Northtown Academy Credit: photo by John Booz

Just a few weeks into the semester, half of the juniors in Sean Lawler’s basic English class at Northtown Academy, a new charter high school, were flunking.

“The workload [is] a lot more than they’re used to,” Lawler says of his students.

However, after calling the parents of the 20 students with failing grades, he is hopeful that things will improve. The parents pledged to try to motivate their children to do their homework, he reports. “If they would do it,” he adds, “most of them would be fine.”

Megan Quaile, Northtown’s director, sees the difficulty as a normal part of adjusting to a new school with a new curriculum and new teachers, many of whom are themselves new to teaching.

“The first few weeks will involve understanding where the kids are coming from and what they need,” she says.

Quaile previously was principal of Good Counsel High School, which closed in May and reopened in August as Northtown. Nine of Northtown’s 32 teachers also came from Good Counsel; others are from other charters and private and public schools.

Two are graduates of Teach for America, a national program that recruits college graduates to teach in inner city schools.

Northtown is the seventh campus to open under the charter held by the Chicago Charter School Foundation. It selected its 215 freshmen by lottery from 30 feeder elementary schools and filled out its sophomore through senior classes with 185 students from Good Counsel and the remaining 55 from high schools across the city.

In August, a total of 455 students dressed in crisp, new blue and white uniforms walked into the newly secularized Good Counsel, which had been stripped of religious statuary over the summer. (An enormous stained glass window remains in what once was a chapel.)

Together, the campuses of the charter foundation serve 4,200 students and are known as the Chicago International Charter School.

Northtown also has the distinction of being the first of four high schools that the foundation plans to open with the help of a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The charter foundation is now scouting sites for the other three.

Curriculum an experiment

The charter foundation has selected a largely untested instructional program for the four new high schools. Created by Charles Venegoni, head of the English and Fine Arts Department at John Hersey High School in northwest suburban Arlington Heights, the program involves a highly structured curriculum designed to progressively deepen skills and understanding over time. It stresses basic skills, especially reading and writing, and weaves in popular topics, including political and economic rights; racial, class and gender identity; and current events.

Central to Venegoni’s design are units that teachers coordinate across disciplines. A freshman unit on citizens’ rights and responsibilities, for example, requires students to create a Department of Environmental Quality and Research in their biology class, to draft a set of laws and envision an enforcement system in their Social Science class, and to discuss censorship in English class.

“The teachers do have some freedom, but they can’t close their doors and do what they want to do,” says Quaile.

Venegoni’s design has been implemented on a limited basis, mostly in the language arts and social science departments at Hersey, but the results have been positive. While the most recent Prairie State Achievement Test results have yet to released, Steve Cordogan, director of research and evaluation for School District 214 in Arlington Heights, confirms that Hersey’s latest scores show “remarkable” progress.

The percentage of students meeting state standards in reading rose from 68 percent in 2002 to 77 percent in 2003. In writing, scores rose from 72 percent to 87 percent over the same period.

The question is whether the program will work well across the entire spectrum of courses and among the wide variety of students at Northtown. While Hersey’s students are not as well off as those at, say, New Trier High School on the North Shore, they have more advantages than those at Northtown. Only 5 percent are considered low-income, compared to 30 percent at Northtown.

The charter foundation acknowledges it is taking a risk. “We’re in the innovation business, so we have to be ready for failures,” says foundation President Gerald Jenkins. “[Venegoni’s model] has worked, and what he described makes sense. We have to try things like that. Whether or not it’s a success, I’ll tell you next year.”

Venegoni’s connection with the charter foundation comes through David Ferrero, a former Hersey colleague who is now the Gates foundation’s director of evaluation and policy development for education. (See related story.)

Charter is a mini- conglomerate

The Chicago Charter School Foundation was the brainchild of Chicago options trader Jim Murphy, who wanted to honor the memory of his father, who made financial sacrifices to send him to private schools.

After several years of raising scholarship funds to allow underprivileged students to go to elite college preparatory high schools, Murphy decided that he could help more students by creating more school options inside the Chicago Public Schools system.

To do this, he recruited a prominent board of directors, including Gerald Jenkins, a lawyer and former school board member in north suburban Highland Park, and Herbert Walberg, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their approach was to have the foundation provide financial and development expertise, while contracting out the day-to-day operating services to experienced educators. Unique among Illinois charters, this approach opened the door to for-profit participation in charters, even though Illinois law prohibits for-profit companies from holding charters.

After six years at the helm, Murphy surprised observers by leaving abruptly this summer. “As the organization grew, it became more institutionalized,” says Murphy. “I have a style of doing things. I’m more do-it-myself.”

Greg Richmond, CPS director of New School Creation, which oversees charter schools, remarks, “His personal work ethic drove the organization for quite a while.” But as Chicago International matured, it needed different types of skills, he adds.

Before he left, Murphy hired Elizabeth Delaney, a former education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as the foundation’s executive director.

What she took on is a mini-conglomerate, with three management companies running seven schools:

Edison Schools, a for-profit organization that provides educational services to 132,000 schools in 20 states, operates Longwood. Before Northtown opened, Longwood was the only campus serving high school students.

American Quality Schools, a non-profit school company founded by Michael Bakalis, a former state superintendent of education, operates Bucktown, Prairie, Washington Park (formerly St. Edmonds) and West Belden.

Chicago Charter School Management, which the charter foundation itself created, runs Northtown and Basil.

While the management companies are largely in charge of curriculum and personnel, the board did get Edison to drop Everyday Mathematics, an experiential program developed at the University of Chicago, in favor of Saxon Math, a more structured approach favored by Bakalis’ group.

Some decisions, such as uniforms, schedules and discipline policies, are made at the foundation level.

Although charter schools enjoy freedom from most city and state regulations, they are subject to accountability measures. Richmond pioneered an assessment program that compares charter schools’ outcomes to comparable schools within the CPS system. It looks at multiple performance measures, including absolute performance on standardized tests, as well as student and school gains, and then rates the school at one of six levels, from schools of distinction (highest) to schools on probation (lowest).

The Chicago International campuses combined performed better than the comparison school averages on 22 of 28 measures, which earned the charter program a “school of distinction,” one of only four charter schools to merit the highest rating.

Chicago International did receive four low ratings. Students at the Washington Park campus, for instance, scored lower than those at a comparison school on the reading and math components of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. They also made fewer gains in reading.

The State Board caps growth

The foundation’s original charter agreement with the Illinois State Board of Education put a ceiling on Chicago International’s growth by limiting its enrollment to 5,000. With Chicago International only 800 students shy of the cap, the three Gates schools yet to come could enroll an average of only about 266 students each.

One option under consideration is converting Longwood into a Gates school, which would mean gradually introducing Venegoni’s curriculum into the high school grades, starting with 9th grade and adding the next higher grade each year. If that happens, it is not known which management group will handle the school’s day-to-day operation.

In the meantime, Delaney has approached Richmond and asked his help in persuading the State Board to lift the foundation’s enrollment cap. She says that if the cap on the number of students isn’t raised, the charter foundation may consider serving disadvantaged students by opening charters in surrounding communities, such as Evanston.

However, Delaney says the foundation is more interested in quality than quantity. “We’re trying to create a balance between growth and excellence,” she explains. “It’s more difficult to run one school than multiple schools, which allows for economy of scale. If a boiler goes at one school, I can fix that. With just one school, I wouldn’t have enough money. But I’m more focused on outcomes than growth. We need to look at what we’re doing and do even better.”

Leslie Whitaker is a freelance writer.

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