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School reform goes through the motions

Catalyst, the school reform magazine, reported last week that bureaucrats within the Chicago Board of Education have decided not to try and do any real school rescue efforts next year – seemingly without any input from incoming schools chief Jean Claude Brizard.

They are choosing a “light touch” option instead: giving broken schools a new principal and a few new programs and leaving the school staff untouched.

It’s an understandable, but disappointing, decision attributed by some to interim superintendent Terry Mazany.

In the bureaucratic language of the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion school rescue program, there are two drastic options for rescuing broken schools: closing them or “restarting” them under the control of a charter organization or a nonprofit.

At the other end of the spectrum is the least dramatic option, called “transformation,” requiring only a change in principals (most of the time) and beefed-up academic and social support programming.

This is the approach that has been used in many cases in other parts of the country, usually without much success, and which CPS is choosing to use for next year. This is what CPS wants to do with the schools up for renewal [Tilden, Richards, Hancock, Wells, Kelvyn Park, Juarez and North Lawndale College Prep], which have been bumping along near the bottom for a long time now.

The other option allowed under federal law is called the school “turnaround,” the difficult but sensible middle option. The school remains within the district, its teachers are covered by the union contract, and its students come back to the same building without any large-scale interruption in their education. A new principal is brought in. Up to half of the current teachers can be retained, though in practice the proportion is a lot lower. There are currently 19 schools being turned around, including 14 under the guidance of the Academy of Urban School Leadership and five internally by the CPS school improvement office.

Of course, none of the models is perfect for every situation. Turnarounds upset teachers and don’t always work. They’re often confused with outright closings, the disruptive strategy Arne Duncan adopted for a few difficult years, or described as being a Draconian maneuver in which even the nice lunch ladies are tossed out.

But the current crop of low-performing schools have already been on probation and been assigned new principals and new programs. They’ve already gotten extra funding to make the environment safer and improve the teaching effectiveness. They’ve already tried to find better teachers and improve the ones they have.

Based on my experience studying school rescue efforts and watching the attempted revival of a low-performing high school in Los Angeles over the last four years, I’d say that likely won’t be enough to make a clean break with the past and create a new culture of learning. Not even close. Even with new leaders and teachers, there’s the constant threat of going back to the old ways at schools that have been comfortably broken for a long time.

This decision is likely being greeted in many corners of Chicago with a sigh of relief. But it’s a cautious, unfortunate move that’s not at all a good sign for CPS going forward – especially if it was done before Brizard could weigh in or against his wishes.

In the Catalyst article, Brizard seems not to have been informed about what CPS was planning. Officially, the district is doing an assessment and cost-benefit analysis to see what approach works best. They’re optimistic to see what these schools can do without being closed down or re-staffed. But in reality this is waving a white flag. There won’t be another influx of federal funding like this coming along anytime soon. (There is serious money at play here — up to $2 million per school for three years.)

The district itself can’t afford to do the hard work on its own without outside help. Giving these schools more time and money to do the same thing seems like a waste, though of course it’s the least controversial way to go.

There won’t be any uproar from the teachers’ union or from parents. CPS won’t even have to find new leadership for many of the schools, since the law permits districts to keep principals on board if they’re relatively recent arrivals.

Very few feathers will be ruffled – and that’s just the problem. Students in these neighborhoods deserve more than a well-intended going through of the motions.

Alexander Russo runs District 299, an independent blog about the Chicago Public Schools. His new book about the rescue effort at South Central LA’s Locke High School is Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors.

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