The most recent Chicago Schools Wonks includes a long, anguished post from former TFAer Seth Lavin about the pattern of abrupt and usually unpublicized management changes taking place among charter schools in Chicago -- CICS and Edison Learning just broke up, just like CICS and AQS broke up a couple of years ago. He's dismayed at the changes, and skeptical about the possibility that Edison's replacement can happen without school and community disruption."Why did we empower reformers to open campuses so quickly and expand so haphazardly? " Charter-haters among you will respond gleefully, I'm sure, but I'm wondering what those folks teaching at or sending their kids to CICS feel about these changes, and the pattern of changes? It's not like CPS schools don't go through sudden direction changes, either.
This week’s biggest story, which nobody covered, relates intimately to my life. That means we need to talk about the details of my brief career. I’ve avoided this, mostly because I want my credibility determined by the sense I make, not by how long I have or haven’t worked in schools. Oh well.
CICS, Chicago’s biggest charter school network, just broke up with EdisonLearning, the education management organization that designed and runs 5 of CICS’ 16 campuses. CICS holds the actual charter for these 16 schools but doesn’t technically design or run any of them itself; it hires EMOs like Edison to do that.
Now Edison is out. Every teacher, staffer and principal at those schools is out too, unless whoever CICS brings in to take over the schools decides to rehire them.
This is the second time in two years CICS quietly ended its contract with its biggest EMO. Last May it dissolved its relationship with American Quality Schools, which also ran 5 CICS campuses. This means in 12 months Chicago’s largest charter school network will replace the organizations that built and ran 10 of its 16 campuses.
These changes aren’t new turnarounds meant to jump-start innovation at neighborhood schools that have failed for a generation. These are complete reformations of charter schools started 36, 24 and even 12 months ago.
Which takes us back to my career. I’ve only taught for two years—the two years of my Teach for America placement. I’ve only ever taught in one school, an Altgeld Gardens charter school called CICS Lloyd Bond. I’m not teaching there now. I left at the end of last school year when my TFA placement ended.
CICS and Edison founded Lloyd Bond together only 3 years ago, in 2009, the year I started teaching. But it’s not their newest school. It’s not even their second newest school. CICS and Edison founded Larry Hawkins together in 2010 just down the street from Lloyd Bond. Just this year they opened Patriots in Rockford. With Loomis, founded in 2008, that makes 4 schools CICS and Edison created together in the past 5 years.
When CICS and Edison opened each school they recruited students the same way they recruited students to Lloyd Bond in the summer before my first year teaching. They went into the neighborhoods, hosted enrollment fairs, parent meeting, community townhalls—all with a clear message for beleaguered parents: We are the answer to your prayers. We are something better, stronger, more dedicated than your neighborhood school. We will push your students to college and beyond. We are here to stay. Built to last. Trust us with your children.
Everyone, from parents to press to politicians, bought it.
Here’s the Rockford Register Star writing with excitement about CICS Patriots: http://bit.ly/JkccoQ
Here’s the founding principal at CICS Larry Hawkins welcoming students there: http://bit.ly/HVcBxN
Here’s Rahm, mentoring a student from CICS Longwood before he was even inaugurated: http://bit.ly/HX88pS
Here’s ABC7 filming my school, CICS Lloyd Bond, on opening day 2009: http://bit.ly/HXYTuZ. Watch the clip. Look at the faces of the kids walking into that hallway for the first time and think about how 3 years later the adults who built that school all just voted no confidence in each other.
And here’s CICS’ leader, Beth Purvis, testifying before congress in June of last year: http://1.usa.gov/nnlWPy.
Read her testimony. Read her telling the story of Derrion Albert’s death and the founding of CICS-Edison’s two schools in Altgeld Gardens.
“Because Altgeld doesn't have a neighborhood high school, CICS opened the Larry Hawkins campus last September so that students would not have to travel the just under 6 miles across gang lines by public bus from Altgeld to the Roseland neighborhood. What we have learned since opening this school is that the neighborhood feels betrayed and forgotten by the City of Chicago. The average reading level of the 10th, 11th, & 12th graders who enrolled in CICS Larry Hawkins is 5th grade. In addition, over 50% of the students self-report attending school for fewer than 30 days during the previous school year. As shocking as these facts are, we find the students mostly well- behaved, eager to learn, and proud that a new school opened "just for them".
