High School Redesign in Chicago, Illinois

High School Redesign in Chicago, Illinois
High School Redesign in Chicago, Illinois


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) sponsored a series of field trips focused on high school redesign to provide state and district leaders, state legislators, educators, and others with opportunities to see first-hand how their counterparts in other jurisdictions have solved problems and put policy goals into practice.  Each trip in the series of ten focused on one of the key goals of the Honor States Grant Program, an initiative of the National Governors Association aimed at helping states reform their high school systems.  Sessions with local leaders and visits to schools provided participants with a close look at exemplary programs as well as opportunities to ask questions and discuss their observations.  This project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was conducted jointly with the National Conference of State Legislators.


The focus of the Chicago field trip was the city’s multi-faceted efforts to improve high schools and target the needs of dropouts and at-risk youth.  Participants had the opportunity to learn about Illinois’s state-wide Task Force on dropout re-enrollment and other plans to improve options for students, as well as Chicago’s high school transformation plan.  The district’s approach includes accountability measures to ensure that high schools have high expectations for all students, and the field trip included visits to two schools that are piloting new approaches.


Illinois estimates that it has 225,000 young people who either have dropped out or are at risk of doing so, and the problem is most acute in Chicago.  With an overall graduation rate of approximately 50 percent, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has large disparities by race and gender, and a grim 34 percent graduation rate for African American males. Initiatives currently underway at the state and district level to address the problem come in the context of nearly two decades of intense focus on school reform in Chicago, as well as some dramatic changes in school governance that have been watched throughout the country.

In 1989, Illinois responded to increasing alarm about the state of Chicago’s schools by passing the Chicago School Reform Act, which radically changed the governance of the city’s public schools.  The Act was designed to greatly expand local authority over the schools.  Among other provisions, it created Local School Councils (LSCs), which were required to have parent majorities, to oversee the schools.  According to John Easton, Executive Director of the Chicago Consortium on School Research, who outlined this history for the field trip participants, the majority of the LSCs were not successful.  In his view, only about a third of the LSCs fully embraced the Act’s reform goals and took advantage of the flexibility it offered them to make meaningful changes.  The remainder either were unable to accomplish all of their goals or were not able to take advantage of the authority they were granted.

By 1995, recognizing that the completely decentralized model had not succeeded, Mayor Richard Daley reinstated some of the district’s powers over the school system, as mandated by the state of Illinois.  The city retained the LSC structure, but gave significant responsibility to a new school board and the district CEO.  Since then, the city has worked to establish a balance among the district, the School Board, and the LSCs, apportioning both authority to make decisions and accountability for the performance of schools and students among the three.

The state and CPS have targeted the high dropout rate and the state of Chicago’s high schools—the focus of the field trip.  The effort in the state and the city is a work in progress and a variety of sometimes overlapping strategies are at work simultaneously.  For example, the Mayor’s Renaissance 2010 program and, within CPS, the Office of High Schools and High School Programs and High School Transformation are all focused on linked goals—and also complement state initiatives—so officials are still sorting out the best way to coordinate strategies and lines of authority.

The Renaissance 2010 program was launched in 2004 in response to the success of 15 city charter schools.  The program’s goal is to build on those successes by fostering the development of 100 new schools to replace chronically underperforming schools or supplement overcrowded ones by 2010.  Two senior CPS officials described the program for field trip participants, noting that schools are selected through a competitive process, in which the community plays a vocal role.  CPS has opened 55 new schools under this plan.  Schools may be charters, contract schools (similar to charter schools but subject to state laws; contracts are held by non-profit boards or companies, who employ the staff), or performance schools (free from certain district and Board policies; staff are employees of CPS).

The Dropout Problem in Illinois and Chicago

There are different ways to quantify the dropout problem in Illinois, and, as elsewhere, methods of counting dropouts have sometimes been controversial.  The current graduation rate reported by the Illinois State Board of Education is 87 percent, though others have calculated it at 75 percent.  In 2004-05, for example, 75,639 Illinois students ages 16-19 dropped out of school, according to data provided by Jack Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network, a development and training program in Chicago.  About 16,000 of them subsequently earned a diploma or GED, but that still left 59,631, or one out of six Black students (23,984) and one out of seven Hispanic students (14,707), with neither, according to Jack Wuest, of the Alternative Schools Network.

