Chicago hope: 'Maybe this will work.'

A struggling urban district invests in the belief that smaller will prove to be better.

Come next fall, Chicago's DuSable High School, one of the city's most historic - and lowest performing - schools on the South Side, will be reborn as several small schools.

Douglas, Austin, and a handful of other elementary and high schools, some of which have already been closed, will also get a major makeover.

Those new schools, however, are just the beginning of one of the most ambitious school reform projects ever undertaken. Cities across the United States will be watching closely as - over the next six years - Chicago shuts some 60 schools and creates 100 new ones.

Beyond just closing and opening schools, the plan is one of the broadest endorsements yet of the "small schools" philosophy that has taken root over the past decade. Almost all the new schools will have a small number of students - less than 500 - and will emphasize personalized learning and greater staff and student interaction.

In some respects, however, the plan is also the district's way of admitting that it doesn't have all the answers when it comes to bolstering some of its lowest-performing schools. That's why the doors are being thrown open to outside experts who will be invited in to share their expertise.

Only about a third of the new schools will be run by the district. The rest will be charters or contract schools run by independent organizations, and all will be subject to five-year reviews. Those that don't make the grade can expect to be reformed anew.

It's a bold and risky plan that is creating a fair amount of controversy here in the city and has been called by turns visionary or foolhardy.

Parents worry their kids will be guinea pigs, facing a different school and educational philosophy every few years, and some experts question the advisability of putting so much faith in structures - like small schools or charters - for which little long-term data are available.

Others say that given the dire straits of public education in big cities like Chicago, a plan like this is the only thing that could work - a large-scale project that doesn't just shuffle people around but drastically reenvisions the landscape of urban education.

"It's loaded with incredible opportunity but also with significant challenges," says Timothy Knowles, director of the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago. He, like others who cautiously endorse the plan, says the real test is in details, such as finding and training talented staff. "It's going to require people and institutions to stretch further than they have if it's going to be successful. But if you're gazing into the eyes of a class of kindergarten students and asking yourself, is this the right thing, I think the answer is: compared to the status quo, absolutely."

Parents and education activists don't necessarily agree.

Last week, the district released a draft policy for Renaissance 2010, as the plan is formally known, and over the next few months officials and community members will be hashing out the details of just what the first new schools will look like. But even before the written plan came out, some groups, particularly in the areas most affected, have been airing their doubts.

In South Chicago, where a large percentage of the affected schools are located, residents worry about constantly shifting students from one school to another. They also complain about the lack of voice they've had in forming this plan and wonder why these changes are coming only now that public housing is being dismantled and many neighborhoods are facing gentrification. At the heart of the rumblings is a deep distrust of a city government that hasn't always been open and up front in the past.

Credibility problems

"[The district] has no credibility with the community about the decisions they're making," says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a parent activist group. "Their idea of community involvement is coming with a PowerPoint presentation, doing a dog-and-pony show, listening to people say they don't like the program and moving it to the next place."

Ms. Woestehoff worries in particular about the future of local school councils (LSCs) - elected bodies with high parent representation that govern current schools but which won't necessarily be a part of the new charter or contract schools - as well as the effect of multiple transfers on kids.

"Parents don't want their kids to be experimented on," she says. "They're tired of it. We've had an awful lot of it in Chicago over the past decades."

Indeed, this is a city that has been at the forefront of school reform since the mid-1980s, with a mixed bag of successes and misses. This newest plan might be considered the third wave of school reform, after changes to school governance (and the beginning of LSCs) in 1988 and the move toward accountability - which included reconstituting failing schools - in the 1990s.

When Chicago closed and reconstituted several schools back then, staffing was the key issue, says G. Alfred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. "The last 15 percent of new hires they were simply exchanging each other's staff," he says, even though turnover was required. "If you keep the same teachers, and change the structure but don't change the way they relate to kids, you're not likely to see changes in student achievement."

Proponents of the Renaissance plan argue that this wave of closings will be very different from simply reconstituting schools. It will be instead an overhaul of philosophy, size, and, in particular, governance. Each new school will be based on a proposal drawn up by community members on a transitional advisory council, or TAC. While the district will review the schools' performance, the specifics - whether the school will be charter, contract, or district-run; whether it will have a local school council or appointed board; whether its employees will be union members - will vary widely.

In the past, every new school, every idea for reform, came from the central district office, says Greg Richmond, who is overseeing Renaissance 2010. This plan is, in a sense, an acknowledgment by the district that it doesn't have all the answers and a hope that by opening the doors to outside groups, to principals and teachers and education reformers with creative ideas of their own, some successful ideas will find fertile ground.

"We want to be able to find people with not just ideas, but with their own experiences and autonomy," Mr. Richmond says. "We want to be able to have a portfolio of people who will run good schools and have a track record, so that we can go to one of a dozen or two dozen proven organizations and replace a school that doesn't work with one that does."

Where Richmond and other proponents see flexibility and the potential for innovation, however, some residents see an abdication of responsibility.

"What you hear is less red tape, less bureaucracy, more autonomy," says Shannon Bennett, assistant director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in South Chicago. "To us that sounds like less accountability to parents and communities.... We're desperate for change, but out of all these schools that will open up, how many of these models have been proven?"

Mr. Bennett's point, that little research backs up the idea that charters, or small schools, necessarily have better performance, is a central criticism of Chicago's plan. Several experts have questioned the idea of such a major overhaul when it's unclear if the alternatives will be an improvement.

Are small schools really the answer?

"It's easy to be enthusiastic about creating something new, but I think what the charter experiment has taught us is that it's a lot harder to run highly effective schools than one might think at the beginning, and there's a lot of stored-up know-how and practice at the existing schools," says Archon Fung, a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Why are reformers so interested in revolutionary solutions to school reform when nobody can say with confidence that any particular revolutionary solution is better than any other?"

In fact, there are data out there, but they are hardly conclusive. Charters have had mixed press nationwide lately, but the laws that govern them vary from state to state. In Chicago, they've done fairly well - better, on average, than district schools, according to a Chicago Board of Education study.

As for small schools, they have consistently better attendance, lower dropout rates, and fewer detentions. But improved academic performance has been tougher to prove.

It isn't so much that small schools by themselves are the answer, says Tom Vander Ark, director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to create small schools around the country and in Chicago. "They only make success possible."

Other than a few selective schools that serve wealthy communities or require entrance exams, "there are no successful large high schools," he says. "We think every urban area in America should be working as aggressively as Chicago."

Even the most ardent supporters of the plan acknowledge that the next few years may be hard on some parents and students, and that having even one school close - much less 50 or 60 - can be traumatic.

While Richmond consoles himself with the idea that if a new school fails, he can replace it with a better one, that's less comforting to a parent whose child has spent five years in the school that didn't work.

Still, the argument goes, the new schools can hardly be worse than the status quo, and hopefully, they'll be better.

The teachers union, the LSC advocates, the parents with kids in closing schools - "all these groups have good arguments and legitimate concerns," says Professor Knowles. "I think the test is not to throw away the whole initiative, but rather to look closely at the results as these schools open."

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