Mayor defends choice to oversee school ‘turnarounds’

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public School CEO Jean-Clean Brizard take questions from press at Morton School of Excellence, 431 N. Troy Street in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

With school closings looming, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went on the offensive Tuesday against the Chicago Teachers Union’s claim that it’s a conflict to have the Academy of Urban School Leadership oversee six public schools targeted for sweeping “turnarounds” in which all employees are removed.

David Vitale, Emanuel’s handpicked school board president, once served as chairman of the AUSL board. Tim Cawley, chief administrative officer at the Chicago Public Schools, previously held a top job at the organization.

Those close ties did not stop Emanuel, a champion of the AUSL model, from handing the organization its largest turnaround assignment ever in a single year.

“It is a model that is unique to Chicago’s success. It is working here superbly. … There would be a conflict if I didn’t do it – that I had a great model that L.A. wants to steal from us, and I held it back,” Emanuel said, after joining Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard for a roundtable with the parents of AUSL students at the Morton School of Excellence, 431 N. Troy.

“It is not a conflict to give kids a good education. It’s the responsibility I have as mayor. The conflict would be if I knew it was here and I was scared to do it because of politics. I told you I would spend political capital to make sure the kids of Chicago have the opportunity to do something in their lives. … I will not let politics stand in the way. That would be a conflict that is shameful.”

CTU President Karen Lewis, who went toe-to-toe with Emanuel on the issue of a longer school day, held her own news conference to question the “lack of transparency” in selecting the schools to undergo turnarounds. If approved, the plan will force 429 teachers and non-teaching staff members to look for new jobs, although they can reapply to work at their original schools under new leadership.

Lewis waved the red flag about the alleged conflict.

“The fact that AUSL is the beneficiary of these turnarounds and that the board president and the chief administrative officer have ties to AUSL – it doesn’t sit that well with us. It feels like a conflict of interest. That should be dealt with on some level,” she said.

CPS claims the 12 turnaround schools already under the AUSL umbrella have more than doubled the district average growth in 2011 ISAT test scores.

But Lewis said, “We are concerned about how these actions demoralize our students, further decrease their confidence in themselves and also rips them from the adults they do know and have built relationships with.”

AUSL’s turnaround strategy uses comprehensive teacher training and collaboration, rigorous course work and standards, tutoring in reading and math and extra-curricular activities to help students in chronically-failing schools catch up to their peers.

“You can’t do ‘turnaround light.’ You have to have school leadership. You have to have teachers that are well-trained. And you have to have enough of them in the building so that you can make a fundamental change in the culture of the school,” said Martin Koldyke, AUSL’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Although the formula seems to be working elsewhere, Koldyke acknowledged Tuesday that the CPS school that has had an AUSL at the helm after a turnaround the longest – Sherman Elementary – has yet to achieve system-wide averages after five years.

“Sherman has done okay, but it hasn’t shown the kind of changes that our people are seeking. They’re not pleased with the way kids are catching on,” he said.

“We’ve had a recent change of leadership there. That’s one thing that Jarvis Sanford [AUSL’s managing director of elementary schools] doesn’t put up with. He makes sure that the leadership is up to snuff and we’re getting the kind of results that we need.”

CPS is expected to drop the other shoe later this week – by announcing this year’s round of school closings.

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