A homegrown non-profit is pushing its way onto center stage in Chicago’s education scene. The Academy for Urban School Leadership thinks it knows how to run strong urban schools. And, pointing to the latest test scores, the school district agrees.
Chicago Public Schools' strategy recently for fixing its lowest performing schools has been to fire everyone — from the principal to the teachers to the lunch ladies. Then, give the whole school over to someone else to run.
And the group taking those schools over—the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL—just posted test score gains more than double the gains in the rest of the district.
BRIZARD: 26 points?! My God--from 49 to 75 percent! No one can argue that.
Last week, in an empty classroom on the West Side, schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard asked AUSL principals and teachers for their secrets.
They described on-the-job coaching. Teachers walking through neighborhoods to reach out to families. And AUSL’s “training academies”—public schools where new teachers are put through one-year residencies, like what medical students go through before becoming doctors.
Former computer programmer Mauricia Dantes teaches third grade at an AUSL-run school surrounded by vacant lots and board-ups. Before she got her own classroom, Dantes worked under a master teacher in another AUSL school.
DANTES: For a whole year—hands on. Observing her, practicing things that she said I needed to learn. She would coach me, then being evaluated. And that’s every day. So, it was systematic, it was methodical—and there were things that I was doing every single day to complete the big picture of being a teacher. And it was effective, ‘cause I really feel like I know what I’m doing.
ambi: Criss-cross, applesauce, hands in your lap. Hey! Good job.
I first met Dantes last winter. Her students sat on a classroom rug—totally engaged—as Dantes showed them necklaces she’d made for them. Hanging from each string was a thick bunch of words on laminated cards. Each child’s was unique.
DANTES: Every moment—when you’re standing in lunch and you’re waiting for your turn to get your tray—guess what you’ll be doing? [Studying!] Studying the words that you struggled with. So that means you won’t be wasting any time with your brain off.
Dantes and her colleagues are CPS employees—union teachers. But they and principals told Brizard the teacher residency is key to AUSL’s success. Principals see it as a steady pipeline of teachers, all pre-screened and then prepared in the same way.
HENRY: Every single person being on one drumbeat is key.
AUSL principal Alice Henry told Brizard that getting a critical mass of like-minded teachers allows AUSL to create its hallmark culture.
HENRY: If you come back tomorrow unannounced you’ll see the same thing. It’s going to be clean, it’s going to smell good, it’s going to be excellent. The teachers are going to be friendly and smiling and greeting people at the door—every single day.
AUSL is a well-endowed, politically connected group. It was started by venture capitalist and philanthropist Martin Koldyke; he also founded the Golden Apple award for teachers.
AUSL has become a favorite of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s. The chairman of AUSL’s board is now president of the Chicago Board of Education. CPS’s new Chief Operating Officer also comes from AUSL.
Donald Feinstein is the group’s director:
FEINSTEIN: We run good schools. When it’s all said and done, we manage good schools, it’s a good place for children to be. And hopefully there will be communities who would say, ‘I’d like them to come manage and help our school get better.’
Across the country, districts are increasingly contracting out the work of running their schools. AUSL now manages 19 CPS schools. That’s been controversial, but Brizard says he's been wowed by visits to AUSL schools.
BRIZARD: I’m a big believer in great schools—I don’t really care who actually creates them.
Chicago paid AUSL $4.5 million last year to run schools, and that will increase. In the next two years, Emanuel wants to double the number of teacher training schools AUSL runs.
Meanwhile, AUSL is planning its first foray outside the city. It’s in negotiations now to begin work in suburban North Chicago High School.