While ballroom dancing might be a tough sell in some urban school environments, the Chicago Public Schools offered just such a course for fifth-graders at 18 pilot schools across the city last spring. The idea was to build self-confidence and self-esteem while providing a needed dose of fine arts and physical education, and by all accounts the program was a success.
The willingness to try new and innovative approaches characterizes how the Chicago district and its CEO Arne Duncan have been moving toward school reform over the past five years, in what could be dubbed "No Good Idea Left Behind." The huge urban district with 630 schools, 430,000 students and a $4.7 billion budget is continually pushing the educational envelope, harnessing public and private backing, and piling up impressive numbers along the way.
Duncan-now in his sixth year as CEO since succeeding current Philadelphia schools CEO Paul Vallas-ticks off Chicago's gains: "Attendance rates are at all-time highs. Graduation rates are at all-time highs. High school and elementary school test scores are at all-time highs. Eighth-graders are beating national norms for the first time ever, and student mobility and dropout rates are at all-time lows." He adds that only 24 percent of students rank in the bottom quartile nationally, down from 80 percent, and growing numbers of high school students are taking and passing Advanced Placement tests.
Duncan also expects more good news from the city's Renaissance 2010 initiative, begun two years ago with the aim of adding 100 new schools to the system and helped by $1 billion in local and state funding promised last spring by longtime Chicago mayor Richard Daley. The Renaissance 2010 schools will emerge as redesigned and mostly smaller versions of underperforming schools in the city's neighborhoods.
"I just think that the 'one-size-fits-all' model of the large American high school is fundamentally broken, and I want to create a menu of high school options in every neighborhood in the city," says Duncan. "I want to have six to 10 great options in every neighborhood-math and science academies; performing arts, international baccalaureate, and single-sex schools; military academies-and then let parents and students figure out what's the best learning environment for them."
With those alternatives in mind, CPS has become Illinois' most enthusiastic proponent of charter schools, their academic and behavioral standards, and their considerable autonomy. The district has already reached its 30-school limit on charter schools set by the state, and earlier in the year CPS even consulted on a charter school expansion plan for New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Charter schools and all-male academies may not be new to urban education, but the district's willingness to go full-speed ahead on these ventures is attracting local and national attention. And CPS is trying some not-so-familiar strategies as well. Religious-based groups run two of its schools, and Duncan has approached the Archdiocese of Chicago about taking over other schools.
"They've been doing great education in this city for decades, but they're closing schools each year due to declining enrollment," Duncan observes. "What I've asked the Archdiocese to think about is that rather than closing a school, we could turn it into a charter."
Just as iconoclastic are the district's eight "Fresh Start" schools that are managed in collaboration with the Chicago Teacher's Union. The change in governance began with at least an 80 percent buy-in by teachers and continues through an administrative and faculty leadership team, which makes the key decisions. The union monitors the school's progress every two weeks and meets regularly with staff from the CPS central office.
"No other schools are organized like this in the city, and we've had other schools ask us, 'Can we do this?'" says Marc Wigler, the partnership initiative coordinator for the union. An earlier pilot program, he points out, produced substantial gains in student reading scores.
"I really give the union tremendous credit for having the courage to step up and do this, and they've taken some heat. This really could be seen as nontraditional union business," says Duncan. "They've stepped up and said, 'Let's take a set of low-performing schools, and let's partner together to see if we can do something dramatically better. Can we come up with more innovative curriculum? Can we do better with professional development? Can we really do something to change student outcomes?
"And there's a sense of distributed leadership within the schools that didn't exist before. There's a sense of mutual accountability, and there's a sense that this is a long-term strategy."
Still, for all the CPS forays into educational innovation, there's plenty of ground to cover in the nation's third-largest school system. And despite the positive trends Duncan cites, the district has had to file restructuring plans for 185 schools that failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress for five years in a row.
In addressing this area too, CPS is choosing varied partners, including America's Choice, a national organization focused on comprehensive school improvement; Strategic Learning Initiatives, a Chicago-based group that applies improved data analysis application and principles of quality management to school improvement; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing funds to implement a college preparatory curriculum and higher standards for teachers and administrators in fifty high schools.
"We've looked at restructuring as an opportunity to move the district's agenda forward," says Xavier Botana, CPS's director of assessment and accountability. What also helps, says Botana-not just for the schools in restructuring but for the 175 additional schools in the Needs Improvement category-is the district's success in September 2005 in convincing the Illinois and the U.S. Departments of Education to keep in-house the remedial student tutoring required under No Child Left Behind.
"We clearly believe that what we have to offer is high quality and closely aligned to how our students need to perform on state tests and as citizens down the road," says Botana, who points out that a CPS study showed little difference between private and public after-school instruction. "We've been able to serve three times as many kids as we would have," Botana adds. And while that amounts to only 20,000 of the 60,000 eligible for such tutoring, most educators and observers here agree that's a critical mass and a boon to school improvement efforts. "It has definitely helped morale," says Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
But Stewart sounds less appreciative when it comes to the district's policy since 2002 of closing underperforming or undersubscribed neighborhood schools and often replacing them with charter schools. "They're siphoning off the best and brightest students. The traditional union schools have to take everyone that comes through our doors," Stewart says.
"When we initially close a school, there's often community anger, and people worry we're going to sell the building for condos," Duncan concedes. "But now I go out to neighborhoods where we closed schools several years ago, and it's like you're a hero. We've delivered. We've created great new schools that are dramatically better. To see the caliber of leadership and the caliber of talent going into these neighborhoods makes me convinced that we can alter the life chances of children in these neighborhoods.
