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Board members become learners on schools tour

Right on schedule, yellow buses pulled up to the door to take eager learners to school. The only difference? These students were school board members.

For the 32nd year, Chicago Public Schools opened their doors for the Chicago Schools Tour during the Triple I Conference. And more than 150 school board members took the opportunity to learn about successful, innovative programs in the state's largest school district.

"We're big," CEO Arne Duncan told school tour participants during breakfast before they boarded their bus, "but we also share some common concerns."

Issues of poverty, test scores and English as a second language are not confined to Chicago, Duncan said.

Schools selected for this year's tour included:

  • Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a magnet school that school prepares students for careers in agricultural sciences and agribusiness, and is located on the last working farm in the city.
  • Lane Technical High School, another magnet school that focuses on technology learning and houses three outstanding art collections.
  • Daniel Hale Williams Multiplex, a reconfigured renaissance school, which serves the Dearborn Homes housing projects, with four schools within a school.
  • Two preschool programs - Dewey Child Parent Center, a federally funded early childhood program, and Rachel Carson Elementary School, which has a state-funded pre-K program, a dual language pre-K class and a full-day kindergarten.
  • Pilsen Community Academy, a neighborhood school that focuses on literature and writing, and John Spry Community School/Community Links High School, which opened in September with its first 30 students and has a focus on service learning.

The diversity of the programs toured emphasizes the CPS goal to get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality in education, Duncan said. "Our mission here is to make every school in Chicago a school of choice."

During their tours, board members were able to observe classrooms as well as hear from building administrators about the programs offered in each building. They could ask questions and take home ideas, not only on classroom structure and programs but learning strategies, like "Math Chants." The program is a responsive, rap-like exchange between a teacher and a student that helps teach math facts.

One of the truly unique buildings toured this year was the Williams Multiplex, which reopened in September after a yearlong planning and rehabilitation project. One three-story building currently houses four programs for children from preschool through ninth grade, with the intent to expand through grade 12 over the next three years.

Shenita Johnson, CPS liaison to Williams Multiplex and a tour guide, said community/parent input was crucial to the decisions made before the school reopened. One of the biggest was the decision to add a high school program that began this year with 30 students.

The program, known as Big Picture, allows students, parents and staff to develop individualized learning programs based on the student's interest. In addition to time in class, each student serves an internship with firms such as a photographer, a veterinarian and a family law practice.

In addition to Big Picture for high school students, William Multiplex has an elementary (pre-K through grade 3) program that partners with the Erickson Institute; the Williams Preparatory Academy (grades 4 through 8); and KIPP Chicago Youth Village Academy, which began this year with grades 4 and 5. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) features an expanded day, with students attending school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as an expanded year (44 weeks).

Each program has its own principal and students are easily identified by the color of their shirts. The principals also have a senior advisor, Frances Oden, a veteran principal with 38 years in education.

"Each school has its own philosophy but (shares) the same goal," Oden told the 18 board members who toured Williams Multiplex. "We want to be different, but we want to work together as a team to ensure we have a quality education for every child."

Kim Ambrose, the parent of a KIPP student and herself a graduate of Williams, said it took many people to design the school. "The kids and staff are working very hard to make our Renaissance program a success."

Seeing successful programs in action is the goal of the Chicago Schools Tour. Tariq Butt, a member of the Chicago school board and the IASB board of directors, commended those who took the time not only to make the tour but to attend conference.

"You are securing the future for children by attending conference and learning," Butt said.

Participation in the tours is open to Conference registrants for an additional fee.



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