Libby Elementary School in New City is a probation experiment. Rather than buying into the program of an external partner, it is simply buying extra services under the guidance of an educational broker from the Illinois State Board of Education.

The name for this arrangement is Jumpstart, the state board’s 4-year-old program to help Chicago schools on its academic early warning list.

“We help the principal find or decide what kind of services they want, and then see if it’s something we can support financially,” explains Ginger Geis, Jumpstart’s principal education consultant. “We try to understand what the school needs and negotiate our role with the school.”

This year, Jumpstart has four staffers helping 23 schools decide how to use a total of $2 million in state money as well as a required local contribution, which for Libby is $25,000. Many of those schools also are on Chicago’s probation list and have external partners, too. Libby is one of the few that is going it alone with Jumpstart.

“This isn’t just, ‘Here’s the money, go do something.'” Geis stresses. “We’re working with them in a supportive way, being strategic, relying on data [like test scores] to help them focus their school improvement activities.”

Jumpstart, which works with a school for two years, will pay for things like professional development, supplies for new programs or substitute teachers when Libby staffers participate in training.

Libby Principal Beverly Blake and probation manager John Frantz, the board’s research director, like the flexibility as well as the money.

When the Libby Local School Council hired Blake in 1996, the school’s external partner was the School Achievement Structure of DePaul University. In 1997, Blake went to an external partner fair to see what else was available.

“We were looking for a different kind of model,” says Frantz, “where we could pick and choose what services we needed.” Adds Blake: “We needed a partner to work hand in hand in a nonthreatening way.”

Blake was impressed by a number of the external partners, but Jumpstart appealed to her most, and the state agreed to squeeze her in even though it had lined up a full complement of schools.

SAS Director Kymara Chase wasn’t surprised by Libby’s switch. “Jumpstart gives them money. We take money away,” she notes. “So, absolutely, money was a big reason.” SAS costs $98,000 a year.

“I felt we had a good relationship with Libby,” she adds. “It’s true that some of the teachers weren’t into the structure of the program, but you’ll always have a few teachers who don’t buy into it. But Mrs. Blake was very supportive and took as much information as she needed. And the school has maintained [some SAS approaches], which is the purpose. You take what you need and institutionalize it.”

Libby has spent its Jumpstart money on two vendors, one that has helped it align lessons with state learning goals and assess students’ needs, the other that helps teachers improve instructional skills.

Under the technology and assessment program set up by Oak Brook-based Kinney & Associates, teachers are being trained to write lesson plans on the computer. Kinney has coordinated Libby’s textbooks with state goals so teachers can easily pick appropriate sections. Kinney also tests students several times a year and is showing teachers how to create their own assessment tools.

Evanston-based American Educational Services videotapes classes where teachers would like to assess their own performance. Brenda Williams, a 7th-grade teacher, says that after she saw herself on tape, she made several changes. She notes, for example, “I try to lower my voice a little bit now, and I try to circulate more.”

An AES consultant also is working directly with six teachers in 3rd through 8th grade. Williams took advantage of that service last year and wishes she had it this year.

“She would observe, make suggestions, and she was very nice about it,” says Williams. “I think it would be nice if they had more people doing that. Some teachers don’t like it when someone comes in their classroom, but I feel like I need all of the help I can get. All in all, I think Jumpstart is a good program. But I wish I had that help this year, too.”

Second-grade teacher Tasha Evans wishes she had the help, too. “I do feel we’re being neglected,” she says. “The primary teachers feel the foundation begins in 1st and 2d grade, so you have to start there.”

AES’s Regina Curry notes, “We can’t provide services to everyone within the financial parameters that were established.”

Principal Blake says she decided to focus on 3rd through 8th grades because students in those grades take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and, at some grades, can be held back. Later this year, she adds, teachers in kindergarten through 2nd grade who need extra help will be matched with mentors. Libby, which has an enrollment of 927, has more than a half dozen new teachers in those grades.

Unlike an official external partner, neither Kinney nor AES provides over-all direction or monitoring.

Frantz says he monitors but doesn’t guide the process. He sees his role chiefly as being a mentor to the principal. He also visits classrooms, sometimes waiting to talk to teachers after a lesson “to get a sense of how well they think their class is going. Do they have enough materials? Do they feel supported by the external partnership relationship?” He says he tries to visit Libby once a week.

Blake says she uses both Frantz and Geis as resources. She talks to them frequently on the phone and has asked for help with chores such as finding bilingual teachers or an assessment tool for her primary students.

From 1997 to 1998, the percentage of Libby students reading at or above national norms rose from 14.9 to 18.7 percent; in math, the percentage rose from 18.4 to 22.2.

If they continue to rise, says Frantz, that might be an endorsement of the broker/vendor system.

“I don’t think the traditional external partner has to be the only kind,” says Frantz. “If this is as effective or more effective, it could save money, because instead of paying large amounts up front and going with an entire program, you could pick and choose different things from different vendors that made sense to you.”

“One of the biggest long-term benefits of Jumpstart might be an enhanced working relationship between the Chicago Public Schools and the state,” adds Geis.

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