The CPS Office of Research, Evaluation, and Accountability calculates a 2006 on-time graduation rate for all CPS students of 50 percent percent. Minority males fare even worse, with Black males, graduating at a rate of 34.60 percent.  Carmita Vaughan, Director of the City’s Dropout Prevention and Recovery Program, explained that the dropout rate has edged down consistently over the past six years.  Nevertheless, although there is variation among subgroups in the student population, all groups need significant improvement.  Widespread poverty is a big factor, Vaughan explained, as 85 percent of Chicago’s students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

The school district’s Dropout Prevention and Recovery Program staff have a two-part strategy.  The first phase is to build on a base of knowledge about the characteristics of the students who drop out, the structures that are already in place to assist them, and the effectiveness of those structures.  The second phase is to develop an array of “recuperative and preventive” strategies and implement them in a sustainable way.

Illinois’s State-wide Task Force on Dropout Re-enrollment

Illinois has estimated that incarcerating an adult costs between $20,000 and $30,000 a year per inmate, while the cost of re-enrolling a high school dropout is just $10,000.  With that comparison in view, the state’s General Assembly formed a Task Force on Dropout Re-enrollment, made up of state legislators and representatives from several agencies as well as the Governor’s office.  The Task Force’s mission is to engage lawmakers in the issue and sustain their focus on it; to push for more programs that work actively to re-enroll students who have dropped out; and to keep policy makers informed about existing programs.

One reason the Task Force is so important, Wuest explained, is that state funding allocations do not reflect the severity of the dropout problem.  While the state spends $66 million on programs that target dropouts, this figure pales in comparison with the $7.5 billion spent on the rest of the school system, given how high the dropout rates are.

Chicago’s High School Transformation–Meeting with Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools; Allan Alson,Executive Director of High School Transformation; and Donald Pittman, Chief Officer, Office of High Schools and High School Programs, CPS

Chicago has taken action through a multi-year effort to transform the city’s high schools to make sure they are preparing students for success in college and work.  As Arne Duncan, the CPS CEO, explained it, a city like Chicago needs a “portfolio of options” to address its dropout problem and improve secondary schooling.  Thus, the district has worked to provide high-performing college preparatory programs as well as strong vocational programs, and to provide an array of other options too: fine and performing arts, single sex schools, military academies, and more.  The district also offers transitional programs for students who have been expelled, are overage, or have been incarcerated, as well as distance learning and evening, summer, and weekend programs to accommodate students who are behind on credits or are unable to attend school during the regular day.

The Mayor’s Renaissance 2010 initiative has been one key element in the district’s approach, while another focus has been attracting and retaining accomplished teachers and administrators.  Allan Alson described the city’s efforts to build teaching capacity.  Professional development, provided at the discretion of schools, has been partly funded by a Gates foundation grant, while the Human Resources department has focused on reaching out to excellent students from teacher preparation programs.  Summer internships, alternative certification, and incentives for teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards have also played a role.  The district can also fire teachers and principals any time within their first four years of employment if their performance is not adequate.  The district also provides 10 days of professional development to train teachers in the new curricula, as well as instructional coaches and lead teachers in each subject area.  Participating schools have one coach for every 15 teachers; they teach model lessons, co-teach, and participate in common planning time.

The district has allocated $14 million for instructional improvement strategies, while the Gates Foundation has provided an additional $6 million, and individual schools are spending $3 million.  Implementation is occurring in stages, with a total of 45 to 50 schools expected to implement new instructional approaches by the 2008-09 school year.

The district’s High School Transformation approach, which is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, focuses on increasing expectations for everyone—principals, teachers, parents, and students.  For example, a school scorecard provides information beyond test scores, such as percent of graduates taking AP courses or going on to college, and other data.

The Transformation Plan, initiated in 2006, is framed around six levers designed to help secondary schools improve:

  • Raise expectations—define excellence and measure what matters;
  • Attract and develop great leaders;
  • Empower schools—encourage autonomy in exchange for accountability;
  • Attract and develop great teachers;
  • Provide options and opportunities; and
  • Ensure smooth transitions to 9th grade.

The High School Transformation approach focuses on curriculum, instruction, and training.  It is being implemented in 15 new schools each year, including John Hope Preparatory High School, which was on the field trip itinerary.  The district describes the approach as holistic because it is a system of interconnected elements, including professional development and coaching, networking across schools, and both summative and formative assessments, all geared toward helping individual high schools improve achievement.

The schools may choose from among a set of curriculum and training programs that meet the district’s criteria and are aligned to state standards and college entrance requirements, which gave schools some autonomy within clear parameters.

Accountability is the other key element of the program.  Using a comprehensive scorecard, which includes on-track indicator data, test scores, AP exam outcomes, and other indicators, the district is able to work on building the capacity to address specific improvement targets.  The district prides itself on its comprehensive accountability measures, Duncan explained, which also include measures of students’ post secondary progress, as well as scorecards for students that include factors that affect their safety, extra-curricular activities, and access to caring adults.

