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How to fix America's worst schools

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So in mid 2010 the Chicago Public Schools, working with a local nonprofit group, the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), got approval for federal funds to make Phillips a turnaround project. The Department of Education (ED) agreed to give the school roughly $5 million in grants over the next five years.

Under the DOE's School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, districts seeking federal money to revive a school must choose from four options: school closure (while ensuring that former students attend a better school nearby); restart, in which a school is usually taken over by a charter operator; "turnaround," in which the principal and at least half the staff is replaced; and "transformation," in which the principal is replaced and a number of major reforms implemented. Technically, Phillips is using the restart model.

For AUSL, the school represented a new challenge. The group had been turning around failing schools in Chicago for the past five years, some with striking success. Howe School of Excellence (a K-8 school), for instance, raised the percentage of students meeting state standards from 43 percent to 67 percent in just two years.

But most of AUSL's projects are elementary schools. Phillips was a high school, and, by all accounts, high schools are the toughest to change. Kids come in already many years behind in learning. Behaviors are entrenched. The schools are large, and communication is often lacking among teachers across subject areas and grades.

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