Three years ago, with little warning, the Reform Board slapped 109 low-scoring schools with a probation label and assigned outside experts to set them right. Not surprisingly, faculties seethed with resentment. Since then, everyone has learned. The board is allowing schools to choose their external partners, and the partners themselves have worked on their partnering skills. At many probation schools, achievement is on the rise.

“I was really resentful the first year,” acknowledges Gloria Roman, principal of Duprey Elementary School in Humboldt Park. “But while we’re not making quantum leaps, we’ve been moving our kids out of the bottom quartile. We’ve also seen more collaboration between teachers, more focus, and the climate is better. If you had asked me in the first year, I would have been hedging, but I think our external partner has been successful.” Duprey’s partner is the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).

Decreased funding

But just as relationships started to click, the Reform Board began withdrawing money. The first year a school is on probation, the board picks up the whole tab for the external partner, which can be as much as $98,000. The second year, it pays 50 percent, with the remainder coming from schools’ discretionary funds.

Thereafter, the school pays the whole freight. As schools began drawing up their 1998-99 budgets last spring, about a third of the probation schools figured they couldn’t afford the whole freight and planned to cut back on services, according to the Office of Accountability.

“We are a small school,” says Roman. “We can’t afford a Cadillac; we can afford a Chevy. We negotiated a contract that was more reasonable to us.”

As a result, Duprey’s teaching coach from North Central is putting in fewer hours. The coach works one-on-one with teachers, observing them, offering suggestions and demonstrating teaching techniques. “I’d like more time for staff development,” says Roman. “But … we’ll work with what we’ve got.”

“We are getting some schools telling us, ‘We can only afford to have your people in the schools twice a week instead of four times a week.’ Or, ‘Let’s just focus on reading and not math,'” says Sharon Ransom, director of the Interactive Teaching and Learning program at Northeastern Illinois University. “I think some schools will see a slower level of growth.”

“The money thing can kill some programs,” says Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Our program is a whole-school approach; it’s not a menu of appetizers and entrees. If only a third of our program could be funded, it wouldn’t be worth doing. It’s like driving a car without a distributor cap.”

“Let’s say you restructure the school day so that teachers teach in 100-minute block schedules,” he explains. “If teachers haven’t had staff development on what to do during that time, it’s useless.”

Klonsky says that when schools insist they can’t afford a program, he refers them to foundations and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Network. [Klonsky is chair of the Catalyst Editorial Board.]

While spending on external partners is down about 25 percent from last year—to a total of $7.2 million—it could have been much worse.

Obey-Porter funding

More than half the money, $3.8 million, is coming from a federal grant that the Office of Accountability didn’t even know about until last June. “It was great timing,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. “It’s been a boon to schools.”

Seventy-six Chicago schools are receiving $50,000 each for payments to external partners. The money is coming from Illinois’ $6 million share of a $150 million federal appropriation for low- achieving, low-income schools that agree to follow programs of whole-school change that are based on the lessons of educational research. By whole-school, the U.S. Department of Education means programs that address instruction, assessment, classroom management, professional development, parental involvement and school management.

Officially, the federal initiative is called the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Project, but colloquially it’s known as Obey-Porter, for its chief sponsors, Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.) and John Porter (R-Ill.)

The legislation was passed with a number of programs in mind, including Success for All, Accelerated Schools, New American Schools and the Coalition of Essential Schools. While some of these national programs have had a Chicago presence, none is an external partner under the Reform Board’s school probation program.

However, U.S. Department of Education regulations allow states to distribute their Obey-Porter money to schools using locally designed models. “We did not say to Illinois, you are only restricted to using national models,” says Barbara Alexander, a principal grant consultant for the office responsible for Illinois’ distribution. “However, they did have to meet the national criteria, which means they had to be research-based.”

The Chicago external partners deemed eligible for the funding are the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL), Northeastern Illinois University, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NARE), DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure Program and DePaul’s Center for Urban Education.

