After Chicago Public Schools overhauled eligibility criteria for its coveted autonomous schools program, better known as AMPS, 18 more schools qualified.

AMPS allows schools to choose from a menu of “autonomies” that are meant as a reward for high test scores and sound management. These liberties range from greater control over budgets to freedom from certain performance assessments and area instructional oversight. Ninety schools are in the program this year.

“Personally, it fires my boiler,” says James Burns, principal at the freshly minted Henry Elementary in Irving Park. “It’s very prestigious. It indicates to other schools and others in the community that we’re doing our job.”

The district also sees the program as a way to focus reforms on struggling schools by simply trusting successful ones to fly right with less supervision.

Most new AMPS schools qualified by clearing several high bars on student performance measures, such as 85 percent pass rates on reading, math and science tests. Schools earned additional points for meeting performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law or if 20 percent of students were exceeding state standards.

Among other factors that were taken into consideration: special ed inclusion rates and clean financial audits.

Three of the new schools—Henry, Mitchell and Sabin Magnet—made the grade by rapidly increasing the number of students who passed state tests.

Nearly 70 percent of Henry students passed state tests last year, a mark that Burns largely credits to personnel from the area instructional office, who helped the school set up effective reading programs and group the students according to learning needs.

Still, Burns says he will opt out of area office oversight next year. The “new found freedom of AMPS” will allow the school to tap other sources of expertise, he says.

More schools can apply

Schools that fell short of automatic eligibility for AMPS can apply by March 30 to the district for certain freedoms to improve instruction.

A few applications have already trickled in, but about 20 are expected to arrive before the deadline, says Melissa Megliola Zaikos, who oversees AMPS.

So far, schools are asking for ways to restructure teacher training and mentoring efforts, Megliola Zaikos notes.

Separately, the district is awaiting a decision from the Illinois State Board of Education that will clear the way for AMPS schools to have more flexibility with teacher professional development days, including the option to set full-day sessions.

Also, a handful of this year’s AMPS schools will receive warnings this week to improve sliding performance or risk being cut from the program by June. Megliola declined to name schools that were tagged for warnings.

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