The "corporate school" experiment: Can the public schools be reformed from without? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The "corporate school" experiment: Can the public schools be reformed from without? 

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Joseph Kellman is a man with a seemingly paradoxical mission: to start a private school whose avowed goal is to improve public schools. Now his 20-year dream is nearing reality. January 1, 1988, marks the opening of the prototype school of the Corporate/Community Schools of America, a partnership between Chicago business, educators, and community groups.

Kellman's lofty goal has two facets: to demonstrate successful methods of urban education replicable in public schools, and to create a force for change in the public schools. He also hopes his school can refer students and their families to local social and personal services.

His dream was born after the 1968 riots that ravaged west-side neighborhoods like Lawndale. The 67-year-old Kellman, a businessman himself, founded and served for years with the Better Boys Foundation, a Lawndale social service agency. Yet Kellman admits, "It's ridiculous to expect agencies to attack the causes of poor education.

"I made a speech to a group of businessmen at the University of Pittsburgh," Kellman recalls. "I told them, "In Chicago, the Board of Education, like most boards of education, is fixed in its methods and is going to have great difficulty providing equal opportunity at education for inner-city children.' That speech still holds true.

"Our schools simply aren't working for too many young people," he claims. "They can't read, write, or do simple arithmetic. This school can be a force for critical change."

Kellman, president of the near-northwest side's Globe Glass and Mirror Company, dared corporations to finance schools that would challenge and lend ideas to public schools. Sixteen Chicago corporations have taken up the challenge so far, contributing $2 million of the $3 million allotted for the first three years' budget.

The result is a school that may serve as a flagship for other inner-city corporate schools around the country. Kellman hopes for "a national network that will help to shape American urban education in the 21st century." Corporate/Community Schools of America has already set up a national board of directors, with Walter Massey, vice president for research at Argonne National Laboratory, as its chairman. Other national board members include Hanna Gray, president of the University of Chicago, and A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale.

The prototype school will be in Lawndale. C/CSA has leased the currently abandoned Frances X. Cabrini School, 753 S. Sacramento, from the archdiocese of Chicago. The school will open with 120 students, ranging from prekindergarten to third grade. Ultimately, it will have 300 students, ranging up to eighth grade.

The Chicago corporate school claims it will differ from public schools in a number of respects: it will have higher salaries and merit pay for teachers; it will make those teachers clearly accountable; it will use state-of-the-art materials and technologies; and it will involve parents and the community more effectively. Yet the corporate school will not be just another private school that happens to be located in the ghetto: no tuition will be charged; per-pupil cost will not exceed that of public schools; students will be randomly selected to ensure a population similar to local public school populations; and standard measurements of student achievement will be used.

Bruce Thomas, a Better Boys Foundation member and project consultant, stresses the local nature of the school. "We feel that the individual school is the best site for reform, and that each school must recognize local needs. That's why we include three community members, including a parent, on our board. The rest of the board will consist of five corporate members and three educators."

Thomas says that the principal will have a great deal of authority. "We hope to have someone selected in a month or two," he comments, "but right now there is no leading candidate."

Since the principal, when named, will have a great deal to say about the school's curriculum, C/CSA officials cannot be specific about course offerings. Board member Michael Bakalis claims the curriculum will stress reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling. "We had a consensus that first and foremost, the school should concentrate on the basics. While we believe in a full set of offerings, we feel nothing is very useful if a student cannot read or write. The majority of students who drop out leave because they can't read and thus feel like failures."

C/CSA claims it will use innovative "corporate techniques" in its program, which may be transferable to public schools; one of them may be nontraditional arrangement of classes, according to Bakalis. "We are seeking different ways to organize and motivate classes," he says. "One of those methods involves different levels of teachers. We don't think all teachers have to be equal. That's why we propose master teachers and assistant teachers, with merit increases when appropriate."

Tenure, Bakalis claims, is "detrimental. It can be security that goes into lethargy. We will not have tenure. Instead, we offer very active teacher participation in budget, participation, and planning. We want teachers to have a very active sense that this is their school, and we feel that if they feel this involvement, their motivation will absolve the need for tenure."

Its name, the "corporate" school, is enough to frighten some educators and observers. Yet the representatives of participating corporations downplay their day-to-day involvement.

"We made a three-year pledge of money," says Commonwealth Edison representative Peter Cook. "Bob Manning, who worked with the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry on the Adopt-a-School program, is on the school's curriculum development committee. We are happy to help, but we are not professional educators. What we liked from Mr. Kellman's proposal was the concept of a pilot project to improve public schools by taking methods useful in private schools and transferring them to the public sector. If the public schools can be improved, fine."