The On-Track Indicator, John Easton, Consortium on Chicago School Research

CPS has relied on the Consortium on Chicago School Research for the past 15 years to track education data, including test scores, transcript records, and attendance.  John Easton, the group’s Executive Director, described the work of the Consortium, which was created in 1990 by researchers from the University of Chicago, the district, and other organizations to study the effects of the city’s dramatic 1989 restructuring.  The Consortium has studied many other school reform efforts in Chicago, and also maintains a comprehensive data archive.

The Consortium developed the on-track indicator in 1999 to gauge students’ progress toward on-time graduation early in their high school careers, Easton explained.  Students who are on track as they complete ninth grade—meaning that they have enough credits to be promoted, and have failed no more than one semester in a core subject area—are far more likely to succeed in the upper grades and graduate on time.  The on-track indicator has been incorporated into Chicago’s accountability system, and is also used to track trends and as a tool for parents and schools to help target students who are off track.  Research conducted by the Consortium also provides additional insights into the factors that affect students who go off track.  They found, for example, that students who score well on standardized achievement tests taken in elementary and middle school are not necessarily well equipped for high school success.  They conclude that high school presents social and behavioral challenges as well as academic ones, and that schools can assist struggling students by helping them develop skills and strategies to overcome both academic and other challenges.  They also found that students’ likelihood of staying on track varies significantly across schools, which suggests that school climate and structure make an important difference in outcomes, even for students with similar background characteristics and preparation.

The Al Raby School for Community and Environment

The Al Raby School for Community and Environment, which is named for a civil rights leader, environmentalist, and educator, has the goal of graduating students who are not only well equipped to succeed in college and careers, but also well informed about, and prepared to be active in, environmental and social justice issues.  The school expands on the CPS service learning graduation requirement through partnerships with local social service and environmental organizations.

The school, which opened in 2004, was converted from a technical high school on the same site under the Renaissance 2010 program.  It is a college preparatory school and is one of 11 schools in three districts implementing the College Board’s Excelerator Program, which includes elements such as professional development, including AP Summer Institutes; SpringBoard® training; Counselor training; AVID Summer Institutes; and Curriculum Writing sessions for faculty.

Al Raby is governed by an LSC under a plan that was revised for the alternative and small high schools in the district.  LSC members may include parents, community members, and teachers, as well as others who may be advocates for the school or experts in the school’s area of focus.  The district CEO retains ultimate authority for the principals of these schools.

The school serves an entirely African American population, slated to grow to 600 students by next year.  While few state test results have become available yet, the school has a dropout rate of less than five percent.  Results from a 2006 School Connection Survey indicate that students give the school high ratings for a having safe and respectful climate and high expectations for students and for providing support for students and opportunities for social and emotional learning.

Al Raby offers several AP classes and plans to increase the number in the coming years.  Al Raby is also using the College Board’s SpringBoard® curriculum, which provides a rigorous English and mathematics curriculum.  Many of the classes at Al Raby make use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology that allows them to develop maps of data in order to organize information and analyze its implications.  Used across disciplines, this tool develops students’ thinking about computer applications and also about organizing knowledge and information in different contexts.

Al Raby is also one of 46 CPS schools using AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), an academic support program that focuses on helping C-average students excel in more rigorous courses.  The program has a special emphasis on minority and low-income students and others whose families do not have a college-going tradition; it supports students who may not be ready for AP classes.  One fourth of the students at Al Raby participate in AVID, while across CPS, nearly 5,000 students in grades 9 through 12 are currently participating.  AVID students in CPS outperform their peers across many indicators, including GPA, attendance rates, and college enrollment after high school.

The John Hope College Preparatory High School

Serving 980 students, 93 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch and nearly all of whom are African American, John Hope is structured in five smaller learning communities, or “houses,” designed to provide students with a variety of instructional models.  Although the student population is overwhelmingly low-income, John Hope reports a graduation rate of 94 percent and a 76 percent college attendance rate.  Seventy-three percent of freshmen are reported to be on track to graduate on time.

The school has gone through significant changes over the past decade.  Originally a middle school, John Hope piloted a ninth grade academy in 1996.  Based on the success of that program, it converted to a high school, which had a selective enrollment process.  John Hope has since grown considerably, even though it has dropped the middle school grades.  Because of redistricting, it now serves a much larger population and is no longer selective.  Nevertheless, the school focuses on preparation for college, and has the motto “excellence without excuses.”

