As small schools flourish in Chicago, Vallas’s role is debated
In Chicago, efforts to create small, autonomous high schools of 100 to 600 students have rapidly expanded in recent years. With over $25 million in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and from Chicago-based foundations, the Chicago School District plans to build 12 new autonomous, small high schools and reorganize existing high schools to create 20 others by 2007.
As Chicago schools chief from 1995 to 2001, Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas placed significant emphasis on high school reform, establishing an Office of High School Redesign in order to address the widespread low-achievement of the city’s high schools.
But few small high schools were created under Vallas’s tenure.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) data show that only one district-run small autonomous high school, Best Practices High School on the city’s predominantly low-income West Side, was created during the six years Vallas was CEO.
Chicago observers differ in how much credit they give to Vallas for the growth of small schools.
Many say the main thrust of his support for reducing school size was funneled through Chicago’s charter school movement.
Fifteen charter schools, many of them small schools, were created during the Vallas administration at CPS.
"I really see charters as the way to create more small schools," Vallas said during a recent press briefing, emphasizing that he has more leeway to expand charter school options in Philadelphia than he did in Chicago.
Small schools proponent?
Vallas’s June 1995 appointment as CEO happened as the Chicago small autonomous schools movement, which emerged in the early 1990s, was starting to take off. Wanting to transform the city’s large, impersonal, and often low-performing high schools by restructuring them into small, autonomous, community-centered schools, an alliance of educators, organizers, parents, and community members joined together. Two months after Vallas’s appointment, their work led the Chicago School Board to pass a resolution in support of expanding small schools.
Michael Klonsky, co-director of the group Small Schools Workshop, which has helped to spearhead Chicago’s small school movement and serves as an external partner to several small schools, says Vallas was supportive of small schools efforts during his first few years as CEO in Chicago.
But as his tenure progressed, says Klonsky, the mandates placed upon schools with unsatisfactory test scores "had an especially negative impact on small schools."
CPS insiders as well as outside partners with the district agree that conflict did arise between the Vallas administration’s strong emphasis on improving student test scores in the short run and some advocates’ efforts to promote small schools as a long-term school improvement strategy.
In Philadelphia-where 79 of the District’s 276 schools could face overhaul if they fail to meet state goals on Pennsylvania’s standardized test this spring-Vallas may again have to choose between his own administration’s strategies for school improvement and those put forward by individual school communities.
Vallas was appointed schools chief by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in the midst of intense political pressure to improve what was widely viewed as chronic low student performance at most schools in the system. Vallas adopted a get-tough stance approach to reform, emphasizing high standards and accountability for student achievement through more centralized school management.
Fred Hess, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, was the lead researcher on a team that studied high school reform efforts during the Vallas administration.
"He was very successful in getting the District to shift from making excuses for low achievement to focusing on how you got achievement to change," says Hess.
A series of accountability measures-such as the reconstitution of principals and teachers at seven of the worst-performing high schools and, later, sending central office "intervention" teams into five "chronically underperforming" high schools when reconstitution proved ineffective-sometimes served to undermine the fledgling small schools reform efforts at some of these schools, according to some participants in efforts to create small schools across Chicago.
Then-assistant principal Bill Gerstein was organizing teachers at Chicago’s South Shore High School who were interested in restructuring the low-performing school into small independent units. Gerstein is now principal of the School of Entrepreneurship, one of three small schools at South Shore that finally opened in 2002-03 after the school’s reorganization.
"It was a struggle working with the intervention team," he recalls. "There were two strategies going on at the same time which were diametrically opposed to each other."
CPS Small Schools Office director Jeanne Nowaczewski acknowledges, "When schools were chosen to go on intervention, that had some negative effects on those schools that had small schools in them." But she added, "I don’t think [Vallas] was directly negative towards small schools at any time."
Real support in the form of additional resources for principals and teachers at high schools seeking to break up their schools into small autonomous schools was lacking under Vallas’ leadership, according to Chicago coordinator of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform Dion Miller Perez.
"I don’t think there’s any good evidence that he really supported [small schools] in any strong way," says Perez. "It just wasn’t something that he really bought into."
Small schools efforts showed the most promise where the principal, teachers, parents, and community members worked together in the reorganization of the school, Perez adds.
John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed nonprofit that supports innovation in education, does give Vallas credit for his early efforts to support small schools, especially small charter schools.
While Vallas saw the small autonomous schools model as touchy-feely and "not as a very powerful reform," says Ayers, he believed that over time, however, "charters would tend towards greatness because of accountability."
Doing small schools right
While research does show that school size can have a positive effect on student achievement, both proponents and skeptics of small schools are quick to point out that reducing school size is just one aspect of improving student performance.
Vallas says he supported a variety of steps to reduce school size when he was CPS chief, including the creation of charter schools, academies by grade level, and schools within schools.
"I like small schools, but making a school smaller is not going to make a school better," Vallas says, emphasizing the need for high standards, strong curriculum, and good teacher professional development.
"Small schools by themselves were not a powerful enough reform to change what was going on in the classrooms," agrees Hess, reflecting on small high schools in Chicago during the late 1990s. "If you don’t do something about the quality of teacher instruction, then how the teachers are organized doesn’t make a lot of difference."
But Gerstein counters, "Large schools are fatally flawed. [They] can’t work."
Gerstein says he has seen improvement at South Shore, including increased attendance rates and increased graduation rates, since it was reorganized into four small schools.
Some Chicago observers say Vallas’s reform initiatives lacked coherence and focused too much on short-term goals, like test score gains, sometimes to the detriment of more long-term school improvement strategies.
"There were tensions from time to time within the administration about the priority of small schools," says Hess.
While praising Vallas for undertaking a number of ambitious school reforms, Ayers says overall the school chief’s tenure at CPS was marked by inconsistency.
"He bounce[d] from good idea to good idea, and sometimes that lack of consistency [makes it] very difficult for people in the small schools movement to get stuff done," says Ayers. "He was quite all over the map."
But Hess maintains Vallas established a foundation upon which his successor could pursue longer range approaches to school change.
Current Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan has worked to institutionalize the steady creation of small schools, establishing a Small Schools Office shortly after his appointment in August 2001.
Duncan began negotiations with the Gates Foundation to fund small schools efforts in Chicago as former deputy chief of staff during the Vallas administration. But Gates did not make the official grant award announcement until late August 2001, two months after Vallas left office.
According to the CPS Small Schools Office, currently there are over a hundred small schools across Chicago.
To learn more about Philadelphia’s small schools movement see the Notebook’s Spring 2004 edition "Focus on Small Schools."
For more information on small schools in Chicago, visit: CPS Small Schools Office www.smallschools.cps.k12.il.us; Leadership for Quality Education www.lqe.org/progproj/SmallSchools-Main.htm; Small Schools Workshop www.smallschoolsworkshop.org.