles said.

Right now, Knowles said, “You really have a clutter of curriculums. Some may be very, very good. Some may not. But when mobility is high, and you have kids running into new math and new reading programs every time they move schools, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

In the end, said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, the Emanuel Generation should emerge stronger than the Daley one.

“The Rahm kids are going to have more opportunities to learn than the Daley kids, they really are,” Radner said.

“They will have more minutes, better days, and tougher curriculum — more focused on rigorous requirements. I would say they will probably leave school better prepared — but they will have exhausted teachers.”

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