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Chicago looks to 'turnarounds' to lift failing schools

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"Now, you can tell it's a school," Cowling says.

For an encore, the city is proposing simultaneous turnarounds at eight Chicago schools in the fall: four high schools and four elementary schools that feed into them. Even for a city that already leads the nation in school-reform ideas, the proposal is unusually bold and sweeping. Districts across the US – many with schools facing reconstitution requirements under the No Child Left Behind law – are watching with interest.

"We want to give families the opportunity to have a high-performing option in the neighborhood throughout [a student's] entire education," says Alan Anderson, director of the Office of School Turnaround for Chicago public schools. "There are a handful of schools that just aren't progressing at the rate we'd like them to," he says. "We know we need drastic change. It's not a decision we take lightly."

The eight schools slated for turnaround are among the worst performers in the district: At the high schools, an average student misses at least 35 days of school a year, dropout rates are above 10 percent, and the passing rate on state tests hovers at about 10 percent.

Still, some families wonder whether this will be just another reform that disrupts their kids' lives and replaces teachers they've grown close to, but yields no change in the quality of the education.

Teachers, of course, are upset about a reform that requires a school's entire staff to be let go, even if teachers can reapply.

"What kind of instability are you creating for children coming from environments that are challenging and already have instability?" asks Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "You're having to recruit and train teachers, and then have another turnover. No industry can survive that kind of turnover of personnel."

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