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Chicago School Reform Could Be a U.S. Model

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008; Page A01

CHICAGO -- At Cameron Elementary School west of downtown, most kids don't know the alphabet when they start kindergarten, nearly all are poor, and one was jumped by a gang recently, just off campus. But the school this year posted its highest reading and math scores ever -- a feat that earned cash bonuses for teachers, administrators, even janitors.

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City schools chief executive Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for education secretary, pushed that performance-pay plan and a host of other innovations to transform a school system once regarded as one of the country's worst. As Duncan heads to Washington, the lessons of Chicago could provide a model for fixing America's schools.

"Obama chose Arne Duncan for a reason, and part of that reason is the experimentation that Duncan has done in Chicago and his real attention to data and outcomes," said Elliot Weinbaum, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "Duncan's willing to try new things and see if they work, hopefully keep the ones that do and drop the ones that don't. I expect that experimentation to continue on a national scale."

With a 408,000-student system, smaller than only New York's and Los Angeles's public schools, Chicago has become a laboratory for reform in Duncan's seven-year tenure. Officials here court new charter schools, teacher training is being reinvented, and some low-performing schools have been shuttered and reopened with new staff. Officials are also offering some students cash for good grades and seeking proposals for boarding schools. In addition, Duncan backed a plan to start a gay-friendly high school. For the most part, the changes came with little organized opposition, except for some skirmishes with the teachers union.

Duncan, a longtime Obama friend and basketball buddy, helped shape the incoming administration's education platform. As education secretary, he will be Obama's point man for carrying out the No Child Left Behind law and negotiating revisions with Congress. Through regulatory power, federal funding and a pulpit he can bring to classrooms nationwide, Duncan will be able to push for changes in schools.

Duncan, appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2001, has shown unusual longevity for a big-city school leader, cultivating ties with unions, nonprofit groups and other stakeholders. The wide-ranging reforms he has pushed appeal to struggling school systems and highly regarded suburban districts looking to boost performance. Many educators in Chicago say Duncan's efforts have upended school culture, building a record of progress, although the high-poverty system has far to go.

"This is no utopia. It's no Candy Land," Cameron Principal David B. Kovach said one day this month. "But teachers enjoy their job more, because they are learning and getting better at it, and the kids are able to do things that they weren't able to do before."

Across the city, educators point to improvements. At Noble Street College Prep charter school, every senior graduated last school year, and the class logged nearly $2 million in college scholarships. The flexibility given to independently operated charter schools means a longer school day, with a class dedicated to helping seniors complete college applications, navigate financial aid and write résumés.

At the National Teachers Academy, another Chicago school, Erin Koehler Smith did a better job teaching fourth-graders to estimate centimeters and meters with help from a mentor teacher. Next year, the former theater major and other trainees will take on classes of their own in struggling schools.

Little more than half of Chicago students graduate on time. But since 2001, fewer students are dropping out and more are heading to college. The number taking Advanced Placement classes has tripled. Chicago students lag behind the statewide average on Illinois tests, but the gap has narrowed.

Cameron's Kovach said the 1,040 students at the red-brick schoolhouse come from a high-crime, high-poverty area in West Humboldt Park. Teachers, worried about the safety of neighborhood parks, agreed to work an extra 20 minutes each day to ensure that kids can have recess and to maximize class time.

"Our kids come in two steps behind," Kovach said. "We can't control what happens to them on the outside -- drugs, gangs, an incarcerated parent."


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