"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, February 04, 2008

From "Small Schools" to "Turnaround Teams": The Corporate Takeover Rushes Forward in Chicago

Educator-journalist, George Schmidt offers an update here on the continuing corporate takeover of public schools in Chicago. It would seem that the privatizers have opted to move away from their "small schools" takeover plan to a new strategy called "Turnaround Teams."

It is much more efficient and less time consuming than the bottom up creation of small schools via new charters. In large urban areas where the mayor has already achieved a dictatorship over the schools, it is a simple matter to use the NCLB guaranteed failure data to fire and replace administrators who have been trained in the Gates-Broad business model.

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By George N. Schmidt
Copyright 2008

Between January 24 and Thursday, January 31, the Chicago Board of Edu-cation hosted two major press conferences. The first, on January 24, was hosted by Chicago's public schools CEO Arne Duncan at the headquarters of the public school system at 125 S. Clark St. three blocks south of Chicago's City Hall in the Loop.

The second, on January 31, was hosted by CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, at an elementary school — now called the "Sherman School of Excellence" — on Chicago's South Side.

Both press conferences were to tout what Chicago officials are hailing as the new "turnaround model" for fixing "broken" schools. According to the new "model", high schools whose test scores have remained low will be transformed by firing their current staffs and replacing those staffs with cadres of teachers and principals. The cadres will come from an outfit called the "Academy for Urban School Leadership" (AUSL), which is now in the business of "turning around" so-called "failing" schools, must as corporate "turnaround specialists supposedly have turned around failing corporations.

And although AUSL is housed currently in two Chicago public schools and is using public schools students as part of the training ground for its cadre, it is as corporate as any public school activity can get.

On January 31, with the Mayor of Chicago standing proudly on the side, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that "Turnaround" was the new Gates model for corporate "school reform," and that Chicago would be the launching pad for the new model.

Almost lost in the media buzz was the fact that one of the schools being turned around had just spent six years as the proving ground for the most recent Gates corporate "school reform" model — Small Schools. On January 23, at the Board of Education meeting, Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan announced that he was recommending that Orr High School, which has spent most of the 21st Century as the "Orr Campus" housing four (this year reduced to three) "small schools" had failed. What that meant was that at the end of this school year, the Orr teachers and principals will be fired and replaced, wholesale, by the "Turn-around Specialists" from AUSL.

The abandonment of the 'Small Schools Model' was difficult to tease out of the two events.

At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, January 23, Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan had made a presentation about the 'Turnaround Model.' Just as he had earlier proclaimed "Small Schools" as the way to fix low scoring inner city schools (between his appointment in 2001 and the end of 2007), so Duncan now proclaimed that the "Turnaround Model" had worked at the Sherman school (even though it was only put into Sherman in September 2006).

Once the proclamations had been made, the media and Chicago's corporate and political leaders moved fast to shift the narrative.

Small Schools are Out.

Turnarounds are In.

At the January 23 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, all that anyone got was Power Point and some anecdotal testimonials from Duncan and two "Turnaround" principals.

It was not until Duncan's January 24 press conference that reporters were able to ask questions about the 'Turnaround Model' and its relation to 'Small Schools.' The reason was that one of the two high schools to be reconstituted using the 'Turnaround Model' has been using the 'Small Schools Model' for most of the decade.
According to Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Small Schools at Orr High School have "failed", but the "Turnaround" (which will involve re-creating Orr from the Small Schools it was turned into seven years ago into one big high school again) will certainly succeed.

For all intents and purposes, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has now abandoned the "Small Schools Model" after nearly ten years of it. Ironically, and to the chagrin of many politicians and even some difficulties at the Gates Foun-dation (which funded some of the Small Schools sctivites in Chicago for most of the decade), Small Schools are out. Chicago now wants to have a group of cor-porate officials train cadre of "turnaround specialists" to take over schools that are "failing" and whip them into shape.

While Daley was planning to abandon Small Schools (and get $10 million from the Gates Foundation to promote his latest program), the Governor of Michigan was announcing that she was promoting Small Schools (partly as a re-sult of a recent visit to Chicago during which school officials forgot to tell her Chicago was getting rid of Small Schools) and New York was continuing to dis-mantle large schools and create small ones at a faster pace than ever before.

The January 24 press conference hosted by Arne Duncan was the first time any reporters had a chance to confirm that Small Schools was out. It was at the January 31 press conference that the whole story — and the new narrative to accompany the shift — was in. The press conference was held at the "Sherman School of Excellence" which is (supposedly) Chicago's first "turnaround school."

