CHICAGO — SCHOOL reform, Chicago-style, now comes in 540 varieties. Parent-led councils in each public school are charting their own courses in the boldest and broadest school decentralization experiment of any major US city. The councils hope to reverse an alarming trend of falling test scores and rising dropout rates.
If Chicago's schools do improve, the 6,000 parents, community representatives, teachers, and principals serving on these local school councils will get much of the credit. They are to make the key decisions on everything from budgets to curriculum and on whether the school principal goes or stays.
Each school council has 11 members, all elected except for the principal. Parents have a six-seat majority. On the job less than four months, council members are feeling their way in a job that absorbs as much time as they can spare.
Some school council meetings have been stormy, divided along ethnic and racial lines. About 1 or 2 percent of the council members have already dropped out. Yet the majority seems determined to make its efforts succeed.
``I've been heartened to see how seriously everyone is taking the job,'' says Pat Booth, an elected community representative on the Lincoln Elementary School council. ``There's a real willingness to make this work.''
Most councils are still getting organized. A few are already dealing with substantive issues. Some schools, like Bell Elementary School on the city's northwest side, got an early start by forming an interim council of interested parents a few years back.
At a recent council meeting in Bell's brightly lit library, members discussed everything from writing up the bylaws and listing needed school repairs to drafting the school improvement plan required of each council by spring. ``We need that plan for us,'' council president Suzanne Saposnik told the group. ``We have a lot of decisions to make about where we want to head.''
``For many parents, the job is overwhelming,'' says Donald Moran, principal of the Ulysses Grant School, which serves the Rockwell Gardens housing project. ``I told my members that even the US president learns right on the job.''
Several principals say council participation in tough policy decisions leaves the principal feeling less alone in explaining these to parents. ``It's a backup that gives you a little more weight,'' says Dr. Charles Vietzen, principal of the Hubbard High School on the southwest side.
Chicago's radical experiment is a product of the desperate straits city schools were in during 1987 when a fall teachers strike dragged on for three weeks. A coalition of concerned business and community leaders and parents descended on the Illinois legislature to make its case for a top-to-bottom change.
Interest was keen from the start. Major businesses encouraged employees to run for office, giving training and time off. Three candidates ran for every opening.
A key strength of the experiment is the vigorous support, backed up by a wide array of grants and awards, that continues to come from Chicago's corporate and foundation community. Their coalition - Alliance for Better Chicago (ABC) Schools - is pressing hard for further reforms and recently sponsored a weekend retreat for 150 groups to assess progress made.
Lawyers, public accountants, and retired executives have offered pro bono help to the councils. llinois Bell Telephone and the Ameritech Foundation recently announced a $1.2 million awards program for schools making the most progress in such areas as test scores and attendance. As a clearinghouse to monitor Chicago's reform efforts, the Community Renewal Society has launched a foundation-backed newsletter called Catalyst.
Still the restructuring has also encountered some problems.
While carefully drafted to build on the experience of other decentralized school systems, the 123-page Illinois legislation does not precisely spell out the division of power between the central administration and councils in such areas as curriculum and tests.
``The move to councils essentially says to parents, `you run the schools,''' says William Brashler, a Bell parent council member. ``The problem is to what degree. That's what the fights are about.''
The loss of principal tenure remains a sensitive issue.
``The principals obviously feel they're the major victim in this arrangement,'' comments Dr. Chester Finn Jr., head of the Education Excellence Network. ``But you can't reform a school system if you can't change the principal. It's like trying to reform a restaurant without being able to change the chef.''
The Chicago Principals Association sued on the tenure issue and lost. Jeanne Baxter, a professor of educational administration at Northeastern Illinois University who has been working for four years with a volunteer group of principals and teachers interested in reform, says the principals' concerns are now focused largely on fairness. Many question why teachers on councils should be allowed to vote on their principals' dismissal, she says.
Some council members complain they are deluged with information.
More than two dozen groups have offered to train council members. ``There's no time for us to go and scout out each one. We're busy just trying to organize ourselves,'' says Leonard Dominguez, principal of the Eli Whitney School.
Reformers say the central school administration, despite a major cutback, is still too big and set in its ways. ``There has to be a different mind-set,'' says Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, an education research and advocacy group. ``We need a central administration that solves problems rather than creates them.''
The ABC alliance has asked new Chicago Schools Superintendent Ted Kimbrough to declare the top 100 administrative positions vacant and open to competition. Also the ABC wants to wipe out all existing rules and start anew. The new superintendent knows what is expected of him and says all staff jobs are open to competition. Yet the challenge facing him is formidable. ``He's got a whole lot of people within the bureaucracy he's inherited who don't believe in reform and will resist it,'' notes Dr. Finn.
The restructuring of power in Chicago's schools is, of course, only one step toward the ultimate goal: improved student performance.
As those involved from the start see it, failure is not an option. ``There's absolutely no question in my mind but that this reform will succeed,'' insists Joseph Reed, president of Leadership for Quality Education, an organization of corporate and community leaders.