Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Right On, Chicago

By Reanetta Hunt

MAY 11, 1998:  One year ago, when I left Memphis to join the Chicago public schools, people were already talking about the miraculous transformation of what had been known for a decade as the worst school district in America.

What’s happening is nothing less than a demonstration that public education can still work, even in urban centers. For too long, people – in Memphis and elsewhere – have heard the lamentations of despair over big-city schools. Many gave up and began to seek alternatives: private schools, vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, the suburbs, you name it –anything but the public schools. In some states, there was even talk of dismantling public education in cities.

Then came real educational reform in Chicago. The Republican-dominated Illinois legislature, perhaps as an act of desperation, placed the public schools and all its woes – low test scores, chronic budget problems, deteriorating buildings, restless unions, disillusioned teachers, dropouts, truancy and all – in the lap of the city’s Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley.

In just two months, the mayor’s new leadership team – headed by a new Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees and a new CEO (rather than superintendent), Paul Vallas – had: negotiated a four-year contract with the teachers and other unions; closed a projected four-year budget deficit of $1.3 billion and balanced the next year’s budget; eliminated 1,700 jobs; and begun to reorganize the entire school system. This team was serious.

Within six months the Chicago Public Schools system earned its first investment-grade credit rating since 1979. A $3.5 billion plan for fixing up the schools and building some new ones was developed. And after a careful look at test scores and the poor career prospects for students who don’t make the grade, a comprehensive education plan that focused on the mastery of reading and math was put in place.

Within two years, test scores were climbing, even as more than 100 schools were put on academic probation. Eleven principals were removed from their schools. Seven schools were reconstituted: closed and reopened with newly selected staff. High schools were restructured, and then came the most noted and unprecedented change of all – the elimination of social promotion, a feat even the President of the United States has lauded Chicago officials for implementing.

Those who regarded this as a miracle can be excused for thinking so, but it really isn’t. It began with a determination to give every child a good education.

Children have to be able to read, write, and do math before they can tackle the more challenging aspects of learning. If students are promoted without these basic skills, they’re going to fail in school and drop out. Teachers – and everyone else – should be judged on results; if the students aren’t making academic progress, the school is not doing its job.

Accountability is the key. Standards have been put in place; students understand that they are expected to learn or face consequences.

Also, Chicago does not wait for students to fail before helping them. The school district is focusing on reaching children early, keeping them in school longer, and extending the school year. Preschool programs extend all the way to infants; after-school programs are running in most elementary schools; summer school will attract 175,000 students this year.

All of these activities help children learn more, better, and sooner. It keeps them from falling behind. As they perform better, the educational programs can become more challenging, and the cycle of learning will spiral upward. Miracle or not, Chicago is showing that public schools can still teach our children, even in the cities.

Reanetta Hunt, who did public relations in Memphis and hosted talk shows for radio stations KJMS-FM and WMC-AM, is now chief of communications for the Chicago public schools.

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