"And the families that were most upset at losing what they thought they had are so unbelievably thankful. Those families have become our biggest supporters and are out there working with us in other neighborhoods. It's a pretty emotional experience." Duncan says that there's something even larger riding on the outcome of Chicago's school improvement efforts, especially in a district where 85 percent of its students are from low-income families.
"I think education today is really the civil rights issue of our generation," he says. "The desperate need for quality public education is about so much more than just education. I think it's more a movement for social justice, and public education has to be the great equalizer. Historically the failure of public education has perpetuated poverty and kept families poor. If a generation from now 85 percent of our students are still poor, we will have failed."
Attracting Better Teachers
According to Duncan, the message resonates with the prospective teaching force. "In the past four years we've doubled the number of applicants coming into Chicago," he reports. "There are 17,000 applicants competing for about 1,700 jobs. And 42 percent of those coming in have master's degrees."
The district has also attracted almost 400 new teachers via alternative certification. "You have chemical engineers, journalists, lawyers and people from the corporate sector often taking 60, 70, 80 percent pay cuts to come and teach in inner city schools," Duncan points out. "I'm just a big believer that if you create the opportunities, you're going to attract the kind of people who want to do the right thing."
Duncan says he also is looking beyond traditional K-12 schooling. He plans to add 10,000 seats to the city's early education program, which currently serves 22,000 youngsters. "We have too many students coming to us too far behind, too many students coming to us in kindergarten who don't know the front of the book from the back of the book. They just haven't been read to," Duncan explains. "And the more we can get to those children when they are 3 and 4 years old, the better we're going to do."
More than 200 of Chicago's schools have been designated "community schools," which stay open 13 hours a day and offer classes in art and music for children, as well as GED, ESL and family literacy programs for their elders. Funds from corporate and philanthropic donors are helping finance the expansions. "We tell them, 'We want you to invest in what's important to us,'" Duncan says.
Not all schools in Chicago are in need of improvement, but the district's changes in business as usual are affecting the better performing ones as well, most notably the almost 100 schools in the district's AMPS program. AMPS-which stands for Autonomous Management and Performance Schools-rewards high student achievement and sound management by giving principals more program flexibility and fewer bureaucratic requirements.
"We're absolutely trying to do everything we can to empower principals," says Duncan. "We train them as CEOs and want them to be respected as CEOs, and we want them to drive instruction at the school level. We can't micromanage 600 schools. We want to get great principals in there, and we want to get the bureaucracy off their backs, particularly when they are being very successful."
That attitude has struck a positive chord for James Gilliat, who for the past 15 years has led the Louis Pasteur Elementary School in Chicago's southwest section, right near Midway Airport. His school is flying high. Sixty-five percent of the K-8 students here test at or above national norms, they can study French from grades 3 through 8, and many of its alumni head off to the city's gifted and talented, international baccalaureate, or other selective high schools in the city.
"In my 34 years in the Chicago schools, this initiative is the one that really hits home," Gilliat says. "Here's how you're rewarded as a principal for doing a good job. AMPS status is a nice recognition, and it truly is administratively significant to us."
During Gilliat's tenure, Pasteur has mushroomed from 300 to 1,500 students, many of whom fill the string of trailers attached to the school's main buildings and who take turns attending on a nonstop, year-round calendar. A separate campus, to which Gilliat commutes several times daily, houses the seventh and eigth-graders. But for all the hustle and bustle of the large student body, the school hums along, in no small part, the principal argues, because he's able to stay on campus all the time instead of having to attend regular administrative meetings with neighboring principals. Those meetings, Gilliat points out, can sometimes last for five hours.
"AMPS allows me more time to work on local issues rather than sit through generic presentations that don't affect us," he says. Pasteur also can run its own customized mentoring program for teachers instead of depending on a course at the central office. And lately Gilliat has been consulting with the suburban Naperville district on a primary grades remediation program he would like to import, a relationship that would have almost been impossible under former CPS policies.
Even small undertakings, Gilliat says, are missing the customary red tape. Last fall, the students here collected money for Hurricane Katrina victims, adopted a school in New Orleans (a picture of whose students he pulls out proudly) and partnered with Southwest Airlines in shipping books and schools supplies. In the past, that transaction would have had to pass through CPS headquarters.
"Instead of a check coming from our central office, our kids were much more involved," Gilliat concludes. "AMPS has been a way to clear the air for us. We're now in the open and can do things we couldn't easily do before."
More to Do
Not all the reviews have been so positive. Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart remains suspicious of the district's business model, especially Duncan's approach to eliminating certain schools. "He's not an educator," says Stewart. The president of the board is not an educator. So you have all these businessmen bringing a business philosophy on how schools should be run."
Earlier this year, a study by the independent Consortium on Chicago School Research criticized the professional development in the district's new smaller high schools, including the highly touted charter schools. Researchers found that the workload assigned to the smaller staffs was taxing and left little time for effective training. Similarly, the absence of assistant principals in many cases overburdened principals, the study found.
Duncan himself issues a stern report card in some areas: "Our dropout rate is still unacceptably high. The majority of our high school students are not testing at grade level yet, and the majority of our elementary school students are not testing at grade level yet."
Duncan also had to cope with a $370 million deficit heading into the 2006-2007 academic year. "I'm thrilled with the progress, but we have a long way to go," he says. "Going back to the late '80s, we were called 'the worst school district in America.' We've come a long way from that point, but we want to become the best big-city school district in America, and we have to keep pushing very, very hard to get there."
Ron Schacter is a contributing editor.