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Renaissance 2010: A Tainted Brand?

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Chicago Public Schools reached a milestone this fall: The district approved plans for its 100th new school under Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative. But there was no pomp or circumstance. In fact, the district’s announcement didn’t even include the words “Renaissance 2010.” The Renaissance 2010 brand is struggling.

To its supporters, Renaissance 2010 has always been about creating new schools—100 of them by this year. But to opponents of the plan, Renaissance 2010 has a whole different meaning:

STREET MARCH: Save our schools! Save our schools!

BOARD MEETING: We need a moratorium on Renaissance 2010. Closings, turnarounds and phase outs! This is urgent!

From the beginning, it was understood that school closings would take place under Renaissance 2010. But Greg Richmond says they were never supposed to be the focus of the initiative. Richmond headed the district’s new school development efforts in 2004, when Mayor Daley unveiled Renaissance 2010 to Chicago business and civic leaders.

Richmond still remembers a call he got from a reporter around that time.

RICHMOND : Called me up and said, ‘Okay. Renaissance 2010 is the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close schools, right?’ And I said, ‘No! That’s not what it is. It’s the plan to create new schools!’ But that was the end of the sentence. Renaissance 2010 is your plan to close schools.

McGILL: What CPS seemed to be doing was trying to brand a set of actions—the opening of these new schools—and they gave it the brand name if you will Renaissance 2010...

Ann McGill is a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago ‘s business school.

McGILL: The very best brand names, the companies think very hard about the two, three things they want you to think. As soon as you hear Harley Davidson you think ‘independence’ and ‘freedom.’ And that’s because they work hard to make sure you think that.

CPS has had a hard time getting the positives of Renaissance 2010 to stick to the label. Lately, it seems the initiative is blamed for just about anything that goes wrong.

One reason for that is Julie Woestehoff.

The head of a noisy parent group, Woestehoff is mad that CPS has shut down 56 schools and fired all staff at another 11 since Renaissance 2010 began. She says it’s a privatization plan.

Woestehoff says the fact that CPS gave its initiative a name has made fighting it easier.

WOESTEHOFF: Yeah, because you can chant that word. You know, you can’t chant a series of actions...

ambi: (chanting) Hey, Hey, Ho Ho, Renaissance 2010 has got to go…

WOESTEHOFF: We’ve basically made the brand into a bad word. They aren’t using it—we’re talking about it all the time. And when people hear Renaissance 2010 now it’s always preceded by the word “controversial.” But it’s their choice. They chose to brand it. They chose to sell it like a product, and the product is failing.

It’s certainly not failing in the fundraising department—which is a key reason to name any initiative.

Businesses and foundations have ponied up $30 million for Renaissance 2010 schools thus far. But even the main fundraising arm of Renaissance 2010 is thinking about dumping the brand.

Phyllis Locket is executive director of the Renaissance Schools Fund.

LOCKET: To the degree that the district may consider stepping back from the name, then we are determining whether or not we do the same. It is really a renaissance, it’s a rebirth. So there’s a lot of symbolism with respect to that name. But we’re evaluating that right now.

Locket says there’s a silent majority—parents and students served by the new schools—who have a very positive view of Renaissance 2010. And so do those funding the effort, Locket says.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman says no matter what it’s called, CPS will continue to create new schools. And it will keep shutting down or firing staff at low-performing schools.

HUBERMAN: We’re continuing to learn from what’s worked well in Renaissance 2012…2010!...and what we need to improve on…

ambi: tape rewind

Did he say Renaissance 2012??

HUBERMAN: No, that was just a slip, Linda.

Now would be an easy time to drop the name Renaissance 2010. It is 2010, after all. But just as proponents promise to keep moving forward, detractors vow to fight the policies—whatever they’re called.

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