The January 31 press event included the usual adulation for Chicago's supposedly successful corporate school reform programs, all controlled by Chicago's City Hall. The event also included an announcement by the Gates Founda-tion that Gates was giving $10 million to fund the "Turnaround" center, a Chicago thing called the Academy for Urban School Leadership, founded by mil-lionaire Martin (Mike) Koldyke. Koldyke is the former head of the Chicago School Finance Authority and the Chicago School Reform Authority. One of his contributions to Chicago's corporate version of "school reform" more than a decade ago was to pay Checker Finn hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to be the lead consultant on Chicago's school reform.

The "Turnaround" model is less than two years old, by the way. It was put into Sherman Elementary School, a K-8 school located in one of the bleaker sections of Chicago's vast South Side ghetto, after CPS closed Sherman for "academic failure." From the opening of the "Sherman School of Excellence" (the new name of the school now that it's been placed in the hands of the Academy for Urban School Leadership) the turned around Sherman has had a great deal of corporate media attention, including a three-part series in the Chicago Tribune last September and recent hagiographic coverage on NPR (courtesy of Chicago Public Radio). Not mentioned in the hype, of course, is that there are as yet no data -- let alone significant trend data -- to validate any claims about the place. As with many of the miracles Chicago has announced since corporate school reform began here in 1995, they announce it and then craft the narrative to fit.

The trouble with the new iteration of the corporate narrative in Chicago is that it is banging up against the last one.

For the past decade, Gates money has been funding a great many "small schools" initiatives across Chicago, especially in the high schools. These have taken two main forms, all of them in the general high schools of the inner city.

In a few Chicago high schools (Orr; South Shore; Bowen; DuSable), the schools were broken up into "Small Schools". Each Small School had its own part of the building. Each had its own principal and administration. The result was that a building like Bowen High School (where I was teaching -- and serving as union delegate and school security coordinator -- when I was purged from CPS nearly ten years ago after the mayor and Paul Vallas had me sued for a million dollars for publishing the odious and ridiculous CASE tests) becomes three "Small Schools." Each had its own principal, office staff, and assorted other over-head.

Not surprisingly, the dollars always ran out before the virtues of small-ness got to the classroom in terms of smaller class sizes or additional staff for the most challenged kids, so things remained fundamentally the same. The teachers and other staffs sodiered on despite the contradictions, with only Substance ever mentioning some of the stranger results (including that huge internal administra-tive overhead). Small Schools was (were?) by definitiion a good thing, and mil-lions of Gates and other outside dollars flowed into them.
Orr High School, in Chicago's West Side ghetto (Pulaski and Chicago ave-nues) was unique among the Small Schools experiments. It became four Small Schools on the "Orr Campus." One of them was a "military academy" (the Phoe-nix Military Academy) where the kids wore Army uniforms and supposedly had extra discipline courtesy of that military them. The others had other themes, and the whole place, which had once been "Orr High School" became the "Orr Campus."

The Orrs (as many people have called them) had another distinction: every year, in October or November, its "Principal for a Day" was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Principal for a Day is a major event every year in Chi-cago. Corporate, civic, and athletic leaders (many celebrities) spend a morning in a school, hang out with the principal and some teachers, do photo ops in class-rooms, and generally have a nice day before going for a massive downtown dinner where everyone thanks everyone else. The most recent Principal for a Day events have had more than 1,000 participants (for out total of 600 schools).

Every year, Mayor Daley went to the Orrs, often after proclaiming how important Small Schools were for transforming "failing" schools.

Two years ago (November 2, 2006), I ran into Daley during the Orr Principal for a Day event and covered his media remarks. Orr had covered most major bases in its Principal for a Day people. One was Victoria Chou (University of Illinois at Chicago). Another was Torey Malatia (Chicago Public Radio). Daley was the main one, though.

In addition to doing Principal for a Day, Daley was going to make a major announcement about some U.S. Education Department money coming into Chi-cago. The November 2006 announcement was that money was coming from the Bush administration to establish programs of merit pay for teachers and princi-pals).

But the November 2, 2006, event had an unusual twist, one that left the of-ficials standing before the TV cameras silent for a brief moment. Daley's media people had set up a podium in the main hall of the school, and all the media were supposed to face towards a wall in front of which was Daley's podium. A nice mural was the background. We were facing south (the usual bank of TV cameras; print reporters seated in the front row, knees crossed and notebooks perched) towards the mayor's official portable podium. The school's main en-trance was to our left (east) and a cross hall was to our right (west) leading to the school lunchroom.

Daley began speaking. Then a major gang fight broke out less than a hundred feet from where they had set up his podium. Everything stopped while Daley was poised to announce some more U.S. Department of Education dollars for Chicago's miracle school reforms.

The press corps waited, in some cases with pens poised. I was the only re-porter who went down the hall to witness a platoon of security people rushing in to suppress the gang fight while the mayor and assorted others began to drone on. (CPS had provided three different security teams for Orr that day).

