Archived Information

Tools for Schools - April 1998

Urban School Development:
Literacy as a Lever for Change

What Is It?

For the past 5 years, the Center for School Improvement has collaborated with a number of Chicago elementary schools on an initiative called Urban School Development: Literacy as a Lever for Change. Each school in the collaborative serves an impoverished community where student achievement is very low. The network includes two "continuing" schools that have been collaborating with the Center for several years, and five "new" schools (including two "probation" schools) that joined the network 2 years ago. The clustering enables schools to be a resource to each other. Additionally, to break down schools' isolation from outside expertise, the program also partners with the Martha L. King Early Language and Literacy Center at the Ohio State University. This is the National Center for Reading Recovery.

Why Did It Get Started?

The Center for School Improvement was initiated simultaneously with the enactment of Public Act 85-1418. This legislation sought to enhance children's learning opportunities in the Chicago Public Schools, and reconnect local schools with their communities. Toward these ends, principals were placed on performance contracts, each school elected a parent-dominated local school council, teachers' voices were amplified by virtue of their seats on the local school council and also by the creation of a professional personnel advisory committee, and local schools were given much more fiscal authority. As a university- based, external partner, the Center for School Improvement's mission is to promote each school's comprehensive development.

How Does It Work?

At present, all of the schools have made significant progress toward restructuring. They are deeply engaged in a comprehensive school development process that aims to:

The Literacy as a Lever for Change initiative is organized around four programmatic areas: leadership development, literacy, social services, and building local capacity for strategic planning and evaluation. We summarize our strategies and core activities below.

Literacy Initiative

At the primary level, the Center for School Improvement's literacy initiative is a collaboration with Ohio State University. At the intermediate and upper grades, we collaborate with the Chicago Area Writing Project and Writers in Schools. These partnerships enable schools to draw on the principles of literacy instruction and teacher professional development that have been evolved in these programs over more than two decades.

The program aims to ensure the equity goal of success for all students by creating differentiated services that include intensive tutorials, small group instruction, and enriched literacy classrooms. Teachers are connected with outside expertise and each other through a year-long workshop. Follow-up support is provided from Ohio State University, the Center for School Improvement, and the school's literacy coordinators. A local assessment system is also developed by teachers to ensure that assessment is authentic and always connected to meaningful instruction. Family literacy programs round out the initiative. Through a home-book program and other parent education activities, the program seeks to meaningfully engage all parents as full partners in their children's education.

Social Service Initiative

The Center for School Improvement's social service initiative coordinates and develops services for children, and better connects each school to its community. Most importantly, it engages all of the adults in the school community in sustained discussion about the kinds of citizens they would like their children to become, the joint responsibility that parents and professionals must take for children's well-being, and the norms of discipline and behavior that must be established to recreate schools as caring, personal environments that best promote children's development. Specific activities include the development of a social service team at each school. These teams meet and deliberate on a regular basis, visit community agencies, and problem solve across communities. The aim is for school decision-making to become deliberative, strategic, and fully inclusive.

The social service aspect of the model is viewed as prerequisite to any meaningful academic change. It ameliorates parents' and professionals' isolation from each other, creates time and a safe environment for adults in the school community to discuss children's needs, and establishes a social service team whose job it is to coordinate and personalize services around those needs.

Leadership Development

The aim of the Center for School Improvement's leadership activities is to develop the capacity of the entire professional staff to work together and with parents. This is the only viable path toward creating school communities that can become self-guided and act in the best interests of children.

Center for School Improvement senior staff mentor principals on a continuous basis. The program encourages the formation of a leadership team at each school. Staff from the Center regularly meet with this team to jointly evaluate school plans, budgets, programs, staffing, and ties to external expertise. The aim is to develop a team that broadly represents the school community and can share responsibility with the principal and local school council for budget and school improvement planning.

Network schools are also asked to fund a role for at least two full-time, freed literacy coordinators. These individuals receive intensive training and mentoring from Ohio State University and Center for School Improvement staff. The job of these teacher leaders is to teach a small group of students, and individually mentor the efforts of classroom teachers as they implement the literacy framework.

Building Analytic Capacities

The aim of these activities is that schools develop the capacity to collect good information, then analyze and use it for programming, planning, evaluation, and budgeting. Schools are encouraged to engage in self-analysis, and together with Center staff, surveys, needs assessments, interviews, and classroom visits are conducted. Feedback is provided to the schools by Center staff. Students' test scores are analyzed and findings are shared with school staff. Implications for staff development and strategic planning (school improvement planning, budgeting, and personnel selection) are also pursued.

Additional documentation and evaluation activities include annual testing of a sample of students engaged in the initiative and the development of a local assessment system for instructional guidance. These assessments provide the public evaluations that can document both progress and problems. Most importantly, substantive feedback to schools opens up discussion about what the tests are measuring, as well as the resources that teachers need in order to promote the kinds of quality instruction that will enhance student learning and performance.

What Are The Costs?

Network schools are asked to enter a cost-sharing arrangement with the Center for School Improvement. The bulk of this sum pays for the two literacy coordinator positions. Support for Center for School Improvement staff, research, and program development comes from the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur and Joyce Foundations, the Annenberg Challenge Grant, and also contributions from two private philanthropists.

How Is The Model Implemented In A School?

Network schools must be amenable to a multi-year collaboration and be willing to allocate the necessary funding to support this comprehensive initiative.

What Is The Evidence That The Model Is Successful?

The Literacy as a Lever for Change initiative is in a pilot stage. To date, implementation of the program is showing classroom effects, that is, teachers who are actively implementing the literacy framework are showing statistical and educational improvements in student learning as measured on standardized tests and local assessments. In addition, there have been positive changes in school culture and climate, a pluralization of leadership, and enhanced parent involvement in both governance activities and support for children's learning.

Where Can I See It?

A limited number of site visits can be arranged by contacting the Director of Research of the Center for School Improvement.

Whom Do I Contact?

Sharon Rollow, Director of Research
Center for School Improvement
1313 East 60th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637
Telephone: 773-702-4472; Fax: 773-702-2010

The Research Base

The Center for School Improvement's literacy initiative is grounded in more than 20 years of research on children's learning and teachers' professional development at the National Center for Reading Recovery at the Martha L. King Early Language and Literacy Center at the Ohio State University. The leadership initiative is based on theories of democratic governance. The literature on organizational development grounds the Center for School Improvement's work with schools around strategic planning and building analytic capacity.
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