"I've been mixed up with Joe Kellman in the Better Boys Foundation for a long time. Twenty years he's been nursing this idea," states Power Parts president Marty Hausman. "Power Parts contributed because of its admiration for him. We agree with him that it's disgraceful to give a high school student a diploma he can't read."

Angela D'Aversa, public relations representative of Borg-Warner, adds, "Our role is that of being contributor. Curriculum development is not our function. We like the proposed relationship of principal to teachers, school to community, and the elimination of a lot of bureaucracy. Some say it takes more money to educate kids, but maybe it just takes better distribution of money."

Those who fear that corporations might try to influence the curriculum are skeptical, however, about a hands-off approach. "Whoever pays the bills is going to want to have a say, in what textbooks are used and not used, and so on," notes Jack Weist, director of the Alternative Schools Network.

Other educators question whether the corporations mean to exert such clout. Fred Hess, director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance and Policy, says, "A lot of people feel the corporations may wield undue influence. Some say business should have no voice in education at all. I don't believe philosophy is the case here. It's not a question of 'Let's indoctrinate our kids in capitalism.' It's more like, 'Our schools in the city are doing a lousy job of teaching reading and writing. Let's see what we can do to improve them.'"

Some advocacy groups even welcome business involvement. Florence Cox, president of the Chicago region PTA, welcomes business's input into the schools' curriculum. "We, as advocates of public education, have been asking corporations what they want us to teach so that students can be in a position to undertake entry-level work. If business wants to set up a curriculum, and if it wishes to put up the money to develop it, I say fine."

Yet she questions how well methods may transfer from a small private school to a large public one. "The ideas and ideals may be fine. But transferring them may be like moving London Bridge to Chicago. It may be a good thing to have, but it may not be feasible here."

She also notes that although the small number of students attending the corporate school may benefit, most Lawndale students, who have few alternatives but the local public school, will be unaffected. "Many parents financially cannot make an educational choice. I hope we can learn something from this school that will help parents and students who cannot make an alternative choice."

Others expressed the opinion that the energy that has gone into the planning of the corporate school would have been better used in an existing public school.

"We've been ambivalent about the project," says Donald Page Moore, director of Designs for Change, a public schools advocacy group. "We urged them that instead of starting a private school, they should take over a public school and improve it. Why create a separate individual school when you already have dozens in the neighborhood that need improvement? By working within the public school structure you solve the problem, not by setting up an individual school. We have no doubt that they can create an excellent school. But we question how much of an impact it can have on a greater system."

Weist asks, "Will a corporate school just siphon off interest from public schools at a critical time? Will it just divert money from the public schools? I'd rather see corporate funds go to an effort to decentralize the public school system, or into advocacy planning. There's a limited amount of corporate money out there. It could be better spent than just going to help two or three hundred kids." Weist also doubts that the school's parents will transfer their interest from the corporate school to improving public schools. "Once parents get their kids into private schools, they're happy to ignore public schools," he charges.

Bruce Thomas rebuts Weist, claiming that working within the existing public school system could destroy the purpose of the corporate school. He has in mind a kind of controlled experiment: "We deliberately set up a microsystem as similar as possible to that of the public schools. We have the same constraints as those of a public school, monetary constraints per student as well as those of a randomly selected student body. We aren't attempting to show what we can do with unlimited funds or cream-of-the-crop students, but instead what can be accomplished without the limitations of the public school system."

Weist maintains, too, that other problems besides education must be addressed for children of low-income families to attain a reasonable chance at success. "There still needs to be adequate employment and housing," he comments. "Children of parents without decent jobs and housing are bucking the odds if they get a decent education, according to every major study."

No one really knows how successful the corporate school will be. Most wish it well. "Anytime you increase the educational options for people, it's not all bad," remarks Richard Rauschmann, director of Latino Youth, a Pilsen alternative school.

Some claim that the school's greatest success could be indirect. Bakalis says, "Business has taken, in my opinion, a very limited role in education. Maybe the success they see at this school will make them go to the mayor and governor and say, 'Here's what can be done. Let's do this with the public schools.'"

And if it fails? Fred Hess comments, "The ultimate effect may be on businesses. They may realize that all problems can't be solved on demand. This enlightenment may press them to urge strong legislation to improve the public schools."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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