Sylvan Learning Systems

SCOPE 300 students

PURPOSE Remedial math

COST $450,000

INVITED BY John West, a top aide to CEO Paul Vallas

BILLED TO Austin’s Federal Title 1 budget

Based in Maryland, this for-profit company made a name for itself by setting up tutoring centers in suburban shopping malls. Two years ago, it branched out to urban school systems. This year, it is moving into 10 Chicago high schools, including Austin.

The going rate is $225,000 for a program that serves about 150 students for 72 hours each. Leaving nothing to the school, Sylvan rehabs classrooms to meet its specifications, and then fills them with a standard set of books, computers, tables, chairs and even wall posters. The company hires and trains its own teachers, each of whom works with only three students at a time. Each student is given a battery of standardized tests that determines which books and which exercises they’ll work on. Each hour, students enter their room through one door, sit in an assigned seat, do the assigned work for the day, and leave through a second door.

Sylvan’s $450,000 tab leaves only about $140,000 in Austin’s federal Title 1 account; Principal Arthur Slater says that amount probably will go for a summer school.

School Achievement Structure

SCOPE Schoolwide

PURPOSE Align curriculum with student needs, boost standardized test scores

COST $98,000

INVITED BY Office of Accountability

BILLED TO Office of Accountability

Designed and run by Barbara Sizemore, dean of DePaul University’s School of Education, SAS is centered around standardized tests. The knowledge and skills that such tests measure get integrated into the school curriculum. The approach is based on a body of research that indicates minority children often do best when teaching is well-structured and makes its goals explicit.

In Sizemore’s view, standardized tests are a form of institutional racism, sorting students by race and class. Teaching children to do well on the tests then becomes a way of beating the system at its own game.

Sizemore has assigned a full-time coordinator to Austin, whose first assignment was to find out what needed fixing—for example, broken or missing computers, locked cabinets with no keys, electrical sockets that don’t work. He has spent October working with the principal to fix them. “Teachers can’t concentrate on [improvement] when they can’t carry out everyday activity,” Sizemore explains.

Fixing up the school is the first step in team building and creating consensus around student achievement, Sizemore says. Once teachers understand Sizemore’s approach, they’ll decide how to measure what their students know and don’t know. “And then we’ll have to make some decisions about what we’re going to do about all these kids who can’t read,” she says.

Evening School

SCOPE 80 older, returning students

PURPOSE Provide alternative school setting

COST $100,000


BILLED TO State Chapter 1 budget

Late last summer, then-interim Principal Al Clark invited dozens of older students who had dropped out or been kicked out of Austin to return to the school. “Many of these students needed an alternative program,” says Chief Educational Officer Lynn St. James, so the school created one. Classes meet from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

In addition, consultant Howard Saffold, who worked on Austin’s remediation planning team, is creating what he calls “a support base” for the students. He makes himself available to evening students who want to talk or need help with non-school problems. For example, he has accompanied some students to court dates. The $100,000 goes mostly for teacher salaries but includes a fee for Saffold.

National Alliance for School Restructuring

SCOPE School, community

PURPOSE Total revamping of school

COST Up to $29,000

INVITED BY Austin Labor Force Initiative (ALFI), a non-profit affiliate of Shorebank

BILLED TO ALFI, the school, and/or central office

ALFI, which is part of Shorebank’s multi-million dollar development initiative in the Austin community, is promoting this Washington, D.C.-based think tank, partly as a way to tie the school to community and business partners. The Alliance offers a comprehensive strategy that takes in school management and curriculum, student assessment, and the school’s relationship with the local community. Josh Lee, ALFI’s school-to-work coordinator and a member of the Austin remediation team, is working to broker a deal with the school and central office, with ALFI picking up some of the cost.

All parties are concerned about program overload at Austin, though. National Alliance staffer John Porter admits the various groups “would have to be careful not to trip over each other” in trying to help the school. However, he believes that SAS and the Alliance’s program are complementary.

Phil Hansen, intervention chief in the board’s Office of Accountability, says that while he’s impressed with the Alliance, any partnership is very much in the talking stage.

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