“We chose the groups with the largest number of schools, and the ones we felt fit the criteria,” explains Hansen.

Obey-Porter regulations also say funding is only for “new” initiatives. “So we basically created a new model with some of our existing external partners that fit the criteria,” says Hansen. “But their programs had to be comprehensive, not just a reading program or something else.”

“We’ve been told that what we were doing is a model,” he adds, “and we sure didn’t want to start over.”

It is anticipated that schools will be funded for an additional two years if they show evidence of increased student performance. “Schools will not automatically get more money,” says Alexander, adding, “We are putting together an evaluation process now.”

How long does change take?

People in the external partner business say that troubled schools need more than three years of outside help.

“We tell schools that building a foundation takes time,” says Beth Keller, a project associate consultant for the Accelerated Schools Project. “It takes years to see substantial changes in school organization, learning environments and school climate.”

Accelerated Schools seeks a commitment for full implementation of five to seven years with no administrative changes. If a school changes principals during that time, she says, success will take longer. “When a school is in the launch phase, the leadership needs to remain stable,” she says.

Jack Mitchell, director of the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Regional Center at Chicago, agrees that it can take three to four years simply to lay the foundation for working together. “People have to trust each other and see the benefits of the process for both the schools and for them personally,” he says. “It takes time, support and a deliberate effort for schools to want to change.”

However, Hansen believes the process can go faster. “Schools need about three years to retool themselves,” he says. “The first year is an adjustment period. They are in shock and denial. The second year, schools are more focused and are armed with their school improvement plans; they can really get down to work. And when they are in their third year, we tell them to incorporate some [outside] services into the school.” He says, for example, that a school staffer can take on the responsibilities of an outside coordinator.

Samuel Stringfield, a principal research scientist at the Center for the Social Organizations of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, says while substantial change takes longer than three years, evidence of improvement should be visible by then. “After three years, there should be some results, somewhere,” he says. “And that can be something like increased attendance. If there are none, then the external partner and the school should be held accountable.”

Other funding

He also notes that with federal Title I and state Chapter 1, Chicago’s low-income schools have substantial amounts of discretionary money that can be used for external partners. “When they say they can’t afford X, they are really saying, ‘We chose Y.’ And I’m not saying they are making bad choices. They may have a good reason not to do this, but they have chosen to spend their money in other ways.”

“In most cases schools can pay,” Hansen agrees. “However, it’s the small schools with enrollments of 200 to 300 students that run into trouble. They are not getting a lot of discretionary money, and so they have to decide, ‘Do we fund our external partner, or do we want to fund something like security.’ That’s a hard choice.”

Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas is aggressively searching for grant money to help these schools, he says. “We’ve been talking to groups like Annenberg more so than we have in the past to help schools defray their costs,” Hanson says.

Need for external partners

In the last decade, school districts across the country increasingly have turned to external partners to retool their low-performing schools. This year, every school in Memphis, Tenn., has an external partner under the New American Schools program, and most schools in San Antonio, Tex., have external partners, reports Stringfield.

“The logic of external partners is as clear as a bell,” he says, “Whatever was happening was not working, whether it be a breakdown in the relationship between schools and the central office or something else, but something different needs to happen. External partners can take a different look.”

“I firmly believe that schools need outside help. It gives them a different perspective,” agrees Chicago’s Hansen. “Yes, an outsider creates tension, but I think that’s a good thing. Schools need a different set of eyes, or they will make the same mistakes over and over.”

External partners got a toehold in Chicago schools following passage of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which provided new authority and discretionary money to local schools and triggered large-scale cutbacks in the central bureaucracy.”We just don’t have the staff to work with all these schools,” says Hansen. “For example, I think we have only one person in the curriculum department.”

At some probation schools, the external partner had arrived years earlier at the school’s invitation.

“Before school reform, groups like us had to sneak into schools,” laughs Klonsky. “Now we can walk in through the front door. And we’ve gotten money from the central office to do it.”

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