Decentralization experiment under way in Chicago schools EDUCATION


Chicago--Chicago's school reform is succeeding. It has to.

That's the feeling here about the process initiated a year ago to reform the city's schools, once tarred by a U.S. secretary of education as the nation's worst.

"There's a spirit in this town: We can't let this fail," said Sharon Jenkins-Brown of Leadership for Quality Education, an organization of leading businesses that backed education reform.

"There are stresses and strains here and there. Fundamentally, it's working," said Ted Hearn, a spokesman for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This month, the foundation committed $40 million to support the reform process.

Noting the city's progress, a recent survey conducted by Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., concluded that the majority of Chicago parents are satisfied with their children's education, regardless of race, grade level or enrollment in public private schools.

Chicago has 547 public elementary schools and high schools to serve 410,000 students.

The city's student population is 59 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white and 3 percent Asian.

In 1987, half of the city's high schools ranked in the bottom 1 percent on American College Test scores, prompting then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett to say, "If there's a worse [school system], I don't know where it is."

The dropout rate has been near 50 percent, Ms. Jenkins-Brown said. Among graduates, only one-third truly read and write at a 12th-grade level.

For parent Marj Halperin, the teachers' strike of 1987 -- the ninth in 18 years -- was the last straw.

"The instability of the system was too frustrating," Ms. Halperin said. "You couldn't rely on schools to start on time." She attended a meeting of "upset parents" who eventually founded Parents United for Responsible Education.

PURE pressed for decentralizing control, putting schools in the hands of those the system serves. The bureaucracy "was a big impediment to progress," said Ms. Jenkins-Brown. "You had educators who didn't care about the kids."

Out of the furor came the School Reform Act of 1988. The new law created Local School Councils charged with creating a budget and an improvement plan for each school. Six of the 11 members of each LSC are parents; two more are members of the community. The principal and two teachers fill the other slots. Together they craft a program that suits the needs of their student population.

"A parent has the right to say what they want their children taught," said Bernette Barnes, a social worker and parent who was elected to the LSC for Orr High School.

Orr, on Chicago's West Side, has an enrollment that is 90 percent black, Ms. Barnes said. Some students aim for college; others go straight into the work force. The LSC aims to have the school give the students the appropriate skills either way.

One of its innovations has been to institute an entrepreneurial program. Another is to make day care available on campus so girls who have children aren't forced to drop out to care for them.

The School Reform Act gave local school councils the power to select their school principal. Last year, half of the local school councils systemwide were required to decide on a principal; the other half will go through that process this year.

The principal, meanwhile, gained much greater power to form his or her teaching staff. Before the reform bill, Ms. Jenkins-Brown said, "Teachers could miseducate kids for a couple years before you could get them out. Now it's 45 days."

The new local school councils have had their share of growing pains, though. Council members are elected for two years; 25 percent resigned after the first, said Ms. Halperin.

Part of the problem was the hours involved -- "20, 30, 40 a week," she said.

And many who were elected to local school councils lacked the skills to do the job. "We didn't know what a school improvement plan was," Ms. Barnes admitted. "We had to go out and get training." Meanwhile, Orr's LSC missed its deadline for submitting a school improvement plan and a budget.

Ms. Halperin, now a spokeswoman for Superintendent of Schools Ted Kimbrough, said her boss refers to last year as the "year of governance reform." This and succeeding years will focus on educational reform.

Mr. Kimbrough was appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley at the outset of the reform process. So far, the superintendent has cut 500 jobs from the school system's administration headquarters, Ms. Halperin said.

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