Time. Size. Isolation. Those three little words embody the ambitious agenda of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $49.2 million venture into school reform in Chicago.

If teachers had more time …

If the size of schools and classes were reduced…

If teachers and principals didn’t feel so isolated…

If then, what? Would good teachers stay? Would public schools be more effective? Would test scores rise?

Chicago got a chance to find out when Walter Annenberg, a former ambassador to Great Britain who made his money in publishing, topped off his long commitment to improving education with a $500 million grant aimed in large part at some of the country’s worst school systems. Announced in 1993, it was the biggest single private award ever made to K-12 schools in America.

School reformers in Chicago, heady with the new opportunities provided by decentralization, jumped at the chance to bring some of that cash to Chicago.

“We had restrictions on what we could and couldn’t do with the money; for example, we couldn’t hire a bunch of new faculty,” recalls Warren Chapman, education program officer at The Joyce Foundation and one of three organizers of the original grant-writing committee for Chicago Annenberg. “So we had to think about using the money in a way that would begin to leverage change. We asked: How do we take a movement of reform that’s 7 years old and marry it to a large sum of money that can help promote and enhance what’s going on and leave its own mark?”

The local grant writers identified three priorities that cut across the various reform efforts under way: reducing class and school size, giving teachers more time to work on change, and connecting teachers and school administrators to one another and to outside resources. The grant writers called for creation of what amounted to a foundation that would make grants supporting the city’s new emphasis on school-based decision making. Chicago Annenberg would solicit grant proposals from networks involving at least three schools and one outside partner.

National Annenberg officials agreed to test Chicago’s approach. In January, 1995, they announced the $49.2 million grant, which would be disbursed over five years. Like other Challenge grantees across the country, Chicago had to generate $2 from other private sources for every $1 it got from Annenberg. The match was a slam dunk in a city that already is home to some of the country’s biggest foundations, all of which already were big funders of school reform efforts.

The ambitious Challenge now is winding to a close. Analyzing its impact is far from easy, although even skeptics concede the city’s schools are better off than they would have been if Walter Annenberg had kept his $49.2 million.

The Challenge’s work—and now the evaluation of that work—was complicated by the 1995 amendments to the School Reform Act and the re-centralizing actions of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school leadership team. Conceived as a catalyst for locally directed change, Chicago Annenberg immediately had to worry about being seen as an adversary or rival to the post-1995 school administration. As it turned out, Annenberg flew “under the radar” of an administration focused on ferreting out waste, negotiating new labor agreements and getting schools open on time, says Executive Director Ken Rolling, a former program officer for the Woods Fund of Chicago.

‘Didn’t get it’

But there were other hurdles. “We thought, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But they didn’t get it,” recalls Rolling.

Early on, principals were a particularly difficult audience, he says. “They were so used to being told what to do and then told, ‘Here’s five bucks to do it with.’ I said, ‘I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you to take a look at what you need, and we’ll give you the money to figure it out.’

Indeed, it took so long to get the project up and running that it has been extended for a year. Rather than shutting down with the dawn of the new millennium, as intended, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge now is slated to continue operating as a grantmaker through the end of 2000 and then to spend the first six months of 2001 shutting down.

Unexpectedly, it was the external partners—organizations more familiar with the grant-writing process—that stepped up to the plate. They brought their programs to the Challenge and then lined up their own school partners.

“It was not the nice vision we had, that people would look for each other, that they would truly be partners,” Rolling observes. “We had to keep reminding them they were partners. But, when they caught on, when they realized ‘They believe in us, they believe we can figure this thing out,’ that was very exciting.”

It didn’t always happen. Some of the early grants went to partnerships that spent as many as 18 months trying to determine what they should do and how they could work together. In the first of two rounds of grants, 22 partnerships got planning grants. Seventeen of those groups came up with programs that subsequently received implementation grants.

Meanwhile, the Challenge itself faced the same intense public pressure for results that the new administration faced. Initially planned to fund networks involving only about 100 schools, the Challenge responded by increasing its numbers, eventually funding 47 networks involving 220 schools.

It was too much, says Rolling.

“It would have been much more manageable if we had stuck with 100 schools,” he says. “We could have done things more systematically. But the dam was open that first summer. People weren’t willing to say they only wanted 10 networks.”

The cachet of an Annenberg grant also made it difficult to keeps things small.

“In the earliest days of Annenberg, it was status money,” says Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. “Schools would talk about ‘I got my Annenberg.’ That meant ‘I’m in a high-status group, doing serious education work.'”

Officials now believe they might have had more concrete results if they had invested more money in fewer projects, the way the Challenge worked in the San Francisco area.

