Last month, after Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly bemoaned sagging reading scores, the Chicago Public Schools unveiled details of a new initiative designed to “take student achievement one step further.” Called the Comprehensive Approach to Student Achievement, or CASA, it’s aimed at 200 of the school system’s lower scoring elementary schools and is scheduled to start next fall.

Under the program spelled out April 16, each school is to select one of 22 board-approved curriculum models, which vary widely in scope and focus, and to seek assistance from one of 26 elementary schools that the School Board has identified as demonstration schools. As Catalyst went to press in early May, CASA Executive Director Rollie Jones said schools also would have the option of staying with a program they currently are using even if it’s not among the 22.

The board itself is recruiting 30 administrators to serve on three-person monitoring and assistance teams.

The goal of the program, says Jones, is “to raise test scores, improve reading skills and prepare our youngsters” for high school.

As the roll-out began, CASA drew criticism fromwatchdogs who argue that the School Board’s previous attempts at large-scale school improvement have mostly failed.

By 2000, the 82 elementary schools placed on probation in fall 1996 and 1997 still had nearly 80percent of their students scoring below national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to a new analysis by the research and advocacy group Designs for Change. Designs faults the board’s top-down approach and its heavy investment in summer school and after-school programs instead of in the core school-day program.

Designs’ Executive Director Donald Moore also says the board’s monitoring of probation schools was “intrusive.” He fears the CASA schools will face a similar fate. “This is very reminiscent of when probation started,” he says.

But CASA schools welcomed the extra money they will get, up to $60,000 for books and materials, plus $40 per student.

“The way we’re looking at it is: We’re very poor. So therefore, let’s try to see if we can get support, and we can make that program fit our philosophy,” says Sylvia Gibson, director of the Creiger Mutliplex, a collection of three autonomous small schools. One of those schools, Foundations, takes a progressive approach that is at odds with many of the programs the board has approved for CASA.

Here’s where CASA stood in early May.

How schools were picked

All but 26 of the 200 schools were chosen on the basis of reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to Jones. The 26 were chosen by regional education officers. “They could have chosen a school because of an inconsistent curriculum or because of leadership problems,” explains Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

The other 174 schools are in one of six categories, says Jones: on probation, transitioning off probation, on remediation, had a drop in reading scores last year, had a drop in reading scores in both of the last two years or have less than 26 percent of their students scoring at or above the national norms in reading.

The largest group, 57 schools, had a one-year drop in test scores.

“This is not a defensible policy,” maintains Moore. He takes particular exception to including schools simply because of a one-year decline in test scores, regardless of what their trend lines are.

For example, Bradwell School in South Shore saw its test scores rise from 17.1 percent above norms in 1995 to 29.9 percent in 1999, an increase that outpaced the average for the system’s lower performing schools. In 2000, Bradwell’s scores dipped 3.1 percentage points, to 26.8 percent. (Bradwell was featured in the April 2001 issue of Catalyst for receiving the most students from public housing projects that are being torn down.)

Bradwell Principal Hulon Johnson says he’s disappointed the scores dipped, but he’s optimistic about the added resources CASA will bring. He says it will allow him to buy more books for the Accelerated Reader program. The school adopted that curriculum model last year for its 3rd-graders and Johnson hopes to expand it.

“The average elementary school tests 300 students between 3rd and 8th grade,” says Moore. “A drop of 3 percentage points in the Iowa reading score, say from 38 percent to 35 percent, represents nine students.”

Jones acknowledges that not all of the CASA schools are in the same educational boat. “For instance, a probation school has further to go than a low-performing school,” she says. “The growth will vary from school to school; some will not need as much support.”

What schools get

The curriculum models include ones developed locally, such as CPS’ own Structured Curriculum; several of the external partners the board brought in for probation schools, such as the School Achievement Structure; and national programs, such as Success for All and Co-nect.

In late April, vendors displayed their programs at a two-day CASA fair at a local Quality Inn. Examining the list of models, teacher Becky Howell of Lloyd Schools asks rhetorically: “Are we supposed to pick one of these programs?”

There are stark differences between many of the offerings, she notes. Some, such as Accelerated Reader, are ancillary, offering specific books for one aspect of a school’s curriculum; others, such as Success For All, are comprehensive, offering a schoolwide structure. Choosing one or the other seems “ridiculous,” says Howell, who believes her school needs a comprehensive model.

Teacher training in the programs will be provided over the summer and into the next school year.

Faculty at the CASA schools also must visit one of the 26 demonstration schools identified by the School Board as having “strong leadership, a comprehensive schoolwide curriculum, outstanding teachers, targeted staff development and improving test scores.” Jones says that eventually there will be 50 demonstration schools so each CASA school can select a demonstration school from its region.

Monitoring and expectations

The board is recruiting administrators or teachers with principal certification to form three-person teams; one member will focus on curriculum and instruction, another on professional development, and the third on technology. Each team will be responsible for 15 schools.

The new hires will be in place by July 1, says Hansen, and will be trained by members of his staff as well as the board’s curriculum and instruction office.

Their duties will include monthly assessments of the new instructional programs, quarterly evaluations of reading progress, audits to “monitor class work, local assessments and teaching to standards,” and providing extra support “to remediate areas of weakness or concern.”

While no specific achievement goals have been set for CASA schools, the board expects growth. “We want to see the schools make constant gains,” says Jones. A number of principals asked whether they would remain on the list if they raised their test scores this spring. The answer, she says, is yes.

The budget

The total cost of CASA exceeds $18 million, according to Hansen, with $8 million earmarked for books, $8.2 million for curriculum and staff development, and $2.4 million for the monitoring teams. The School Board’s web site says team members will be paid a minimum of $67,449.72 for the full-time, year-long job.

The demonstration schools will receive $5,000 to $25,000 for every school they help, depending on the support given.

If a CASA school selects a model that requires more than the maximum grant of $60,000, it will have to make up the difference out of its discretionary funds, says Jones.

After next school year, says Jones, “We’ll continue to provide support in the form of personnel. … They won’t need the same amount each year. They probably won’t order new textbooks after this year.”

The process

Schools began receiving lists of curriculum choices in early April and got the opportunity to hear about them on April 25 and 26 at half-day sessions. Representatives of the programs made half-hour presentations, and School Board staff were available to answer questions.

Becky Howell of Lloyd knew little about CASA prior to the CASA fair. “No one from the Board has been out to our school,” she says. Howell and colleague Edith Rodriguez were to collect as much data as they could from the various vendors and then report back to their principal, who was due at the fair the next day, she says.

In many cases, principals attending the fair were already using one or two of the curriculum models offered. Rather than overhauling their schools’ teaching methods, several principals say CASA will enable them to expand a model across additional grades or subjects. “Without this, we would have only been able to do a reading program, but now we can do math as well,” says Douglass Academy Principal Betty Smith.

The University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement was one of the vendors showcasing its model: The Comprehensive Literacy Initiative. The Center has worked with a handful of elementary schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Co-Director Sara Spurlark says the School Board approached her a few months ago to see if the Center could handle 100 schools. She laughs. “We said we’d work with eight.”

And even that number may be high, Spurlark adds.

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