CEO-Run School Means Business

A corporate-funded community school in Chicago gets cost-effective results. Third in a four-part weekly series.

ELAINE MOSLEY must be the most huggable chief executive officer around.

Dr. Mosley, who is known as both CEO and principal at the Corporate/Community School here, gets showered with hugs from her students every time she walks into a room.

Although this school is funded by big business and makes it a practice to watch the bottom line, it's far from a cold, sterile place.

Hallways sing with the shouts of schoolchildren celebrating on the morning after winter's first snowstorm. Visitors must carefully step over a fuzzy, gray rabbit lounging in the doorway of a classroom.

"We're not producing widgets here or Hula-Hoops or anything of that nature. We're producing an environment where parents, teachers, and students can learn," says Primus Mootry, project director of Corporate/Community Schools of America (C/CSA), the nonprofit coalition of businesses that supports the school.

The 300 students - ages 2 to 12 - who attend this school all live in the surrounding neighborhood of North Lawndale, a predominantly black, impoverished area on the West Side of Chicago. The school has a nonselective admission policy and is tuition-free.

Funding comes from about 60 Chicago-based corporations - including such giants as United Airlines, Baxter International Inc., Sears, Roebuck & Co., and The Quaker Oats Company.

"The CEOs that have bought into this are seasoned changemakers who recognize that in order to bring about change you've got to get your fingernails dirty, you've got to get into the game. You can't sit and peer in from the sidelines and buy new footballs," says Walter L. "Bud" Kraus, executive director of C/CSA.

The intention here is to prove that inner-city children can learn and excel, despite the drugs, crime, and poverty that plague their communities.

Strong gains are already taking place, according to a 1991 progress report. Many students who transferred into the school in 1988 were scoring far below their grade levels. But almost all are now expected to graduate at grade level or better.

Among six-year-olds who began preschool three years ago, 88 percent are at or above the national grade-level average in reading. That's compared with 26 percent of first graders in local public schools. And expenditures per-pupil are no more than those at Chicago public schools.

Since opening with 150 kids randomly chosen from 1,000 neighborhood applicants, the school has attracted nationwide attention. Investors in Houston and St. Louis are interested in starting similar projects.

"There's a large perception that there's no solution to the problem of inner-city schools," Mr. Mootry says. "When a group dares to defy that with a successful school in the inner city, it sends a very strong message."

But, Mootry points out, "There's no magic going on here. We didn't invent anything that's happening. The basic operating idea is: If something doesn't work, you try something else."

"What you see here in this school is an awful lot of common sense," Mr. Kraus says. "But nobody is influenced by common sense unless you can show them an example of that common sense turned into success."

The common-sense approach has led to a school that is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., year-round classes with a three-week summer vacation, adult education courses for parents and others in the community, and a full-day preschool program. There is a classroom aide for each teacher, making the student-teacher ratio 15:1.

The difference here is "actually an attitude and a philosophy more than anything else," according to Kraus. "The business approach to education asks, 'What do I have to do to properly serve these customers? As long as it's legal and moral, we'll do whatever has to be done to enable kids to learn."

Teachers are given the freedom to devise their own class programs and order materials. "In past experience, I've been given books and told, 'Make the kids learn this,' instead of being able to start where the kids are and help them learn from there," says Debbie Adolphson, who teaches the six- and seven-year-olds. "There's not a big bureaucracy here about getting what we need. If you need it, you get it."

This morning, Ms. Adolphson has 10 totally focused youngsters standing at the chalkboard practicing word patterns. "Look at me," she tells her students before saying the word "dig," gesturing wildly to provide a familiar hint at the spelling, and asking the students to write the word on the board. "Superstar!" Adolphson says enthusiastically, praising students who wrote the word correctly.

"We do a lot of work in small groups," she says. "While I am down here with a group, some students go upstairs to the computer lab, and some go to the Information Resource Center with the librarian. Then we change. I've tried it every way that I can, but the smaller the group and the more attention that I can give them seems to be the way that they're learning the most. To get 30 kids to pay attention to you all at once is almost impossible."

Adolphson is paid 10 percent more than her public-school colleagues. But she works longer days, has shorter vacations, and says, "The expectations are definitely higher here."

Principal and CEO Mosley, who is expected to produce results herself, watches her teachers closely. "A love for people and an understanding of how people grow and develop are prerequisites for all teachers," she says. "We have on-going professional development and training ... but you can't in-service human skills. If I observe through my close contact with a teacher that the spirit of their work is lacking on behalf of children, then I make a change," she says.

The school serves as the "hub" of a network of social services. "I see that whatever student needs the school is not directly serving are met," explains Sebastian Williams, hub coordinator. That means reaching out to help families with anything from health concerns to housing or clothing needs. The hub stays in touch with 100 Chicago agencies.

But Mr. Williams does more than simply refer parents to the proper place. "I will make the appointments, transport them, or follow up to make sure they made it. If we don't take care of it, there's no one else to do it."

All of this grows out of a basic principle of the Corporate/Community School. Mosley expresses it passionately: "The family should be the group that's affected by school, not just the child. Families really are the core of their child's support system, and schools have to direct their energies in a way that helps families to understand that they can do more for their children."

While the school makes every effort to reach out to families, there are expectations of the parents as well. "There are a lot of very carefully constructed activities, which enwrap the family and say to the parents, 'You've got to be in this with us.

Parents are expected to volunteer at the school at least five days during the year, in addition to participating in quarterly conferences that allow the teacher, parent, and child to plan the student's goals for the next quarter. At the end of the third quarter, students share a portfolio of their work with parents.

Aviva Douse has two children in the school and volunteers in her son's class once a week. "I'm doing it for the both of us," she says. "It helps me. Now I see that it's not just at school, it's at home where they learn too."

Ms. Douse thinks the expectation of volunteer work is good for people in the neighborhood. "A lot of the parents just stay in the house and watch the soap operas. This gives them something to do." Douse plans to take a word-processing course at the school. "Then I can go out and seek the job I really want," she says.

"The idea is to help [parents] grow a new attitude about school and about their place here," Mosley says. "This school is situated in North Lawndale. It's a part of the community. We want to serve as a beacon of hope to the community, but we can't do that if we're not interacting. There's an expectation that transformation will in fact occur in this community - that one day drugs, and crime, and domestic violence will not be a major issue. Our work has to have far-reaching implications and results." Next week: A school district near Rochester, N.Y., brought the community together to create a new elementary school. Part 1 of this series appeared on Jan. 6, Part 2 on Jan. 13.

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