Chicago-based group, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, has been identified as a lead partner to oversee the Milwaukee OSPP.
“Most of AUSL turnarounds score below CPS averages on the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state benchmarks on standardized testing. Those schools that beat district averages have been accused of pushing out their lowest-performing students or those with discipline problems to artificially inflate their test scores.”
School reform organization gets average grades
February 06, 2012|By Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporters
Over the last decade, a nonprofit teaching academy with strong political ties has launched an education revolution inside Chicago Public Schools, tearing down and rebuilding some of the city’s worst-performing schools.
Now running 19 schools and locked in a public battle this month to add six more, the Academy for Urban School Leadership has become a force inside CPS, a virtually autonomous “district within the district” supported by millions in public and private funding.
The organization’s pioneering work to “turn around” struggling schools by removing most of the teachers and administrators and replacing them with AUSL-trained staff, and installing a new culture of discipline and academic rigor, has won them praise from political heavyweights such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“Schools are in crisis right now. They’re failing,” said Donald Feinstein, AUSL’s executive director. “And so the question is, how long would it take (for CPS) to redevelop an entire workforce when there may be a better way to go in with a dramatic intervention?”
Launched by a reform-minded venture capitalist in 2001, AUSL has always enjoyed a close relationship with CPS. But never more so than under Emanuel, who selected a former AUSL top executive to oversee CPS’ finances and named AUSL’s previous board chairman as president of CPS’ Board of Education.
AUSL, which has hopes of managing as many as 38 schools next year, has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary in Emanuel’s push to overhaul the city’s beleaguered public school system. Yet for all the public attention, AUSL’s results have been mixed; many students have made considerable progress, but as a group they still lag well behind district averages.
Test scores increased remarkably in AUSL’s 12 “turnaround” schools in the first year or two under the group’s management but then leveled out, with many ending up on par or even below comparable neighborhood schools.
All of AUSL’s turnarounds remain on academic probation, including the two original turnaround projects, Sherman Elementary in 2006 and Harvard Elementary in 2007. However, two of the turnarounds have earned elite Level 1 rankings from CPS, a sign they could come off probation next year. Six others were designated Level 3, placing them among the worst in the city.
While CPS has recommended closing many neighborhood schools in recent years because of poor performance or underutilization, two-thirds of AUSL’s schools remain open at less than 70 percent capacity.
Most of AUSL turnarounds score below CPS averages on the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state benchmarks on standardized testing. Those schools that beat district averages have been accused of pushing out their lowest-performing students or those with discipline problems to artificially inflate their test scores.
While AUSL teachers have implemented an intense and focused training style to keep students engaged, few of those strategies have found their way into other CPS schools.
And critics — who include some parents, the teachers union and a few educators — say every time CPS hands over another school to AUSL, it is diverting money away from cash-strapped neighborhood schools that risk falling further behind.
“We just worry about the extent to which these politically connected individuals are using AUSL as a method to alter the landscape of neighborhood schools,” said Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter. “Because they’re not the ones that have to deal with the fallout that comes as a result of these decisions. It’s the community.”
AUSL’s supporters see it differently. CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, tapped by Emanuel after running AUSL’s finances for three years, says the organization is taking on the toughest challenges in CPS and that it takes time to change the culture at chronically underperforming schools.
Cawley called AUSL an “important partner” with CPS and said those ties will only strengthen over time. In 2008, just two years after it began the turnaround model, AUSL officials set a target of 25 schools by 2012 and a long-term plan of 38 schools by 2013-14.
“Detractors look for things to make a fuss about,” Cawley said. “The results that AUSL gets are fantastic. And as long as that continues, we would be delighted to have them take on more and more of the lowest-performing schools and help make them better.”
Chicago investor Martin Koldyke, founder of the Golden Apple Foundation, created AUSL with the simple goal of better preparing young teachers for the unique demands of urban education. AUSL filled its ranks with teachers wanting to provide more intense, hands-on instruction and recruited many from careers outside education.
Koldyke, like most of those who helped launch AUSL, has donated heavily to political candidates, including $25,000 to former MayorRichard M. Daley’s re-election campaign in 2006 and $25,000 to Emanuel’s mayoral fund in 2010. In total, Koldyke and AUSL board members have contributed more than $100,000 to various political campaigns since 2003, according to state election records.
Some of those politicians helped raise AUSL’s profile. As congressman, Emanuel helped spearhead a fundraising drive to install an artificial athletic field at the Chicago Academy, a K-12 school in the Portage Park neighborhood that was AUSL’s first school and remains the organization’s headquarters.
When he was looking for innovative approaches to education, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama staged a news conference in the Chicago Academy’s auditorium and held a focus group with teachers at another AUSL school. Attorney General Lisa Madigan spoke at an AUSL graduation in 2009.
As AUSL has grown, so, too, have its financial resources. AUSL reported $7.7 million in grants and contributions in 2009, the last year that tax records were available — more than double the totals from four years earlier. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone has awarded AUSL at least $12 million.
Though board members are unpaid, salaries for AUSL’s top executives have increased as the network has expanded. Executive Director Feinstein, a longtime CPS principal who joined AUSL in its infancy, was paid $152,000 in 2010, almost three times his salary in 2005, according to tax records.
Feinstein said that whatever attention AUSL has received from political leaders has been well-earned.
“(Emanuel) was very impressed. (Obama) was very impressed,” Feinstein said. “It comes down to training great teachers, giving these schools a fresh start, preaching a new culture and climate, and getting it right.”
Cawley said AUSL has never asked for or received political favors.
“I have a lot of respect for (former) Mayor (Richard M.) Daley. AUSL would not have happened if not for him,” Cawley said. “But political contributions had nothing to do with the way decisions were made. Nothing.”
CPS has paid AUSL millions to take control of its worst-performing schools. In addition to the money the district portions out to each neighborhood school, turnaround high schools receive $500,000 for specialized teacher training and recruitment and an additional $500 per pupil to pay for instructional coaches, student mentors and tutors. Elementary schools receive $300,000 and $420 per student.
The district also pays to hire one additional assistant principal at each turnaround school for one year and has pumped millions into these schools to repair crumbling walls, fix or modernize equipment, or simply give the school a fresh coat of paint. CPS has pledged $25.7 million to upgrade schools marked for turnaround this year.
These investments have made a difference. All but one AUSL elementary school has posted double-digit gains on Illinois Standard Achievement Test proficiency since the turnaround began. However, an analysis of ISAT scores show that while AUSL has succeeded in raising student performance to meet state benchmarks, the percentage of students exceeding state standards can be small.
At the Sherman School of Excellence in Englewood, for example, ISAT scores jumped 31 percent since turnaround in 2006. However, just 5 percent of students exceeded standards in math over that period, and there was no improvement in reading scores.
Results like these have led some to say AUSL is focusing on students slightly below state standards to boost the percentage of students meeting that threshold.
Critics say it makes CPS’ proposal this year to hand over Casals Elementary School, a high-poverty school with composite ISAT scores above seven AUSL turnaround elementary schools, all the more curious.
“It’s telling a false tale to the public that we can do better than traditional public schools without speaking about all the extra revenue they have or what they’re doing to get those test score jumps that they’re so proud of,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the parents’ advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education.
Feinstein said that to truly appreciate what AUSL has done, critics need to remember where these schools came from.
“It’s all about growth, continuous improvement,” Feinstein said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have a ways to go still. That’s what drives our work.”