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Reform Chicago Style

Ohanian Comment: Chicago's new plan is to mandate that every ninth grader scoring below the national average must take two periods of algebra. They call this reform.

It's opening day for the Chicago public schools, and for many of them the year ahead can best be described this way: The Big Fix.

Two "Renaissance" schools are reopening after being shuttered 15 months ago because of flagging scores; 10 other low-performing grammar schools have one year to improve or face closing under a deal struck with the teachers union; four new small high schools are opening inside three failing high schools; and three more charter schools are opening their doors.

The efforts are mostly directed at the city's low-performing schools and high-risk students.

"This makes sense," said Steve Zemelman of Leadership for Quality Education, a reform group. "Each school has its own culture, so rather than mandate a 'single size fits all,' this means teachers have some choice, get to make a commitment and feel in control."

"It's about time lots and lots of energy was focused on these schools," added Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch. "The real challenge and success of urban public education hinges on turn-around strategies that will enable us to show success in schools struggling with high concentrations of poverty."

The year also opens with 38 schools taking in some 1,035 students from low-scoring schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law--a transition that promises to be chaotic with parents only receiving notice of transfers on Friday.

A $14.5 million push to improve math and science teaching also is being launched. To start, 82 elementary schools across the city hired 78 math or reading specialists to increase daily math and science instruction.

At the high schools, every freshman who scored below the national average--about 15,000 kids--will take two periods of algebra. Teachers also are receiving training, new course materials are in the works and CPS has kicked off a $120 million drive to renovate all high school science labs.

As the year gets under way, attention will likely focus on the Renaissance schools being reopened and the 10 schools targeted for a turn-around by the union.

The CTU vehemently opposed closing the Renaissance schools, Dodge and Williams, and in the aftermath negotiated with CPS officials to work with 10 schools at risk of closing. If the schools don't improve within a year, Schools CEO Arne Duncan could close them. The Renaissance schools face no such deadline.

Reopening in renovated buildings, the Renaissance schools will have new freedoms and programs considered among the country's most innovative. Dodge, on the Near West Side, was redesigned as a teacher training academy, with a mentor teacher and two full-time teachers-in-training in each class.

Williams, on South State Street, is opening as the city's first pre-K through high school. The primary grades will have smaller class sizes and a curriculum designed with the Erikson Institute, a child development graduate school.

The middle grades are using the Knowledge is Power Program, which runs until 5 p.m. daily, every other Saturday and part of the summer. The Big Picture High School focuses on smaller classes, a personalized curriculum and internships.

The 10 union "partnership" schools are sharing more than $2 million for training, extended day activities and other resources. The union pushed for two years to show improvement but had to live with one.

"I'm not excited about the deadline, but I'm confident our kids will improve," said Anita Hill, a reading specialist at Raymond Elementary, one of the 10 schools.

— Kate N. Grossman
For some schools, pressure is on to improve or face closure
Chicago Sun-Times


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