Deep in the heart of the La Salle Street financial district lurks a Chicago venture capitalist who believes a great many educational ills would go away if good classroom teachers got a little recognition. To prove he's right, Mike Koldyke is willing to bet $400,000 -- some of it his own money.
``I felt we needed a really first-class program that honored outstanding teaching, that really meant something to the recipients,'' he says.
His idea, conceived about a year ago, took shape as the Foundation for Excellence in Teaching when initial funding became available last August. Now Mr. Koldyke, who runs Frontenac Company, a venture capital firm, is chairman and chief salesman for a program he says his wife, Patricia, challenged him to develop.
He's had help. A number of educational institutions, foundations, and business people are contributing time and money to provide 10 superior Chicago-area high school teachers with fall-term sabbaticals and stipends of $2,500 each.
Chief among the contributors are Northwestern University and WTTW-TV, the city's primary public-television station, which plans to send the teachers off in a June 8 ceremony resembling Hollywood's Academy Awards.
``I don't necessarily see this becoming a nationwide program -- the generation of local support is too important,'' Koldyke says. ``But if we're successful, I think our program is perfectly transportable to Phoenix, Boston, Grand Rapids, Los Angeles, etc.''
The need certainly exists, according to Faith Dunne, an education professor at Dartmouth College and a board member of the foundation. ``This whole program comes from Mike's conviction that teachers are not recognized for their real value. He sees the foundation as a means of saying `you are valued,' using the language of television and awards,'' Dr. Dunne said during a recent interview here.
``We have a great concern that teachers be superb classroom teachers. We're not looking for political movers and shakers; we're not looking for those who want to make it to the top of their union or who want to get into administration. There are already rewards for them.''
The stipends and sabbaticals at Northwestern, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, are to be given in exchange for pledges from the recipients that they will continue teaching for at least two more years. The teachers are also to be offered an opportunity to take part in a special series of seminars involving business and professional leaders throughout the academic year. The foundation expects to assist each school district from which a teacher is plucked with the cost of providing a replacement teacher for the fall term.
Koldyke says, ``If you've been teaching for 20 or 30 years and you get the opportunity to step into a great university like Northwestern -- to study Shakespeare or classical music or just write in the library -- how refreshing that would be! To refuel your engines, to think and reflect.''
The initial response to the idea was ``really electric,'' he says. More than 600 nominations were received from students, parents, administrators, and peers of teachers in the six-county Chicago area before the Jan. 15 deadline. That list is to be pared to 30 by April 8, after the five letters supporting each candidate are reviewed.
The 30 are then to be interviewed and their in-class performances evaluated on-site. The banquet and ceremony at which the final 10 will be announced is to be televised in a program that will also include footage of the teachers in action. Some of that will be repackaged and offered to other PBS stations, Koldyke says.
Elaborating on why business people should be concerned about the quality of education in their schools, Koldyke explains:
``If a corporation wants to remain in Chicago and continue to take advantage of the considerable work force here, it needs to be provided with well-educated citizens to choose from. If that educational responsibility is evaded, the corporation will move to the suburbs.
``So it's in our enlightened self-interest to promote good teaching. It's no secret to business that the need for qualified teaching is profound.''
Dunne adds: ``What benefits teachers should benefit the society they serve -- that's the whole point. We're facing a very severe shortage of teachers and a severe decline in the quality of the pool we're drawing teachers from.
``Part of this stems from the fact that there was a surplus of teachers in the late 1960s, and market forces had driven up the quality requirements. Part of it is the fruit of the women's movement. Careers opened up and women were doing everything else besides teaching: becoming lawyers and doctors and PR people.
``We can't abandon the cities,'' Dunne continues. ``We're all in this together, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that.