Chicago corporations invest in their own `public' school. Run like a business, school offers alternativeto a hobbled system

School days mean that Barbara McCoy is happy to open the apartment door and let her five-year-old daughter Marketa go outside for a breath of fresh air. Ms. McCoy lives on the seventh floor of the Ogden Courts housing project, in an area of Chicago's West Side sometimes written off by outsiders as home to a hopeless social ``underclass.''

Teens hang out nearby drinking, smoking dope, and engaging in other activities that McCoy describes as unacceptable.

``Sometimes just the sight of the building bothers you; I know it gets to me,'' says the unemployed, single mother. ``I don't want Marketa just growing up being there all the time.''

So this school year, McCoy and her daughter begin walking together to a unique new school that promises a ``way out,'' not only for individual families but for this neighborhood and possibly big-city school systems throughout America.

It is a different kind of ``public'' elementary school, funded and run by Chicago corporations that are tired of the tangled politics, bureaucracy, and teachers' strikes that have hobbled their embattled school system.

This new Corporate/Community School is a prototype for future projects nationwide. So far, companies such as United Airlines and McDonald's have put $2 million into the venture, housed in an abandoned Roman Catholic school on Chicago's impoverished West Side.

The central concept behind the school is community partnership, an inner-city version of the old privately endowed New England academy.

When it opened in September, there were 2,000 applicants from the neighborhood for 150 tuition-free openings. The openings were filled by computer, to ensure a mix of children similar to a regular public school. And the school's claimed annual expenditure of $4,100 per pupil is about the same as that of the Chicago public schools.

But unlike the public schools, it was designed by top educational consultants to be a model institution that will eventually teach 300 pupils, ages 2 to 13, in small, multi-age nongraded classes.

In Marketa's class, about 20 pupils ages five and six are taught by Delois Haymon, and a full-time aide in activity centers where children and parents work together on projects such as sorting beads or working on puzzles, as well as ``paper and pencil'' academic work.

Working parents can leave their children from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. if necessary, but there is a heavy emphasis on parental involvement, with a parent training center that will host seminars on topics such as job skills.

Even Board of Education officials are enthusiastic about the school's potential and hope to learn something from the way business runs its ``public'' school.

Unlike a controversial proposal to develop land around a new Chicago Bears stadium on the West Side, this inner-city corporate beachhead has been welcomed by the black community.

That's because it centers on a different kind of investment - education.

``This is a profound statement - profound for them to come in the community and say, yes, there are dividends to be reaped here if we make the investment,'' says principal Elaine Mosley, a black educator. ``[The investment] will be reflected in a renewed sense of hope in the community, because children have a wonderful way of touching the lives of adults.''

The project was conceived 20 years ago by Joseph Kellman, president of Globe Glass and Mirror Company. Mr. Kellman, a philanthropist, refers to the school as a field-testing lab for education and vows to run it like a business, holding staff accountable for the school's performance. He presides over the board of the Corporate/Community Schools of America Inc., whose members include such notables as University of Chicago president Hanna Gray.

Education experts say the challenge will be to translate this lone example into practical change for the public schools, which are limited in resources and responsible for special education programs that the new school is not.

Kathy Irwin, who teaches seven- and eight-year-olds at the new school, says its potential success lies in building on the strengths of the West Side children rather than reinforcing a self-image of failure often fostered in the inner-city.

To counter this tendency, teachers will emphasize individualized attention and activities, with parents and children engaging with staff in the teaching process.

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