PI Original Micah Maidenberg Thursday December 9th, 2010, 1:37pm

Rahm Signals He's Ready For More CPS Turnaround Schools

Rahm Emanuel said on Tuesday that he wants the capacity to implement "turnarounds" at 35 schools during his first term in office.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Rahm Emanuel wouldn't commit to sending his children to Chicago Public Schools upon their return to town, sparking a round of criticism from rivals Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle and a spate of press about the issue. That may have sapped coverage from another topic Emanuel broached two mornings ago: his position on school "turnarounds."

Turnarounds are among the most dramatic steps CPS has taken in recent years in its attempts to improve district schools that exhibit chronically low performance. During a turnaround, school staffers -- all adults in the building, from the principal and teachers to the building engineer and lunch ladies -- are fired and asked to reapply for their old jobs. CPS contracts with an outside organization like the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), with whom Emanuel met on Tuesday, to take over school operations or tasks district officials with managing the turnover process. A new principal is hired and the school building is upgraded. Students are supposed to be kept in place during a turnaround, unlike when a school is closed, consolidated, or phased-out, the other three school restructuring policies the Board of Education and CPS' top brass have pursued in recent years.

Underlying the turnaround process is the idea that only whole-cloth changes to the staff and culture at struggling schools will enable student improvement. (A major study from the Chicago Consortium on School Research about CPS' turnarounds is due out soon. Press accounts find slow, mixed results, though turnaround backers point to some improved test scores and in-school discipline.)

On Tuesday, Emanuel called for the city to double, from six to 12, the number of academies where teachers-in-training learn alongside mentors for a year and earn credit for a master's degree along the way. This change, the candidate claims, will produce at least 150 instructors annually. In addition to new teachers, the Emanuel campaign says current CPS educators could be re-trained in the academies to work in the district's most under-performing schools.

The expansion of such academies would potentially allow for more turnaround schools, according a press release. David Spielfogel, Emanuel's policy director, said the corps of newly-trained teachers would be free to seek out work at any CPS institution. But the graduates would also give the CPS chief the ability to implement up to 35 turnarounds during Emanuel's first term, should school administrators and the Emanuel administration take that path, according to Spielfogel.

"The point is all these teachers are not going to be placed at turnarounds," he said. "They could go to any school that needs them. It would allow for the capacity to do turnarounds if turnarounds are needed."

Reaching 35 turnarounds over a four-year period would ramp up the pace of that policy at CPS. The first occurred in 2006, at Sherman Elementary School on the South Side, and since that time 11 other institutions have gone through the process, at an average of three per year.

While a recent Education Week article about Sherman Elementary notes that former CPS chief (and current Obama Department of Education secretary) Arne Duncan "developed the turnaround model as an alternative to the district’s unpopular strategy of closing low-performing schools and dispersing students" the turnaround process in Chicago is a deeply contested one. It is a near certainty that continual turnarounds -- under an Emanuel administration or any of the other would-be mayors -- would roil the local education community and ratchet up the battle over the contours of school reform in Chicago.

Turnarounds make teachers bristle. Educators are angry to be summarily fired, with no consideration given the energy they've put into working with students who grapple with the ravages of poverty and some of Chicago's worst violence. Some parents are skeptical that the policy is right for their school, fearing the disruption is merely the latest iteration of school reform with no certain results. Others dispute the idea that parents at schools selected for turnarounds aren't involved with their children and existing teachers and staffers have not dedicated themselves to reaching students. Members of the City Council debated a resolution earlier this year that called for a one-year moratorium on turnarounds, phase-outs, consolidations, and closings at CPS; aldermen like the 3rd Ward's Pat Dowell criticized the district for lacking transparency and accountability with regards to its restructuring policies.

The turnaround process, with roots in Chicago, is now a national phenomenon. Many people got their first whiff of the program when all of the adults at Central Falls High Schools in Rhode Island were fired earlier this year. The White House, which Emanuel left to make his bid for mayor here, made $3.5 billion in education grants available for efforts, including turnarounds, to improve the country's lowest-performing schools. The grants incentivize turnarounds that "replace the principal and rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff and grant the principal sufficient operational flexibility (including in staffing, calendars/time, and budgeting) to implement fully a comprehensive approach to substantially improve student outcomes," according to a Department of Education press release.

While teachers working at turnaround schools are covered by the district's contract with the Chicago Teachers Union, CTU believes turning school operations over to outside organizations is tantamount to creeping privatization.

"If what you mean by turnaround is bringing in an outside contractor to manage a school and fire all existing staff ... then we would not support that," says Liz Brown, CTU's spokeswoman. She argued that turnarounds violate tenure rules because all instructors are released regardless of seniority. And the union is skeptical that radical measures like turnarounds will result in the changes promised. "There is no research that shows the turnaround model works," she said.

Of course, no one is against improving schools, training teachers, raising performance, and readying Chicago students for the 21st century economy. Brown pointed out that CTU obviously wants a better CPS; their members are on the frontlines of education and a complex series of social issues every school day. She referenced the teachers in Los Angeles that created "pilot schools," which are in essence instructor-run institutions, as an intriguing development. But in discussing reform efforts, Brown said a broader perspective was necessary.

"Schools reflect the community that they're in. For decades, in historically neglected communities, not surprisingly, you find historically neglected schools," Brown said. "Can you focus inside a school on improving specific things? Yes, you can. But there's not going to be [big] changes until we recognize that communities are neglected."

From CTU's perspective, that would mean reinvesting in low-performing schools by providing resources like wrap-around social services, Brown said. And quite simply, offering decent jobs for struggling parents. The teachers union president, Karen Lewis, has called for a "Marshall Plan" to boost CPS schools.

There is much at play in school reform in Chicago (and in Springfield) at the moment. The future of dramatic policies like turnarounds is certainly one of them.

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