Three security people quickly shut a door and blocked me from taking photographs of the fight or of its quick suppression. Both were making quite a bit of noise. I got a few photographs, but mostly they show a swarm of security through a door tackling brawling students, while other security tried to block my camera. Within two minutes, calm had been restored.

When I turned east and looked back at the carefully prepared scene of the Mayor's media event, every other reporter was still perched facing Daley's po-dium. Many were busily ignoring the very loud interruption taking place a short distance away. I returned to the press pack and continued taking notes and pho-tographs. It was clear that whatever benefits had happened at the "Orr Campus" as a result of Small Schools, an end to the violence that comes with the drug gangs on Chicago's West Side was not one of them.

Over the years, it became clear that there had been very little movement or "improvement" of the kind measured by test scores and other "matrices" of "data driven management" — at Orr or at any of the other major Small Schools experiments in Chicago.

As far as test scores went, at Orr or any other the other Small Schools CPS had created during that iteration of corporate school reform, the bottom was still the bottom.

The reason has been simple.

During the same time Orr and the others have been forced to take the leftover kids, Chicago has been increasing the number of selective enrollment schools at the high school level. The intensity of selection prior to 9th grade has never been harsher in Chicago. Neglect of the general high school; slight privi-leges for others.
This process began almost as soon as Mayor Daley was given dictatorial control over Chicago's schools (1995).

It began first as a series of "college preparatory magnet high schools" (the number of which has doubled since Mayor Daley took over CPS in 1995). Between 1997 and 2001, Chicago opened five "new" "College Preparatory Magnet High Schools" — Northside College Prep; Walter Payton College Prep; Jones College Prep; Lindblom College Prep (con-verted form Lindblom Technical High School); Martin Luther King College Prep; and Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. These were added to a smaller number of selective enrollment high schools that had been created two decades earlier as part of the city's desegregation programs. All of the exclusive college prep school in Chicago select their students on the basis of test scores, leaving everyone else behind for the general high schools (like the Orrs).

Since 2002, the Daley administration, through the Board of Education and CEO Arne Duncan, has also expanded selective Charter High Schools (foremost right now, a group called the "Noble Street Network of Charter High Schools").

The most dramatic transformation of any high school in Chicago took place at Martin Luther Kind High School. By 1997, Kind High School (like Orr to-day) was one of the five "worst" high schools in Chicago (as measured by test scores). Within three years, Chicago had transformed King into one of the best? How? By kicking out all of the students who had attended the old King High School and replacing them with students who had high test scores.

Naturally, the students who would have attended King High School but were now excluded had to go somewhere, and they went to Phillips, DuSable (which became "Small Schools"), and Tilden high schools. Scores at those three schools, already low, dropped further. Additionally, gang violence increased as the growing number of selective enrollment high schools got rid of kids who were disruptive, sending them to the schools of last resort, the general high schools.

More and more, children from families with resources were applying to the city's selective high schools (which can usually kick out the "bad" kids after they've pre-screened their 9th graders). At the same time, a new class of high school student — called by some the "leftover kids" — were being crammed into the city's 40 or so general high schools. The creation of an elite cadre of high schools (which select students on the basis of test scores) left the "leftover kids" (a phrase you'll hear in Chicago, not just in New Orleans) for the general high schools, including those that had gone to Small Schools (and a less major thing, "small learning communities").
Despite all the Small Schools hype, the Orr Campus stagnated. Orr was a victim on the city's north side of the same forces that had created the problems exported from King High School to Phillips, DuSable and Tilden on the South Side. At places like Orr, things had deteriorated to the point where they couldn't keep the gangs quiet even on a day when Mayor Daley — Orr's Principal for a Day — was there with his entourage from City Hall, CPS, and the U.S. Depart-ment of Education to announce how "merit pay" was going to solve the prob-lems of inner city education.

A little more than a year after the gang brawl at Orr down the hall from Mayor Daley's carefully staged media event, Orr's doom was announced. On January 30, 2008, Mayor Daley announced that Chicago was now promoting "Turnaround Specialists" for "troubled schools" and one of the first he would be closing was — Orr.
He told a major press conference that he was glad that the Gates Founda-tion was giving Chicago another $10 million for school reform. This round of money is going straight to the "Turnaround" group, a quasi corporate cult called the Academy for Urban School Leadership. Even the Chicago Sun-Times asked what happened to Small Schools, and why Orr was being closed when Orr had done what it was supposed to have done during the last iteration of sure fire how to fix it school reform things.

Daley ignored the question, Gates dodged it, and when I asked whether Daley was going to meet with the Orr teachers and explain why they were being fired after having done Small Schools for the better part of the decade, Daley's press people ended the event without answering my question (or the follow up question I had for the fraudulent parent they cart around with them to sing the praises of their newest thing).

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