Why is deficit-challenged CPS proposing to spend over $1 million a year to “turn around” each of six schools, using a program that’s produced mediocre results — especially when teachers at four of the schools have voted to support a far cheaper and more effective turnaround proposal?
Could the political connections of the Academy for Urban School Leadership — whose big-dollar donors  include major contributors to Mayor Emanuel, like David Vitale, Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner — have something to do with it?
Of twelve turnaround schools listed on AUSL’s website  which the group took over between 2006 and 2010, ten of them are on academic probation today. Only one of them is rated as Level 1 — “high performing” — by CPS.
Of those twelve schools, eleven were below the CPS district-wide average for ISAT composite scores. AUSL’s top-scoring school had a composite score that was equal to the CPS average, which is lower than half its schools.
Three AUSL turnarounds at CPS high schools are abject failures, with scores far below district averages and negligible growth.
AUSL did not respond to a request for an interview.
A study last year by Don Moore of Designs For Change  of Chicago elementary schools with poverty rates above 95 percent — there were 210 of them — found 33 scoring above the CPS average on ISAT reading scores (the most rigorous test and the most fundamental skill, experts say). None were AUSL schools.
All the successful schools followed what Designs called the “school-based democracy” model, with Local School Councils selecting principals, approving the budget, and monitoring school improvement — a stark contrast to the “top-down” strategy represented by AUSL.
Only three out of ten AUSL schools were among the top half of high-poverty schools in reading achievement, Designs found. That’s despite over $1 million a year in additional resources given to AUSL turnaround schools.
The additional money includes management fees and annual per-pupil payments, in addition to large capital investments in turnaround schools. The CPS supplementary capital budget  for this year includes $11 million dollars for improvements to six schools slated for AUSL takeovers. Among other resources, AUSL schools get a second assistant principal and a full-time social worker.
A couple years ago, annual spending on turnarounds was $20 million. It’s growing steadily.
“The resources now used for turnaround schools need to be shifted to helping effective schools become resources for other schools,” Designs concluded.
Moore’s study was released shortly after a report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research , which found that turnarounds and other aggressive school interventions in low-performing schools had “closed the gap in [reading] test scores with the system average by almost half.”
This was touted by editorial writers and politicians as proof of AUSL’s success. But was it?
Citing statisticians, Catalyst  said the report “showed only a small amount of progress,” particularly given “the upheavel and financial investment in turnarounds.”
Pressed by the Sun Times  to clarify the report’s results — which were given only in terms of standard deviations — one author explained that after four years of intervention, sixth graders in a turnaround school are 3.5 months ahead of their peers in the lowest-performing schools.
The school board went on to approve six AUSL turnarounds.
There’s another model for turnarounds in Chicago — one which has often outperformed AUSL, without replacing teachers and principals, and at one-fifth the cost.
Strategic Learning Initiatives  developed its “focused instruction process” approach in a demonstration project with CPS that started in 2006, the same year as AUSL’s first turnaround.
In the four-year program, involving eight low-income elementary schools in Little Village and Garfield Park — each of which had been on probation for ten years or more — each of the schools dramatically increased their annual achievement growth rates, most within one or two years.
The program is based on decades of management studies of high-performance organizations and on the “five essential supports” identified by Moore  and validated by the Consortium  — effective leadership, family-community partnerships, supportive learning environment, ambitious instruction, and a culture of trust and collaboration.
(The Consortium has found that schools measured strong in all five supports were ten times more likely  to achieve substantial gains in reading and math; remarkably, in CPS reports on the five supports, only three AUSL turnaround schools are rated “organized for improvement” or “highly organized.” Its oldest turnarounds are rated “not yet organized.”)
Working with SLI, principals and teachers get in-school coaches, and teachers run their own problem-solving sessions in school and across school networks. A family engagement component focuses on teaching parents how to support their children’s learning. The whole process aims at developing a sense of ownership among school community members, says SLI president John Simmons.
According to Simmons, the biggest lesson from the group’s collaboration with CPS was that, far from being the root of the problem, existing staff and parents “form a large and untapped reservoir of energy, ideas and commitment” for school improvement.
“The idea of replacing the entire staff is completely foreign to the corporate turnaround model,” he points out.
SLI won’t come into a school unless 80 percent of its teachers vote for the program in a secret ballot. (Because it doesn’t replace the staff, the program is eligible for federal funding as a “school transformation” rather than a “turnaround.”) Teachers at four of the six schools slated for AUSL turnarounds have voted to request that CPS let them apply for an SLI-led transformation.
CTU activist Debby Pope, who attended hearings for five of the school proposed turnarounds, says she noticed a pattern: most of the schools being targeted had new principals who seemed to be inspiring the staff, and who were achieving significant increases on test scores.
An analysis shows that annual reading score gains at the six proposed turnarounds are eight times higher in the past two years than they were over the previous four.
The change is particularly striking at four of the schools: under new principals, Barton went from an average yearly decrease of -0.1 percent for four years, to an average yearly gain of 4.7 percent in the past two years; Chalmers went from 0.4 to 4.5; Dewey from -1.9 to 3.2, and Carter from 0.4 to 2.3.
Could it be that, in an effort to goose its own success rate, AUSL is looking for schools where a turnaround in student achievement is already under way?
At the hearing for Chalmers, Pope said, “As a union representative I have to say, it’s not every day you have a staff extolling the leadership of a principal the way you do here.”
Parents and teachers praised principal Kent Nolan, a focused, intent young black man who cuts an impressive figure.
One mother expressed her amazement on coming home and finding her 13-year-old son reading a book. “My six-year-old daughter reads books,” she said. “This school has been excellent.”
