EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK: A NEW APPROACH IN CHICAGO

It is a well-known fact that better schools build better communities. A sound education system has a direct impact on a community’s standard of living, property values, safety/crime rate and business and employment opportunities. Chicago’s leaders have taken the message to heart and, on June 24, announced the“Renaissance 2010 Neighborhood Schools Program.” According to Mayor Daley,“The fundamental goal of Renaissance 2010 is to turn around Chicago’s most troubled elementary and high schools by creating 100 new schools in neighborhoods across the city during the next six years. As we create these new schools, we will also provide new educational options to underserved communities and relieve school overcrowding in communities experiencing rapid growth.”

Under Renaissance 2010, about half of the 100 new schools will be high schools and half will be elementary. Most will be neighborhood schools created to serve their surrounding communities, providing quality education for all of Chicago’s students. Most will also be limited to 500 students, in alignment with current research that stresses the benefits smaller schools and a more personalized education have on student success. A five-year performance contract will be required for all of the new schools holding them strictly accountable for student educational outcomes. One-third of the schools will be run by the Chicago Public School system. The other two-thirds will be operated independently as charter or contract schools. These schools will receive full public financial support, but be managed by a third party that is free of many of the rules and regulations that limit innovation within the public school district.

Mayor Daley says that “this model will generate competition and allow for innovation. It will bring in outside partners who want to get into the business of education. It offers the opportunity to break the mold.” It was made clear that the city and the Chicago Public Schools could not make this initiative a success without the help of the community. The Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago — a non-profit organization comprised of senior executives from the Chicago region’s leading corporations, professional firms and universities — heard the plea. In response, the Civic Committee, in partnership with national and local foundations, the Chicago Public Education Fund and others, are establishing an organization called New Schools For Chicago, which will provide financial and technical support to the new schools. As part of this effort, these organizations plan to raise $50 million or more in private support to attract and support new school leaders and to partially subsidize the expensive start-up years of new independent public schools. The Civic Committee has been asked to raise between $15 and $25 million from the local business community — a target it is well on its way to achieving. A $2.5 million challenge grant offered by the Searle Family Funds at The Chicago Community Trust got them off to a good start.

“New Schools For Chicago is probably the most important long-term project the Civic Committee has ever undertaken. Its strength lies in the partnership between Mayor Daley, the Chicago Public Schools and the business and philanthropic communities,” says Harrison I. Steans, chairman of the Education Committee of the Civic Committee and Chairman, Financial Investments Corp.

“Together, we can provide an unprecedented opportunity to improve academic and economic opportunities for hundreds of thousands of children.” R. Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee says, adding “We believe that New Schools For Chicago will provide families with educational options and create a more competitive environment — which will lead to higher academic standards and greater accountability in all public schools.”

The process of closing and reopening schools will not be a painless one for the citizens on Chicago. But it seems that good things rarely come easy. Mayor Daley may have summed it up best when he said, “Chicago has never advanced by ignoring the truth and the truth is that after nine years of steady gains, some schools continue to make progress each year, while others don’t. We must face the reality that, for schools that have consistently underperformed, it’s time to start over. My commitment is to every child in every school and the last thing we want is a two-tiered system in Chicago with some schools consistently underachieving.”

I applaud the citizens of Chicago for taking responsibility and becoming active participants in the education of their students!

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