I am extremely proud to tell you that Derrion Alpert's grandfather, Mr. Joseph Walker, joined the CICS Larry Hawkins Launch Committee and spoke on the school's behalf to the Chicago Public School Board. Included in his remarks was the point that opening the CICS Hawkins campus had helped to heal the Altgeld community.” (pasted as transcribed)
10 months later the relationship between CICS and the organization it asked to design and run those schools—the partnership Derrion Albert’s grandfather praised to the CPS board—is over.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying CICS and Edison divorced each other without good reason. I’m no defender of Edison or Lloyd Bond. There were huge problems in these schools and in this relationship. There’d been a lot of speculation all year that CICS would end its contract with Edison. At one point I’d heard this was because Longwood, the longest-standing campus, was seen as an incurable mess. More lately I’ve heard it’s because Hawkins, the Altgeld Gardens high school Purvis described to Congress, is an incurable mess. I’m told in the end it was Edison that pulled the trigger, backing out before CICS had the chance to dump them. I doubt anyone will ever say on record exactly why the relationship ended.
I’m not saying Purvis and CICS would have made the wrong decision for children had they ditched Edison, as they seemed to be about to, and brought in someone else. But that isn’t my point. I’m also not saying this kind of big disruption isn’t sometimes worth it to get kids out of desperately failing schools. That’s not my point either and I don’t believe that. Remember, as with the Urban Prep stuff a few weeks ago, I’m saying all this as a pro-charter, pro-reform person.
My point is that we, the reformers, are a disaster as a movement if we’re radically changing our own radical changes months after they start and, in the process, tossing students from school regime to school regime like an airline rebooking someone’s flight.
My point is that we have no credibility at all if we tell Congress, let alone parents, that we have every confidence in schools that, privately, we believe in so little we’re months later tossing out the people we asked to build and run them.
My point is that I have no idea how CICS can go into Altgeld Gardens now, as they did this week, and ask parents to continue trusting the organization with their children after telling them it’s ended its relationship with the very adults it last summer put forward as the answer.
In fairness, when CICS broke up with AQS last year it said “None of the campuses will undergo immediate changes in hours, schedules, policies or procedures as a result of the change in management.” Probably they’ll say the same thing when they announce whoever’s replacing Edison.
But I don’t buy it. Edison designed these schools. It hired the principals. It hired the staff and professionally developed them in the Edison way. It picked curricula, built schedules, policies, procedures, management systems, testing systems—even redesigned the buildings. Management organizations expect this kind of control. That’s what they exist to do. I don’t know how you get rid of one management organization, bring in another and say with a straight face that disruption will be minimal.
Which brings us back to what all of this means. CICS didn’t plan to make bad schools or partner with bad school managers. And, faced with bad schools and bad school managers they’re doing what they can to make things better for children—getting those managers out of the way.
But CICS can’t part with the people leading 10 of its schools without acknowledging that somewhere along the way their plans went seriously off the rails.
How did we get into this situation? Why did we empower reformers to open campuses so quickly and expand so haphazardly? What went wrong in the planning everyone green-lighted that has us now acknowledging our reform schools, like the neighborhood schools they’re meant to replace, fail to give children the education they deserve?
None of this is unique to CICS and Edison. Last week ASPIRA, which manages 4 Chicago charter schools, fired its CEO: http://bit.ly/GWVHuD.
Last year KIPP Chicago backed out of Gary, Indiana a year after opening a new high school there.
What does it say about our confidence in the schools we’re building, promoting and celebrating that we’re firing CEOs and kicking out the organizations actually running the schools?
If CICS and Edison were so unhappy with each other why did they open 3 schools in the past 36 months, persuading 1,000 families to entrust CICS-Edison with their children’s futures?
It’s not just school leadership where this is a problem. It’s district leadership, too. In 5 years we’ve had Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany and now Jean-Claude Brizard at the top of CPS. To imagine the destructiveness of so much district-level regime change, take the confusion, anger and wasted time caused by these school-level transformations and amplify that hundreds fold.
This doesn’t mean regime change is never worth the disruption it causes, but at this point I think it does mean we have to take into account the negatives caused by disruption, as well as the positives caused by the transformation, in calculating the net outcome of change. And that we have to elevate sustainability as a critical variable in any innovations reform leadership puts forward.
This certainly isn’t unique to Chicago, either. In New York, Bloomberg’s administration is closing 23 schools this year. 9 of them are schools the Bloomberg administration created, according to UFT.
Aren’t we, the reformers, supposed to the competent, well-planned, business-like foil to traditional school leadership whose failures we’re trying to reverse? How can we claim to be any of those things if we can’t keep plans moving forward without changing leadership every two years? Every one year?
It used to take political courage for leaders to say, “Bulldoze the status quo!” It’s not that way any more. What takes courage now is moving beyond the BIG, FAST TRANSFORMATION press releases, accepting that the big, fast transformations are so rarely what they seem to be, and asking everyone to accept slower, more careful, more lasting change.
It doesn’t make much of a bumper sticker, I guess, but it’s that’s only way I see us moving forward.
What do you all think?
Also, CICS, Edison—if I’m getting this wrong or there’s something I’m missing in all this, please let me know. I’ll happily run any official statement either organization wants to make in next week’s Wonks.
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