Can it Work in Chicago? | Feature | Chicago Reader

Can it Work in Chicago? 

Some Hammond educators think the Chicago plan is a blueprint for disaster.

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The Hammond School City was one of the first districts in the country to try school-based management, but its position as a pioneer is being outstripped by events. Today scores of districts in six states, notably Minnesota and Florida, are experimenting with moving decisions downward.

Right now the Dade County public school system, encompassing Miami and some of its suburbs, arguably occupies the cutting edge. Councils at 45 schools (out of a total of 260) have been handed control of their buildings and budgets on a pilot basis. The councils, ranging in size up to 40 or so members, have proceeded to fiddle with alternatives.

At South Miami Junior High School, the money saved from closing eight teaching slots was used to import outside specialists in cello, dance, and other disciplines; at Sunset Senior High, the council carved a new counseling period into the school day. Councils eliminated the assistant principal's job at four schools, pumping the savings into after-school programs and salaries for teachers' aides. A voluntary "Saturday school" emerged at ten sites. Combined teacher-administrator posts were created.

Enthusiasm for the Miami reforms was such that last spring Dade County voters passed a $980 million school bond issue, the largest bond referendum in U.S. history. The income will result in the construction of 50 new schools and a 28 percent hike in teacher salaries. Soon a top-earning Dade County teacher will draw $64,000 a year, according to a county spokesman.

The potential for similar innovation--and excitement--lies within the skeleton of school reform scheduled to begin in the Chicago public schools by summer. Under the Chicago design each local school will be governed by an elected school council composed of six parents, two teachers, two community members, and the principal. The council will stitch together a school improvement plan, fix the school budget (bolstered increasingly and in varying degrees by a reallocation of federal Title I moneys), and hire the principal on contract with performance evaluation after four years. Staff hiring will be based on merit, not seniority. Given state-dictated parameters, each school will be able to tailor its program, including curriculum, to fit individual needs.

At the request of parent groups and the Chicago Board of Education, key figures from Hammond have given their views on the Chicago reforms since they were formulated last year. The Hammond system services 13,600 students compared to Chicago's 410,000. Ironically, from their vantage point in the trenches, the Hammond people now predict chaos for Chicago.

"Chicago is never going to work, no way," says Pat O'Rourke, the Hammond teachers' union president. "The Chicago reforms put too much power in the hands of the parent councils. Parents should not be making decisions on professionals. The patient shouldn't be allowed in the operating room to tell the surgeon what to do."

Many Hammond parents feel the same way. "I don't want to hire a principal," offers Mary Gramhofer, active at Hammond High. "The superintendent should do that." Yet Linda Lawson, a School City board member, sees a positive side to subjecting a principal to parent supervision: "Principals have gotten away with too much for too long. Why aren't they at every basketball game? Why aren't they at every meeting? They should be."

"What Chicago is up to is a blueprint for disaster," says Tom Knarr. The Hammond assistant superintendent sees the Chicago schools becoming subject to "mob rule." Of particular concern is the position of the principal, who he feels will be forced into the role of a politician. "On the one hand," Knarr ponders, "you are asking the principal to be accountable for how his school performs. But what if he has a problem with drug abuse, and the parent of an offending kid sits on the local council. What will the principal do, expel the kid? If he does, when his contract comes up for renewal you can bet there will be at least one parent gunning for his hide. You're turning the principal's job into a popularity contest."

Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a leading architect of the Chicago reforms, disagrees. "Parents have a stake in improving their schools for their kids. They are willing to ask the basic questions as to how things are being run." For a peek at how Chicago will work, suggests Moore, you should look not at Hammond or Miami but at 750 Illinois school districts where boards of elected citizens control matters and no one is in an uproar.

But Chicago parents do require management training, and to that end the Citywide Coalition for Reform, a network of proreform advocacy groups of which Designs for Change is a part, will offer free six-hour training sessions before the local councils are elected in the fall. The coalition's goal is to train 10,000 parents. The Board of Education is also offering classes.

Once trained councils are in place, Moore predicts, Chicago will rock with the kind of change unseen in either Hammond or Miami. The traditional tuckpointing that occurs--such as redoing the daily schedule or adding remedial classes--constitutes only "superficial" advances, he says. Instead, Moore hopes, deeper, more fundamental changes will be instituted, such as switching the best teachers in high schools from shepherding the best students to working with those who are failing.

Key to the Chicago reform is tying the principal to a contract, Moore feels. "The principals will have to perform and provide leadership," he asserts. "Those that don't will be replaced." A principal who survives will be less a manipulative politician than one who is able to establish "a good educational program and good communication with her parents," in Moore's estimation.

Instead of being repelled, teachers will be so excited by what's happening in Chicago, Moore thinks, that they will migrate here in droves.

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