John Hope is part of the district’s High School Transformation Plan and is involved in the instructional strategy, which aims to standardize high school courses across the district. The instructional strategy includes a more centrally managed approach to high school curricula.  This shift represents a distinct shift in Chicago’s reform agenda from a previously decentralized system to one that is growing more centralized in its approach to improving schools.  Starting this fall, John Hope, along with 13 other high schools, began using common English, math, and science curricula and ongoing teacher professional development.  Over the next two years, CPS plans to bring an additional 30 high schools under the instructional strategy initiative.  The overall goal will be to increase the rigor and graduation rates of students across the district; under the current system some schools’ curricula are far more rigorous than others.  Michael Durr, principal of John Hope, explained that the schools were able to select from among a set of English, math, and science curricula so that they could customize the programs for their students while meeting CPS criteria.

John Hope is one of the CPS schools participating in the district’s high school transformation program this year, and it has made AVID the core of its approach.  School leaders have worked hard to build parents’ interest in the program, and non-AVID teachers have participated in the training so that many of the strategies can be implemented in regular classes.  AVID is designed to target classes of mixed ability, but with a preponderance of those who have been performing at the average level.  However, in selecting students to participate, the John Hope staff also consider attendance and behavior patterns as well as motivation to participate.

Contact Information

Iris Bond Gill

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American Youth Policy Forum
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Betsy Brand

Executive Director
American Youth Policy Forum
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Samuel Halperin

Founder/Senior Fellow
American Youth Policy Forum
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Rakia McDonald

Program Assistant
American Youth Policy Forum
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Lamar Bailey

Research Analyst II
Education Program
National Conference of State Legislators
7700 E. First Place
Denver, CO  80230
Business: 303-364-7700 / Fax: 303-364-7800

James Brandt

Business, Civic, Community
Louisiana High School Redesign Commission
PO BOX 14776
Baton Rouge, LA  70898-4776
Business: 225-926-8414 / Fax: 225-926-8417

Jenny Caldwell

Alternative Education Coordinator
Massachusetts Department of Education
350 Main Street
Malden, MA  02148
Business: 617-960-7733 / Fax: 781-338-3089

Mary Katherine Carbone

School & District Intervention
Massachusetts Department of Education
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Phillip Dionne

Vice Chair
Maine State Board of Education
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Janet Finneran

Vice Chair
Connecticut State Board of Education
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Fred Fuentes

Assistant to Superintendent
New Bedford Public Schools
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Ramsey Green

Education Policy Specialist
Louisiana Recovery Authority
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Kathy Hamilton

Youth Policy Coordinator
Boston Private Industry Council
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Robyn Jenkins

Grant Administrator
Louisiana Department of Education
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Robert Keating

Director of Workforce and Knowledge Economy Programs
Office of Workforce Competitiveness
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Jane Kendrick

Assistant Superintendent
Indianapolis Public Schools
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Gerald Killebrew

Associate Commissioner for Academic Affairs
Louisiana Board of Regents
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Lynn Lupold

High School Redesign Coordinator
Indiana Department of Education
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Catherine Newell

Executive Director
Maine Adult Education Association
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Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy
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Stafford Peat

Student and Secondary Support Administrator
Massachusetts Department of Education
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Lyndsay Pinkus

Policy and Advocacy Associate
Policy Department
Alliance for Excellent Education
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Gregory Porter

State Representative
Indiana House of Representatives
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Indianapolis, IN  46205-3436
Business: (317) 221-2146 / Fax: (317) 221-2020

Frances Rabinowitz

Associate Commissioner of Education
Connecticut Department of Education
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Mara Reardon

State Representative
Indiana House of Representatives
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Shelley Reed

Education Specialist
Maine Department of Education
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Phillip Rozeman

Alliance for Education
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Allan Taylor

Connecticut State Board of Education
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Carlos Valverde

Senior Policy Specialist
Education Program
National Conference of State Legislatures
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Business: 303-364-7700 / Fax: 303-364-7800

Albert Vasquez

Manager, Secondary Initiatives
Worchester City Schools
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David Wakelyn

Senior Policy Analyst
Education Division, Center for Best Practices
National Governors Association
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Business: 202-624-5352 / Fax: 202-624-7828


Logistics Memo»

Feedback Form»

What Matters for Staying on-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public High Schools, Elaine M. Allensworth, John Q. Easton, Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago»

Getting Down to the Core, Catherine Gewertz, Education Week»

Listen. Plan. Empower. Chicago Public Schools»


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