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Kate Rooney/ MEDILL

Jonathan Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, spoke out against AUSL turnaround schools during a forum at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters.

Academy for Urban School Leadership defends 'turnaround' plan

by Kate Rooney
April 22, 2014

Kate Rooney/ MEDILL

Jesse Jackson opposes the school turnaround program after the Rainbow PUSH Coalition forum Saturday.

With a final vote by the Chicago Board of Education set for Wednesday morning, the nonprofit group slated to take over and manage the underperforming Dvorak, McNair and Gresham elementary schools is saying it is more than capable of turning these schools around.

Those opposed to a plan to fire current faculty at the three schools, replacing them with CPS teachers trained by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, cite AUSL’s high-expulsion rates, frequent teacher-turnover, and unfair funding advantages as reasons to keep the private company from taking over. If approved, the turnover will go into effect July 1.

But AUSL is not apologizing and says turnaround schools are focused on establishing a new climate and culture of success.

"At the end of the day it’s about results," said AUSL spokeswoman Deirdre Campbell. She pointed to growth in standardized test scores and high attendance rates that outpace the rest of Chicago’s public schools.

Earlier this month, parents, teachers and students confronted school board members at Chicago Public Schools Loop headquarters over the proposal. The plan comes after chronic low performance on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test. 

“Despite the support provided by the district in recent years, student academic growth at the school has not kept pace with district averages,” said Wanda Washington, chief of schools for Network 5 on the West Side during the April 9 meeting.

For example, said Ryan Crosby, director of performance data and policy at CPS, Dvorak school has been on academic probation for the past seven years, and remains 30 percentage points below the district the district average on ISAT standards.

Critics of the turnaround plan say AUSL’s approach is not appropriate for the neighborhood schools.

“The charter schools are expelling our children at 10 times the rate of the public school sector,” Jonathan Jackson said at the nationally televised Rainbow PUSH Saturday morning forum.

AUSL opponents also say the non-profit group’s teaching staff is inexperienced and prone to high turnover.

“The biggest difference is experience,” said Debbie Pope, a retired Gage Park High School teacher who now deals with grievances at the Teachers Union. “Most AUSL teachers are brand new.”

AUSL schools also benefit from additional funding sources not available through CPS. “I think it’s totally unfair, I think the neighborhood schools that they’re turning around could do so much with those resources,” Pope said. “These schools are resource starved.”

In an interview Friday, AUSL spokeswoman Deirdre Campbell countered complaints from critics.

“It’s structured, not strict, we think that it’s really important that all of the students understand what the expectations are, ” Campbell said.

On the subject of AUSL faculty inexperience, she said, “If you’re a highly effective teacher, we think it’s great to have opportunities for growth,” while conceding that “if they’ve been through the process and they kind of know the ropes, they might move on.”

Campbell did say that teachers who are fired in a turnaround are still eligible to apply to AUSL teaching programs. “We have had both faculty and staff return, and many have been very pleased.”

AUSL schools do receive more funding. While the amount spent on each student is the same according to Illinois State Board of Education, AUSL receives an additional $300,00 one-time administrative fee from CPS at the start of the turnaround. For the following five years, AUSL schools get an extra $420 per student, money that Campbell says is invested directly back into the school, and covers the cost of paying for teacher-coaches and staff support.

After five years, AUSL fundraises privately for additional support programs such as City Year, a group of volunteers who aid teachers in the classroom.

AUSL also has the same advantage as most charter schools to plan their own budget. “Because we’re a non-profit, it is my understanding that we decide how those dollars should be deployed,” Campbell said.

Parent-resistance to a turnaround program is not unusual. “The parents that have spoken out loudest against the turnaround become our strongest advocates,” Campbell said.

Some teachers feel the Board of Education has already made a decision.

“They already know the outcome, because they came up with it years ago, they know what they were doing,” said Pamela Barber, current Dvorak Elementary School teacher. 


(Revised 5:19 p.m., 6-12-14)