On Aug. 30, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a new official focus in the struggle to upgrade the city’s most troubled high schools: With substantial funding from the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several local foundations, five such schools will be subdivided into clusters of small schools.

While the mayor took center stage, the initiative is one that began in the private, non-profit community and, to a large extent, will be steered by that community.

A coalition of groups outside the Chicago Public Schools kick-started the effort to bring the $12 million, five-year Gates grant to Chicago, and members of the same coalition will oversee its spending.

The Creiger Multiplex on the city’s Near West Side, which houses three schools that have their own budgets, curricula and leaders, is a likely model, according to B.J. Walker, a top Daley aide and the city’s point person for this initiative.

Walker, who was involved in preliminary discussions with Gates representatives, will hold one of two city seats on the 10-member advisory board that will oversee the project. Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins is expected to represent the school administration, and Tami Doig, executive director of the Academic Accountability Council, was recently appointed by the Board of Education.

The other six seats will be filled by representatives of the six local foundations that pledged to raise $6.2 million in matching funds, the Joyce, MacArthur, Polk Bros., Spencer and Steans Family foundations and The Chicago Community Trust, which will act as the clearinghouse for the grant money.

Currently missing from the 10-member advisory board is a teacher representative. Deborah Lynch, the newly elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says discussions are underway to add one. “It’s certainly something we’re pushing for,” she says.

In the coming weeks, the advisory board will hire an executive director, who is expected to work closely with Jeanne Nowaczewski, the board’s new small schools director. Prior to joining CPS, she worked for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a non-profit organization that, among other ventures, advocates for small schools.

By November, the advisory board will craft a Request for Proposals to send to schools. The RFP will address such ticklish issues as staff and local school council involvement in the proposal process. “We’re ensuring through the RFP that there is demonstrated evidence of community ownership,” says Terry Mazany, director of the Community Trust’s education initiative.

The five schools that are chosen will be expected to open their small schools complexes by September 2002, according to Mazany.

Sandra Guthman, president of the Polk Bros. Foundation, equated the relationships revolving around the project to those revolving around charter schools: John Ayers from the independent non-profit organization Leadership for Quality Education collaborates with Greg Richmond, head of charter schools for CPS, she notes. “We’ll have one person outside the system and one person inside the system,” she says.

That strategy is fine with schools chief Arne Duncan. Working collectively with the foundations and the city gives the project more strength, he says. “That’s how I want to operate.”

A firm believer in the small schools philosophy, Duncan started a small school in North Kenwood before he joined the school system in 1998. In his role as deputy chief of staff for former schools CEO Paul Vallas, Duncan discussed small schools initiatives with the Gates Foundation’s education director, Tom Vander Ark.

Duncan is not concerned about ceding primary control of the grant’s implementation to the advisory board. “It’ll be small and non-bureaucratic,” he assures.

Intervention’s new face

The less bureaucracy the better, says Bill Gerstein, assistant principal of South Shore High School, one of five high schools that went through the School Board’s ill-fated intervention process last year. With tough-fisted central office oversight, intervention alienated teachers and administrators. At Bowen High School, it knocked down a small schools effort that was beginning to show signs of success. (See story.)

“We were heading toward a full-fledged small schools model,” says Neil Bosanko, chair of the Bowen Local School Council. “We feel we could walk back into that [with the Gates money].”

Under Duncan, intervention has been substantially revised, and the five schools are expected to be first in line for small schools funding.

“What’s been proven to work is independent small schools,” says Gerstein.

“The idea is that they have the maximum autonomy,” says Madeleine Clarke, who is involved in a Gates-funded small schools project in Oakland, Cal. “That’s essential.”

Clarke is development director for the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BACES). The Coalition, along with the Oakland Unified School District and Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), received $15.7 million in Gates money last fall for a five-year project aimed, in part, at reforming struggling Oakland schools.

The three groups joined forces to get the Gates money, and remain connected, says Clarke. The Coalition offers professional development, the district provides the facilities, and OCO organizes parents and community members. All three collaborate on recruiting schools and teachers interested in small schools implementation, she says.

Bumpy negotiations

Chicago’s work to get a Gates grant began more than a year ago; it was led by members of the participating foundations, as well as small schools practitioners such as the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

On Sept. 7, 2000, the Gates Foundation awarded $56 million to small schools initiatives in cities across the country, including Boston, New York and Seattle. (Oakland’s money arrived in November 2000.) The project marked the foundation’s first foray into education philanthropy, though Gates officials said it wouldn’t be the last.

While Chicago was left out of the initial funding, it was not out of the loop.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, received $7.9 million of the $56 million for a plan to break up 10 large high schools—four in St. Paul, Minn.; four in Cincinnati, Ohio; and two in Claremont, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb.

A longtime proponent of small schools, Nathan tipped off0 the Gates Foundation’s Vander Ark to the Small Schools Workshop, which helped established several of Chicago’s most successful small schools, including those at Creiger. “I told him the [Workshop is a] place that’s doing among the best work in the country,” Nathan recalls.

“We all knew people who got some of the early grants, so we were talking to them about the money and what it would be used for,” says Nowaczewski, who has worked extensively with members of the Workshop. The collaborative efforts in Oakland were of particular interest to those involved in the lobbying efforts, she says.

By spring 2001, however, the courting of Gates had bogged down. Participants give different reasons, from competing agendas to lack of committed financial support.

That’s when City Hall stepped in

The impetus for the city’s involvement, according to two sources, was a study by Northwestern University’s Fred Hess.

Hess, who was hired by the School Board to study the system’s high schools, found the neighborhood high schools were in dire straits educationally and the board’s reform efforts had, thus far, proved unsuccessful. That message caught Mayor Daley’s attention and brought him into discussions with Gates representative Vander Ark, sources say.

“Things did seem to accelerate,” acknowledges Gates Foundation program officer Dave Ferrero, who was involved in much of the preliminary discussion regarding the Chicago grant.

With the city now involved, the final step was getting financial pledges from the local foundations, says Daley aide Walker. “Gates was going to require a substantial match. We wanted to make sure we had committed investors,” she says.

In the view of Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop, most of the money should fund professional development initiatives. “We’re asking for dramatic changes in high schools, and teachers need as much support as they can get,” he says.

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