“One of my themes from the beginning was, ‘Let’s not get overly excited,”’ says G. Alfred Hess Jr., a member of the original grant-writing committee and now director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. “Ten million dollars [a year] seems like a huge amount, but when you think about its effect on our school system, it’s a small piece. State Chapter 1 funds are $300 million per year. That’s 30 times more resources available—although I wouldn’t claim it has 30 times the effect.”

Measuring change

Measuring Chicago Annenberg’s effect on student achievement is the job of Mark Smylie, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Chicago Annenberg Research Project, based at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Smylie says he is gathering data to show what changes have occurred and whether and how they have benefited children.

“We hope to have a lot of strong evidence that might be able to contribute to the discussion around the city about school improvement,” Smylie says. “If external partners are a viable strategy, what would make their work most effective? We hope to learn something about improvement of instruction, something about the quality of professional development experiences that are conducive to promoting change in the schools. We want to know more about the mechanisms for change and be able to say something serious about how those changes have come about.”

The results are just beginning to come in. A report to be published soon is likely to show that by one measure—the “quality of intellectual work” children are engaged in—Annenberg schools are getting better. A baseline report published in October 1998 showed that teachers’ assignments rarely challenged students to do much more than fill in a blank.

Already, researchers say they have documented improvement in the quality of professional development in Annenberg schools. And they believe the Challenge money has expanded the capacity of the external partners to work in ways that have a more lasting effect on the schools.

That has been true for Whirlwind, an arts education program that has worked in the Chicago Public Schools for 17 years using drama and dance to help students learn to read.

Pre-Annenberg, Whirlwind operated primarily as a direct-service organization, sending artists into classrooms, where they worked with students. It offered a brief, small-scale summer workshop on using the arts to help students learn. Annenberg money—$275,000 a year for three years—gave Whirlwind the time and resources to take what it had learned by working with students and figure out how to get teachers to use the arts in everyday instruction.

“It was a chance to do some research and development on our part,” says Karl Androes, executive director of Whirlwind and co-chair of the External Partners Advisory Committee for the Chicago Annenberg. “Before, we were a kid-directed program that did a little bit of teacher stuff. Now, when we think about how to grow our organization, about how to contribute more to the world, we think about teacher development. You can do a lot more by reaching 30 teachers who each reach 30 kids than by reaching just those 30 kids in the classroom.”

All of the external partners have progressed, “some by small steps, some by very big steps,” says Lisa Moultrie, senior program officer for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. And external partners and school leaders alike have learned how to build relationships with one another, she adds.

“People had said they really felt isolated, particularly principals,” says Moultrie. “They didn’t know whom to call. There was no opportunity except for a regional [principals] meeting to share the ups and downs of how to handle a problem. Now, they can just pick up the phone and call Sally.”

Not that it was easy getting them to that point, she notes. Moultrie and Program Director Pat Ford spent a lot of time molding the networks into teams.

“People were getting married without courting,” Ford recalls.

To qualify for the grants, networks needed at least three schools and one external partner. Often the players put a group together without a clear understanding of the purpose of the partnership, she says.

With only a five-year life span, the Challenge had to take a chance on partnerships that weren’t fully thought out. “We got a lot of groups like that,” says Ford. “Because we were a finite organization, we took more risks. If we were MacArthur, we could say, ‘Keep working at it and come back later.'”

She says that some of the networks that were weak at the beginning are doing well now.

The Challenge brought in consultants to bolster sagging networks; even so, 10 networks failed. Sometimes it was because a strong principal left, and the partnership fell apart. Other times, it was that the school already had too many externally-driven programs, and the Challenge partnership was lost in the shuffle. Still others, it was the inability of partners to develop a true collaboration.

Now what?

For the 47 networks that survived, the end of Challenge funding brings a new crisis: finding new sources of revenue to replace the Annenberg money. For some, it will mean seeking grants from other funders. For others, including Whirlwind, it will mean convincing schools to use their discretionary funds to “buy” the programs developed with Annenberg money. Still others will look for ways to attract federal or state money to support their programs.

The truly successful networks will be those that find subsequent funding, Rolling says. “Annenberg was about igniting change. If a program is really taking hold, the schools will figure out how to use their discretionary money and make it continue.”

The jury still is out on just how much Annenberg has improved the educational life of Chicago Public Schools students.

“I think it’s a mixed picture,” says Bill Ayers, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who worked with Chapman and Anne Hallett to pull together the original grant-writing effort.

Ayers believes Annenberg “played a big role” in fostering smaller, more intimate, less anonymous learning environments. But he says that the goal of making teaching more of a profession “is a goal yet to be realized.”

“I don’t think that’s in very good shape in Chicago right now,” he says.

Still, Ayers believes the Annenberg Challenge was good for Chicago “in the sense that it provoked and deepened our conscientiousness about some very important issues that go to the heart of lasting school improvement.

“Did it work? … It’s like asking, ‘Did American democracy work?’ It’s a work in progress. Did it work? Not yet. Not for a lot of people.”

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