Another described the turnaround in her two sons’ attitudes toward school. A third told of being impressed when she saw Nolan disperse a group of drug dealers from a corner near the school. “What other principal would do that?” she said.
Another parent pointed out that, with an LSC, “we have a say in naming a principal.” Under AUSL they wouldn’t.
In thirteen years in five CPS schools, “I have never seen an administration as supportive and dedicated,” said a math teacher. “The school was in trouble” before the new principal, said a case manager. “We have a fresh start.”
Under Nolan, in two years, Chalmers’ ISATs have risen 10 points. They’re still far below the district’s average, and the school is still on probation, but it’s only a few points from moving to the next level, according to testimony.
And in the CPS report card on the “five supports,” Chalmers is rate “highly organized for improvement.” It really does seem to have turned around already.
“I have experience with AUSL,” said one mother. She said her daughter, a student at Collins Academy, was being told she had to find a new school “because of her behavior.” (I asked her later what the behavior issues were. “Girl stuff,” she said.) “Are you going to kick out all the kids with behavior problems?”
She added later that she had a nephew at one of AUSL’s elementary schools who was being told to go to another school.
“We have homeless children, children with parents who are unemployed or incarcerated, parents with addictions; we have children who have been rejected from turnaround schools,” said third grade teacher Louis Lane during the hearing. “As educators we rise to the occasion daily, we respect our students and care for them. We are teachers who teach, not kick students out because they have problems.”
It seems immensely, tragically disrespectful to educators like Nolan and Lane and their colleagues to wantonly replace them in order to deliver a payoff to political cronies.
The only real purpose for firing and replacing staff in turnarounds appears to be “to discriminate against experienced educators, especially educators of color,” said CTU  president Karen Lewis in a statement last month. Younger teachers cost less.
CTU found that in six turnarounds of elementary schools with majority-black teaching staffs last year, including three by AUSL and three by CPS, the proportion of blacks on the staff dropped dramatically. In AUSL’s turnaround of Stagg, the percentage of teachers who were African American dropped from 80 to 35 percent when AUSL took over.
More dramatic was the increase in inexperienced teachers. While none of the schools had first-year teachers before the turnarounds, after the turnarounds a whopping 57 percent of their teaching staff were first-years.
On top of that, the Designs study revealed that AUSL has huge levels of teacher turnover. Only 42 percent of teachers at turnaround schools in 2008-09 were still there three years later.
With Chicago taxpayers footing the bill for AUSL’s vaunted teacher training program, that’s s a concern. In addition, “it creates a constant need to identify new teachers, and makes the goal of fundamentally changing a school’s culture more difficult,” according to Designs.
“High teacher turnover is damaging to a school’s ability to build collaboration among teachers, relationships with students and parents, and continuity in the school’s curriculum.”
Maybe that’s one reason AUSL schools are having trouble getting organized for improvement.
It looks like AUSL will emerge as the big winner in North Lawndale if proposed school actions are approved, said Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.
She says four of five school actions will benefit AUSL, which will end up controlling all the schools in Douglas Park, where its under-performing high school, Collins Academy, is located.
Pope Elementary is proposed for closing, with its students sent to Johnson, an AUSL school. Bethune, which was turned around in 2009, is slated for closing, allowing AUSL to jettison one of its more challenging schools, where results have not been impressive. Leonard expects Bethune students will be encouraged to go not to the designated receiving school but to Johnson or to Chalmers, if it’s also taken over by AUSL.
And in a curious maneuver, current Henson students would be sent to Hughes, a Level 2 school, but Henson’s attendance boundaries would be redrawn with half its area assigned to Herzl, a recent AUSL turnaround that’s still Level 3 and on probation.
Leonard point out that even after being in place for several years, AUSL schools in North Lawndale still underperform Lawndale schools generally. On ISAT reading scores, North Lawndale schools average 65.6 percent meeting and exceeding standards, while AUSL schools in the neighborhood average 51.7.
“The school action policy is being driven for the benefit of well-connected people,” she said.
One of AUSL’s strategies seems to be taking over elementary schools feeding the high schools where it’s under-performing, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together , which works with parents and students at Orr Academy and local elementary schools.
“They seem to be thinking, if we can push out and counsel out students from the elementary schools, we can end up with fewer special ed and bilingual students and children with discipline issues at the high school,” she said. “They can get the cream of the crop.”
BT has dealt repeatedly with large numbers of Orr students who were told not to return to school after the turnaround there. Carroll thinks that with BT’s persistent pushback, the school has backed off its strategy of dumping.
(Rod Estvan of Access Living  has reported that the proportion of students with disabilities has dropped at AUSL schools; at Morton Academy, AUSL’s top-scoring school, it’s dropped by one-third since the turnaround. He’s also noted that enrollment declined by 15 percent from 2006 to 2012 at ten AUSL schools, during a period when CPS enrollment declined by 4 percent.)
According to Carroll, school actions in BT’s area also seem to favor AUSL in curious ways. School closings are passing by Piccolo, which AUSL took over last year, though it’s a Level 3 school with a 40 percent utilization rate (Carroll says it’s lower now) — and with $26 million in capital needs, according to CPS.
Instead two Level 2 schools with much higher utilization rates and lower capital needs assessments — Ryerson and Laura Ward — are being combined.
And while 53 schools are closed, two AUSL schools, Morton and Dodge, are co-locating. That means that each school gets to keep its administrative staff — including a second assistant principal for each school, though with enrollments of 362 and 423 respectively, Morton and Dodge are no bigger than many schools that are being combined.
“This isn’t about money,” said Carroll. “Clearly these decision are not dictated by what’s fiscally prudent.”
It doesn’t seem to be about education either. It seems to be about money and power.