Entrepreneurs Transform Chicago Schools

The Chicago public schools were once considered the worst urban school system in America. Now, they are perhaps the nation's biggest laboratory for school reform. The city has turned over large parts of the system to groups of education entrepreneurs.

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And now, from Pine Valley to Chicago. Chicago used to be considered the worst urban school system in America. Now, the city is working with some of the nation's leading education reformers and entrepreneurs. They've taken over failing public schools and opened new ones. They're training principals. And they have found alternative ways to hire teachers and keep them around.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, all of this has been done while working not against but with Chicago's enormous school bureaucracy.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Arne Duncan is the CEO of Chicago's public schools, and the way he sees it as the schools' top bureaucrat, entrepreneurs are risk-takers and visionaries who bring enormous energy and a new sense of urgency to the problems urban schools face.

Mr. ARNE DUNCAN (CEO, Chicago Public Schools): We've had children who have lived in cars, who have been homeless. We have a couple thousand students that we worry so much about them not eating over the weekends that we've sent food with them home on Friday afternoon to make it through the weekend 'til we can feed them breakfast Monday.

And to me, the answer is not to throw up our hands and make excuses. My answer is that we have to change the nature of what it means to be a school.

SANCHEZ: And maybe schools can't do everything, says Duncan, but they can do more than what the people once thought possible, if and only if schools are willing to experiment and do things differently, especially on the academic front.

That, in a nutshell, has been the logic behind Chicago's drive to partner with entrepreneurs to fix poor-performing schools, although no one would say that taking over Chicago's worst schools has been easy or free of controversy. Late last year, for example, when word first leaked out that the city was going to allow a private, nonprofit group to take over Orr High School in Chicago's West Side, parents and students were skeptical.

Ms. CHIQUITA HENDERSON (Student): I didn't think it was a good idea.

SANCHEZ: Chiquita Henderson(ph) is attending Orr's summer school program. She's going to be a senior.

Ms. HENDERSON: They lack though some of the good teachers that we did have that really didn't care about us.

SANCHEZ: Chiquita's friend, Kiana Tingo(ph), a junior, says rumors have been flying all summer that Orr High was going to be dismantled.

Ms. KIANA TINGO (Student): I didn't see nothing wrong with our school. You know, I liked the way our school was.

SANCHEZ: For the last four years, this huge lime green three-story building on the corner of Pulaski in Chicago has housed three separate high schools, which some say turned out to be more of a gimmick than a serious effort to improve students' performance.

This fall, Orr High will go back to being one school, with an entirely new curriculum, new administrators and new teachers - not a good idea, says Kiana.

Ms. TINGO.: And these teachers that they're bringing here, they don't know anything about us. It is going to be, like, kind of like a transition period. A lot of people don't do transitions where we live.

SANCHEZ: What these students don't know is that the Academy of Urban School Leadership, AUSL, is an old hand at transitions. Since it arrived in Chicago in 2001, AUSL has taken over several schools, raised reading and math scores, improved attendance and brought order to dysfunctional, chaotic schools that one principal compared to Beirut.

Brian Sims is AUSL's director of high schools. He says students and parents, especially in Chicago's worst schools, are deeply jaded.

Mr. BRIAN SIMS (Director, Academy of Urban School Leadership): When we went to Orr High School, community members said to us - and rightfully so - you're the fourth major reform to come through our school and into our community. Why should we trust you? And our answer has to be, we have a track record of success and you can look at that.

SANCHEZ: Sims says replacing the computers that don't work and putting an end to the daily brawls on campus is the easy part compared to the toughest task teachers at Orr High will face - raising students' test scores - not just by a few points here and there, but a lot, says Sims.

Mr. SIMS: Dramatic change in test scores does not happen overnight. We believe it takes three, four, five years.

SANCHEZ: The man AUSL has handpicked and trained to become Orr's new principal is Jammie Poole. A transplant from Memphis, Poole is a serious-looking man in his mid-30s. He says he and his faculty are going to focus on the kinds of kids this school has failed over and over again.

Mr. JAMIE POOL (Principal): We have to find these kids, sit them down and look at other alternatives, like, for example, evening school, Saturday schools. How do we keep those bodies in those seats and motivated for learning every single day?

SANCHEZ: Of the 1,400 students who'll enroll here later this month, Pool says more than 200 will be overage, 18 to 21 year olds, some with acute learning disabilities. Many will start ninth and tenth grade for the third or fourth time. Pool says he's going to assign these students to his best teachers.

Mr. KENDRICK JOHNSON (English Teacher, Orr High School): I definitely went to be a part of, you know, a revolution, something that can better these students in this neighborhood.

SANCHEZ: That's Kendrick Johnson. A Chicago native, he'll be teaching English at Orr High this fall. Like most new teachers that Pool has hired with AUSL's help, Johnson knows exactly what he's getting into: longer hours and much, much more individualized instruction. The collective bargaining agreement allows it. But what Johnson has that most first-year teachers in Chicago don't is a remarkable amount of training. That's what AUSL is really good at. Its accelerated one-year degree program pairs novices like Johnson with master teachers as mentors.

Mr. JOHNSON: No other program, no other traditional program,. is going to allow you to be in a classroom with a master teacher for an entire year.

SANCHEZ: Like all AUSL graduates, Johnson has signed on for at least five years. Of course, none of this - not the new pipeline of teachers, not the school takeovers by private groups like AUSL - would be possible without political support from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. He appoints the school board, but it's Arnie Duncan, Daley's man, who has the last word on who the city partners with.

Mr. DUNCAN: I'm committed to having us become the best big city school system in America. And to get there, you need to bring educational entrepreneurs, educational visionaries to the table to help shape that new vision.

SANCHEZ: A new vision of a hybrid school system: publicly funded, but increasingly privately run. How long this partnership will last and what other city in America will want to duplicate it - these are the big questions that keep Duncan and his army of entrepreneurs up at night.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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