In its first round of applications, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge has received 179 bids from schools and their outside partners for school improvement grants.

Also, the program’s board of directors chose Ken Rolling, associate director of the Woods Charitable Trust of Chicago, to oversee the grant application process as executive director.

First-round applicants were to be notified by Aug. 21 whether their letters of intent, which briefly outline how grant money would be used, merit further consideration. Those still in the running are to complete full proposals by Oct. 13. Winners will be notified Dec. 4.

Over the next five years, the board will distribute $49.2 million that publishing magnate Walter Annenberg has granted Chicago as part of the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, a program aimed at improving urban schools. In Chicago, $3 million will be distributed during the kickoff year and $11.5 million in each of the following four years. First-round applicants asked for $27 million, nine times the amount available this year.

To qualify for the grants, networks of schools must pair up with outside institutions as partners. Planning grants of up to $25,000 will be given to networks comprised of at least two schools and a partner. Larger grants to implement programs will be given to networks comprised of at least three schools and a partner.

Rolling says the applicants come from all areas of the city. “Some of the suggested projects involve organizations we know of, like the Algebra Project or the Comer cooperative of schools,” relates Rolling, “but what is so striking is that so much relatively obscure work is going on in Chicago—all these Maggie Smiths out there doing reading projects with three schools.”

The initial proposals range widely. Imagination Chicago, for instance, a non-profit group that fosters “intergenerational and intercultural dialogues,” already has developed an elementary curriculum that teaches geography, culture, civics and economics by using the city as a model. It is seeking a planning grant to explore expanding the curriculum at 10 schools (including Corliss High), turning school libraries into “exhibit centers,” and knitting the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Kohl Children’s Museum into the process.

The most meat is on the bones of letters seeking implementation grants. Here’s a sample of what some schools and their partners proposed:

Since 1989, Bank of America Illinois (formerly Continental Bank) has underwritten programs, from staff development to book drives, at Orr High School and its dozen feeder schools in West Humboldt Park. Now, with the DePaul University Center for Urban Education, the Orr Schools Network wants to set up a teacher-training center to get the faculties up to snuff on topics such as hands-on science and technology. “We want to establish peer counseling instead of dragging in teachers for a Saturday in-service,” says Orr Principal Cynthia Felton. The network is also looking to connect all its schools by computer and to set up a system to share resources.

Crane High School on the Near West Side now remains open two nights a week to accommodate basketball games and parenting classes. Crane, Simpson Alternative High School for pregnant girls, Whittier Elementary in Pilsen, and the schools’ partner, the community group WSCORP, requested $250,000 to stretch their schedules from early morning to as late as 10 p.m. The school buildings, as well as Malcolm X College and a local Boys and Girls Club, would serve as academic sites. The idea is to make a school a “communiversity,” in the words of Coretta McFerren, executive director of WSCORP. In addition, planners hope to link the schools by computer.

Teachers from Telpochcalli, a school-within-a-school at Spry Elementary in Pilsen, are sparkplugging a move to win a $100,000 grant for themselves,and four other schools: another school-within-a-school at Spry, Orozco Community Academy, and two new facilities opening to relieve area overcrowding. Their partner is the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. According to Tamara Witzl, lead teacher at Telpochcalli, the idea is to enrich studies with Mexican cultural information and materials, hire a theater professional, foster more parent education, and give teachers more time for training.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association and five schools—Monroe, Mozart, Funston, Darwin and Brentano—are seeking $310,000 to train parents to assist in the classroom, and to infuse character education into the curriculum. “The teachers here felt that in today’s society children need values—honesty, collegiality, loyalty—to inspire them to succeed,” remarks Monroe Principal James Menconi. The consortium is also looking to tag nighttime hours onto the school day for adult classes and recreation.

In Lakeview, a number of schools have already come together through the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education, led by Marshall Field & Co., to blend theater, dance, the visual arts and writing into their curriculum. Now a trio of the schools—Audubon, Blaine and Ravenswood—have teamed with the Chicago Teachers Center at Northeastern Illinois University to use art to teach math and science. With $200,000 from Annenberg, the schools would hire substitutes to relieve 6th- through 8th-grade teachers for training, and would stage 10 Saturdays of staff development sessions.

An ethnically diverse group of schools from across the city—Boone, Burley, Franklin Fine Arts Magnet, Gladstone and Lafayette—are combining under the banner of the Rochelle Lee Fund. The fund, the 7-year-old passion of former elementary school librarian Rochelle Lee, attempts to foster a love of reading through small grants to teachers. With $266,000 in Annenberg money, the Lee network would train every teacher at the schools in techniques to encourage reading and to build classroom libraries.

Robert Chalfee, an educational psychologist at Stanford University, has pioneered reading-improvement strategies that have taken root at a number of Chicago schools. Lincoln Park High, some of its feeder elementary schools and National-Louis University are applying for a relatively modest $50,000 to integrate Chalfee’s ideas into literacy, art, social studies and science. “We’re a family of achieving and low-achieving schools, and we’ll make this work,” says Gail Ward, principal of Agassiz, who had her first success with Chalfee’s ideas while directing the upper grades at Disney Magnet.

The Center for City Schools, a unit of National-Louis, has been operating an intensive reading-and-writing program at 10 schools, seven of which have united to apply for Annenberg funds. Two full-time consultants would be hired to give teachers in-class support, a prospect welcomed by the participating principals. “It’s one thing to have an in-service,” says Sandra Santinover, principal of Jenner Elementary near Cabrini-Green, “but if there’s someone in the building, helping out, it will make such a difference.”

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