Chicago gets $27 million in school improvement grants

October 17, 2012

The state awarded $27.4 million in federal grants to Chicago Public Schools this week to improve five of the city’s struggling high schools.

The school improvement grants, or SIG grants, go to Chicago Vocational Career Academy (CVCA), Roberto Clemente Community Academy, Bowen Environmental Studies High School, Bogan High School and Al Raby High School.

The grants were officially approved at the June state board meeting, but officials released the winning and losing applications this week.  The awards offer insight into what types of reforms CPS wants to take on.

It comes on the cusp of what could be a major restructuring of the city’s public school system, with school turnarounds, closures, and consolidations that many activists argue are destabilizing and don't help students.

Changes to two of the schools on the list—Clemente and CVCA—have already been announced.

Last spring, the Board of Education voted to turn around CVCA, meaning all staff were fired over the summer. The extra money from the state will help the district’s Office of School Improvement continue the turnaround effort.

Clemente High School was one of five schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said would be wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate, or IB. However, the rigorous, college preparatory IB curriculum won’t be required for all students. Instead, Clemente will offer a brand new IB career track.

All of the schools, except for CVCA will undergo an improvement effort called “transformation,” which replaces the school's leadership. It is considered less-controversial than a school “turnaround” because it does not require that the entire staff be fired.

CPS has received SIG grants for 12 other high schools in the previous two years. The federal grants run for three years, meaning the first round of recipients will finish their final year this year.

In the most recent round, CPS applied for eight grants, but three schools were not awarded money: Senn High School, Washington High School, and Architecture, Construction, Engineering and Technology (ACE Tech) Charter School.  The application for ACE Tech listed the Noble Street Charter School Network as the lead partner, the group working with the school to improve.

The application called for “transformation” in the first year and “restart” in the second and third year. According to the application and officials at Noble, the school would remain ACE Tech in the first year, with some Noble involvement, but become a full-fledged Noble campus in 2013-14. The unique timeline was partly due to the fact that ACE Tech’s most recent contract with the school district expires at the end of this school year.

The application comes on the heels of reports that CPS wants charter operators to take over and turnaround existing schools in the coming years. That would create a fast, direct link between school closures and charter expansion. School officials have said that plan is only conceptual in nature.

In the past, the district would close a school and then wait a few years before handing the building over to a privately run charter operator. A WBEZ analysis of school closures over the past 10 years showed that more than half of all the buildings closed now house charter schools or schools with special admissions procedures.

District spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler did not immediately know if there were still plans to have Noble take over ACE Tech in the coming years. A Noble Street official said there were no immediate plans to do so and that Noble has not formally agreed to turning around low performing schools.

ACE Tech, Al Raby and Bowen were all schools opened or revamped under former Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 effort, which aimed to open 100 new, "high-quality" schools between 2005 and 2010.

Bowen High School has undergone several school reform efforts in recent years. It was a large neighborhood high school that was broken into four smaller high schools, which proponents said would improve academic achievement. Last year, the district abandoned that idea, consolidating those four smaller schools back into one, called the Bowen Millennium Campus.

In an application for Gates Foundation funding earlier this year, the newly appointed Emanuel administration said it wanted to open 100 new schools in the next five years again, 60 of which would be charter schools.