I have been working in and with Chicago’s public high schools and Chicago’s small schools movement for the past 20 years. It is ironic that since the start of Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, no one connected with the School Board, CPS leadership or education foundations has asked my opinion about small schools or anything else.
I’m not complaining. Our Small Schools Workshop has been busy, and I have had plenty to do in school districts around the country. But I am making a point about the narrow base of Chicago school reform these days.
There are lots of folks at the top, talking to each other. Critical views don’t seem to be held in high regard on Clark Street. Sounds a lot like Pennsylvania Avenue. All you have to do is read the Ren10 website. CPS culture has become a fantasyland where things are always moving forward, test scores continually rising and everyone feels good about it. What a far cry from the days just after the 1988 reforms, when researchers flocked to Chicago and there was lively debate and district transparency.
It was not so long ago that Chicago had a broad and vibrant school reform coalition that spanned ideological lines and included large, active parent organizations, reformers in the teachers union, business groups, university researchers and community-based organizations. Decisions were made democratically—maybe more democratically for some than others.
That coalition helped take CPS from the bottom (remember Bill Bennett’s speech?) to near the top of large urban school systems. Hundreds of schools made significant, measurable improvements in a relatively short time, as research by Designs for Change and the Consortium on Chicago School Reform shows.
Today that coalition is long gone. It’s been replaced by a small group of political insiders and business cronies gathered around the Civic Committee, who seem to make all the important decisions. And when those decisions go south—arbitrary school closings mainly in black communities, for instance, that led to increased violence at high schools like Wells—there is zero accountability. The district just moves on to the next big idea in reform: High School Transformation with its pre-packaged curriculum; charter schools, which are sprouting faster than Starbucks or Walgreen’s.
When Renaissance 2010 was first announced, we at the Small Schools Workshop were excited. We had encouraged the Gates Foundation to come to Chicago to support what we thought was going to be a flowering of teacher- and community-empowering small schools. We had envisioned that these new small schools would be models of democratic schooling, open to all students, equipped with cutting-edge technology and staffed with excellent, highly skilled teachers and principals. The neediest kids, including special education and English language learners, would be served.
In other words, we thought Chicago’s new and restructured schools would be built on the strong foundation already established in 1988, one of the most radical and democratic school reform efforts in the nation—a real renaissance for Chicago.
Boy, were we wrong.
Instead, it seems that Schools CEO Arne Duncan and the board have taken their cue from the test-crazy No Child Left Behind crew in Washington and the privatization folks here who seem more interested in top-down reform, busting unions and eroding public space than in transforming our factory-model high schools. What a shame! What a waste of potential and local resources!
My hope for the future lies in the creation of a new, broad-based reform coalition and a new school reform strategy aimed at new small schools and charter schools with strong community organizations and empowered teachers to support them. By empowered, I mean teachers who have collective-bargaining rights and who are not banned from joining the existing teachers union as they are now.
There are interesting things along those lines, happening in Los Angeles with Green Dot charters, and in Boston with the pilot schools, that Chicago should be looking at. An expansion of a federal grant initiative that creates smaller learning communities would also be beneficial.
Despite these problems, there are a number of exciting things happening in Chicago’s public schools.
New small high schools and career academies, such as the soon-to-be-opened Austin Polytech (not a charter) offer great potential for neighborhoods trying to rebound from economic devastation and isolation. The new Little Village High School, the result of powerful organizing by parents and community activists, holds promise as a model of community-based transformation. Some of the small schools that opened a decade ago are still managing to survive bureaucratic interference and have emerged with strong academic programs intact.
But sustaining these promising programs in the current environment will be difficult. Continued school closings, federal testing madness and a disproportionate share of district funds earmarked for charters and politically connected after-school providers will make the going difficult for small schoolers.
My hope, as always, is that the best reform will be the result of an engaged community, along with teachers pushing for change from below. Regime change in Washington in 2008 and radical changes to No Child Left Behind, may ease the testing pressure and help Arne Duncan’s team get back on the right road. A solid alternative reform initiative on the part of the CTU in partnership with Green Dot and/or the pilot schools could help turn things around.
Michael Klonsky is a founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and a professor of education at Nova Southeastern University. He is a consultant to Miami/Dade and other urban school districts on high school restructuring, and author of “Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story.”