The Chicago Board of Education voted Wednesday to give more control to private operators through expanded “options” schools for at-risk students and to renew charter school contracts. The vote came as the district claimed success with a homegrown program that boosted three dozen neighborhood schools this year.
Even Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis approved of the interventions of the Office of Strategic School Support Services, referred to as OS4, and the added efforts Chicago Public Schools is making to lure back to school about 56,000 young people under 21 who are not enrolled.
“I know you’re used to me coming here and talking about all the bad stuff,” Lewis joked.
“What makes it work is this notion of collaboration between the administration, the teachers, the staff and let’s not forget our paraprofessionals and our clinicians,” Lewis said of OS4. “Can this be an alternative to turnaround? Absolutely. . . I would hope that we are continuing to look at OS4 to really improve schools from the ground up.”
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who created the office a year ago, said standardized reading test scores rose at all 21 elementary schools, and math scores went up in 18 of them. The district could not compare high school test scores but said 13 of the elementary schools and four of the 15 high schools also improved their rates of students on track to graduate.
“The creation of the office was very specific, and that was to provide neighborhood schools with the comprehensive, targeted supports and resources necessary to improve student achievement,” Byrd-Bennett said. “While whole school improvement takes time, we’ve already seen meaningful early indicators of progress.”
Tracy Martin-Thompson, who heads the network of 36 OS4 neighborhood schools, said she visited the schools often and sent principals and teachers — including teachers of special education students and of English language learners — to extra training. All the schools got leadership and instructional coaches, too, and capital improvements to their buildings, including tech upgrades and air conditioning.
And unlike school turnarounds, in which the whole staff is replaced, the district’s efforts keep the principal and staff in place, she said.
Mahalia Hines, a former principal and current board member, said OS4’s early signs of success say “what I have been saying, ‘If neighborhood schools are given the support they need, they will succeed.’ Thank you. . . . for proving me right.”
The board also voted 6-0 to approve two new charter schools, Great Lakes Academy and Foundations College Prep; to renew four others; and to spend a little more than $5 million to open spots at six new schools for students who’ve dropped out or are at risk to not graduate. It also approved expanding at-risk seats at four existing schools for a total of about 2,100 new spots.
Lewis also applauded the district’s efforts to hunt down the young people Byrd-Bennett called her “lost children,” but urged the district to consider the root of those losses.
“I truly believe if we had the appropriate wraparound services in our schools to begin with, we would have less and less need for that,” Lewis said. “I would love to see a real plan. We have to look at what causes the children to leave our schools and to be honest with you, school closings, turnarounds, these are parts of the policies that lead to this.”
Byrd-Bennett said that going forward, all schools will be held to the same accountability measures, whether run by CPS, a private charter organization or the contract school operators. Those who do not sign on to the measuring system — which the district calls its school quality rating policy — will not be allowed in CPS.
“Moving forward, schools that do not sign onto the school quality rating policy will not be advanced to the board for consideration,” Byrd-Bennett said.
Because Alain Locke Charter School, 3141 W. Jackson Blvd, has not yet signed on and remains in negotiations with CPS over its charter renewal, the CEO pulled it from the voting agenda.