Chicago School Reform Takes Root in Community Action

Parent-teacher councils control budget, curriculum

CHICAGO'S school reform is succeeding. It has to. That's the feeling here about the process initiated a year ago to reform the city's schools, once tarred by a US secretary of education as the nation's worst.

``There's a spirit in this town: We can't let this fail,'' says Sharon Jenkins-Brown of Leadership for Quality Education, an organization of leading businesses that backed education reform.

``There are stresses and strains here and there. Fundamentally, it's working,'' says Ted Hearn, a spokesman for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Last week the foundation committed $40 million to support the reform process.

Noting the city's progress, a survey conducted last week by Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., concluded that the majority of Chicago parents are satisfied with their children's education, regardless of race, grade level, or enrollment in public or private schools.

Chicago has 547 public elementary schools and high schools to serve 410,000 students. The student population is 59 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white, and 3 percent Asian.

In 1987, half of the city's high schools ranked in the bottom 1 percent on American College Test scores, prompting then Education Secretary William Bennett to say, ``If there's a worse [school system], I don't know where it is.''

The dropout rate has been near 50 percent, Ms. Jenkins-Brown says. Among graduates, only one-third truly read and write at a 12th-grade level.

Parents take action

For parent Marj Halperin, the teachers' strike of 1987 - the ninth in 18 years - was the last straw.

``The instability of the system was too frustrating,'' Ms. Halperin says. ``You couldn't rely on schools to start on time.'' She attended a meeting of ``upset parents'' who eventually founded Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE).

PURE pressed for decentralizing control, putting schools in the hands of those the system serves. The bureaucracy ``was a big impediment to progress,'' says Jenkins-Brown. ``You had educators who didn't care about the kids.''

Out of the furor came the School Reform Act of 1988. The new law created Local School Councils (LSC) charged with creating a budget and an improvement plan for each facility school. Six of the 11 members of LSCs are parents; two more are members of the community. The principal and two teachers fill the other slots. Together they craft a program that suits the needs of their student population.

``A parent has the right to say what they want their children taught,'' says Bernette Barnes, a social worker and parent who was elected to the LSC for Orr High School.

Orr, on Chicago's West Side, has an enrollment that is 90 percent black, Ms. Barnes says. Some students aim for college; others go straight into the work force. The LSC aims to have the school give the students the appropriate skills either way. Program innovations

One of its innovations has been to institute an entrepreneurial program. Another is to make day care available on campus so girls who have children aren't forced to drop out to care for them.

The reform act gave LSCs the power to select their school's principal. Last year, half of the LSCs systemwide were required to decide on a principal; the other half will go through that process this year.

The principal, meanwhile, gained much greater power to form his or her teaching staff. Before the reform bill, Jenkins-Brown says, ``Teachers could miseducate kids for a couple years before you could get them out. Now it's 45 days.''

The new LSCs have had their share of ``growing pains,'' though. Council members are elected for two years; 25 percent resigned after the first, says Halperin.

Part of the problem was the hours involved - ``20, 30, 40 a week,'' she says.

And many who were elected to LSCs lacked the skills to do the job. ``We didn't know what a school improvement plan was,'' Barnes admits. ``We had to go out and get training.'' Meanwhile, Orr's LSC missed its deadline for submitting a school improvement plan and a budget.

Year of educational reform

Halperin, now a spokeswoman for Superintendent of Schools Ted Kimbrough, says her boss refers to last year as the ``year of governance reform.'' This and succeeding years will focus on educational reform.

Mr. Kimbrough was appointed at the outset of the reform process by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. So far, the superintendent has cut 500 jobs from the school system's administration headquarters, Halperin says. Also gone is the widely reviled practice of requiring state-certified teachers to fulfill a city certification requirement. ``It was an unnecessary layer, and unique to Chicago,'' says Jenkins-Brown. The Chicago test was viewed as ``designed to keep certain kinds of teachers from getting into the system.''

Now, Halperin says, ``If the state says you're good enough to teach, you're good enough to teach here.''

Mr. Kimbrough drew some fire from LSC members over his decision to freeze funds toward the end of the previous budget year. His aim, says Halperin, was to prevent the councils from spending leftover money that they knew they wouldn't be able to carry over.

But the LSCs argued that each council had the right to form its school's budget. The dispute shows that the division of power between the LSCs and the central administration remains unclear.

The Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance will be monitoring the progress of Chicago's education reforms over the next five years.

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