CPS reforming underperforming schools

January 24, 2008 8:45:03 PM PST
In an effort to boost the performance of eight failing schools, Chicago Public Schools officials will implement a radical reform plan. Hundreds of teachers and principals could lose their jobs.

Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan announced the details at a press conference Thursday afternoon. The drastic action will not only include four high schools but also four elementary schools.

The plan calls for turning around several elementary schools that feed into a high school that would be turned around at the same time. "Turning around" means the students stay but the staff and the name of the school goes. Two hundred teachers and seven principals were notified of the move Thursday.

Eight turnaround schools is a record number for Chicago Public Schools. They were chosen because only 40 percent or fewer students met or exceeded composite standards on the ISAT.

Jay Almer is a math and science teacher at Copernicus Elementary. He has taught at the Englewood school for 15 years. It is the only school where Almer has worked.

"I've probably been loyal to a fault. I've had other job opportunities. But I've stayed here because I believe in the school and like what I'm doing. And I'm sad that it has come to this," said Almer.

Lois Ashford has taught eighth graders at Copernicus for 16 years. Her children went there.

"I think I've made an impact. Some of my older students come back and say they want me to teach their children," she said.

What it has come to is: Almer, Ashford and the entire school staff are being fired. Copernicus, which has been on academic probation for years, is one of eight Chicago Public Schools that is on the proposed list to turnaround.

"Basically, what they're saying is, they're going to bring in better educators. I don't see how that's possible. I really don't. I believe in the staff that's here," said Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chicago Public Schools.

The principal at Copernicus has only been at the school for a year. Linda Martin is disappointed she wasn't given more time to turn the school around. She says, in her tenure, test scores have improved and she did it with minimal resources.

"Despite all the cuts, loss of funding, we did make progress. We just didn't make the kind of progress they wanted," Martin said.

But Duncan says time is crucial.

"We can't wait five years. We can't 10 years. Children have one chance at a great education and we want to get to them right away," Duncan said.

Meantime, the Chicago Teachers Union strongly opposes the idea of a turnaround school. Union president Marilyn Stuart does not think they work.

"Basically, they turnaround the name, or call it something different and not change what they're doing, it's going to create something different. It's called insanity," said Stuart.

Arne Duncan says Sherman and Harvard Elementary have been very successful. Both were turnaround schools in the past two years.

Duncan says good teachers will have a chance to be hired back, but many will lose their jobs.

Thursday's proposal also includes consolidating several underutilized schools.

Reaction from parents and staff

This new reform plan is designed to change the culture in the affected schools and improve test scores. ABC7's Dan Ponce visited some of the schools to get reaction to the plan.

Hundreds of teachers and several principals could be out of a job this fall. Ponce visited Orr High School on the West Side, Harper High School on the South Side, and an elementary school that feeds into Harper. Some parents support the proposal. Others think it would be terrible. But teachers ABC7 spoke with all have the same opinion.

"Our school is doing well. It's all bureaucratic. It's ridiculous," said Rosanne Harrison.

Harrison is the kind of teacher the Chicago public school district has been looking to attract. The 32-year-old teaches AP English and psychology at Orr High School, 730 N. Pulaski. She has a Masters degree and is currently working on her doctorate in education. But she -- along with dozens of other teachers at Orr -- may be on the chopping block. Still, she says, she is more concerned for the students.

"I am concerned about the kids who are taken away from their power of choice. And they're disenfranchised. They don't have a voice and CPS knows that. And it's complete injustice," Harrison said.

Another school that could see a complete overhaul of teachers is Harper High School on the South Side. Fulton Elementary, 5300 S. Hermitage, which feeds into Harper, is also on the list. Parents at that school have mixed reaction to the proposal.

"I don't think it's a good idea for entire faculty to leave, just some of them," said Paris Bryant, parent.

"But they give the school a whole new start, it might make a difference," said Kendell Grant, parent.

"Everything should stay as is," said Diana Bryant, parent.

Principal Dr. Warletta Johnson-Brookins has been at Orr for almost three years. Armed with charts of test scores, she says the students are almost at an acceptable level for Chicago Public Schools. As for her teachers, she says, it would be a mistake to clean house.

"Restructuring began when I came in, 75 percent new faculty. We feel like we've already cleaned house," said Johnson-Brookins.

"Right now, this staff that she has right now, knows all of these teachers here now, bring in someone else now, and it would really mess everything up," said Laddie Leason, chairperson, Fulton School Council.

The proposal could go before the Board of Education as early as next month. Parents, teachers and students will have the opportunity to voice opinions. The schools will hold public forums over the next two weeks. If you'd like to participate, call the school for times and locations.