Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring training and the death of small schools

I was in Ft. Myers Wednesday, where we had a chance to meet fantastic teacher/parent/activist and tweeter Bonnie Cunard, a leader in Florida's Save Our Schools movement. After that, we decided to head over a few blocks to City of Palms Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.

It's a beautiful night and the Sox are hosting Tampa Bay. But on our way, I have to pull the car over when the cell phone rings. It's Linda Lutton from WBEZ radio telling me that Chicago's interim schools CEO, Terry Mazany is going to announce up to 20 school closings the next day, including the remaining small schools at Bowen High, which we -- the Small Schools Workshop -- helped start. Linda wanted to know what I thought about all that and I told her in the most direct way I could.


The small schools at Bowen were originally conceived, organized and led by teachers with lots of support from the school's principal and its Local School Council, headed by Neil Bosanko. They were trying to deal with rising dropout rates and endemic violence in and around the school, by building smaller learning communities that would hopefully make students more visible through personalization. They would also try to give teachers greater responsibility, autonomy and control of their classroom environments while helping them organize into collaborative teams.

The small schools initially showed great potential. TAP scores in reading and math rose steadily for four years and by 1999 were above the level required to lift Bowen off of academic probation. Then, in 2000, TAP scores fell back a few points in reading and math.

Schools CEO Paul Vallas moved immediately to put the entire school under his failed intervention plan  and essentially liquidated Bowen's small schools, putting the entire high school on a test-prep regimen. Demoralization set in, dozens of teachers resigned in protest and Principal Alejandra Alvarez was fired. Things soon turned chaotic. Vallas' intervention was a disaster, and not just for Bowen. The whole story was told in a 2001 Catalyst piece by Jody Temkin, "Bowen High: School's fledgling progress 'destroyed' by intervention."

A year later, the Gates Foundation came to town and decided to invest in its own version of small schools. Local foundations, including the Chicago Community Trust, with Terry Mazany in the lead, joined in. The Trust received most of the Gates money and became the home of the new Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI). A meeting at Bowen was soon called by CHSRI leaders who informed a group of remaining teacher leaders that small schools were back in vogue and that they would be expected to submit new proposals for reconstructing the small schools if Bowen was to receive any Gates money.

This top-down approach was doomed from the start, as was Gates' entire small-schools strategy. Today's announcement by Mazany was simply the final nail in the coffin. As my brother pointed out today in a blog post-- how ironic it was that Mazany was now closing the small schools simply because they were small.

As for the school's continued decline in test scores---well, just look at the deteriorating conditions around the school community where jobs were once plentiful and local steel mills used to produce 1/6 of the world's steel. Now Bowen sits amid a post-industrial wasteland, high in unemployment, poverty, crime and gang violence. As I explained to Linda Lutton, until something is done to relieve these conditions, no single school reform could be expected to produce high test scores. Small schools were never posed by us as a panacea, a singular cure for the so-called achievement gap, the way charters are currently being promoted.

So that was my response to Lutton. Here's the quote of mine WBEZ went with today.
"All the ideas that were the foundation of the small schools movement--like personalization, like kids staying together with teachers a long time so teachers could get to know them and connect curriculum with kids' own experiences—all those ideas are kind of being washed away to save money," says Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop and a faculty member in DePaul University's School of Education... Klonsky says the experiment shows kids need more than good schools. Their living conditions and the state of their neighborhoods must be improved as well, he said. 

Not a bad sound-byte. And if I would have left it at that during my phone interview with Linda, we probably could have made it to the game on time. But by the second inning, we were met with a SOLD OUT sign (how appropriate!) on the ticket window, and even the scalpers had retired for the night. At least I got to take a picture with the statue of the "Splendid Splinter," Ted Williams.

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