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Uptown in the News  

December 22, 2004
Six reform proposals mulled for Arai
By Angela Caputo, staff writer

Dozens of empty classrooms at Arai Middle School should be filled with new students and teachers next fall, but who they will be remains up in the air as a team of local school advocates consider six proposals for the Uptown school.

Final reform proposals are under consideration by a CPS selected committee charged with reviewing the proposals and making an endorsement to the Board of Education.

Entrepreneurs hoping to run Arai, 900 W.Wilson Ave., as an independent school under the Chicago Public Schools' Renaissance 2010 plan wrapped up their pitches at a community meeting last week. They proposed both middle- and high-school programming for the facility.

Members of the Transition Advisory Committee a team of parents, community members and local education officials, said they have a lot to consider before making their final recommendations to the board. The governing body is expected to vote on the fate of the middle school at its upcoming Jan. 26 meeting.

A sharp drop in enrollment at Arai made the school a target of Renaissance 2010, CPS's latest school-reform initiative. Despite room for up to 1,400 students, Arai's enrollment is only 271 pupils.

Gentrification is the most commonly cited reason for a rapid decline in the number of children living in Uptown.

Parents and community leaders reviewing pitches for the new school proposals say they would like to see combined high school and middle school programming to breathe more life into the expansive facility that sits largely vacant.

Arai LSC member Sholanda Peterson, an Uptown resident with five school-age children, said she is hoping combined programming at the school will give local students an opportunity to attend school closer to their homes.

"We need choices in this neighborhood," said Peterson, who is also on the TAC team.

Of the six proposals submitted to CPS, one would exclusively serve middle-schoolers, two only high-schoolers, and the other three would combine the sixth through 12th grades.

The proposals education professionals have made run the gamut from a progressive college-prep charter academy to an alternative school for potential dropouts.

The schools would be funded in part through a stipend--roughly $6,000 per middle school student and $7,000 per high school student-- that would come from CPS. For each school proposing programs at Aria, $1,500 would be taken from the per-pupil allotment and remain in CPS accounts to pay for the building space and maintenance costs. School administrators would be responsible for raising additional money to augment school funding.

Choosing multiple programs to operate in tandem within the building isn't out of the question, TAC members and CPS officials say. But the logistics of such an arrangement need to be carefully considered, they add.

"We need to know that faculty from the schools can work together."Peterson said.

Margarite Boyd, president of Truman College and TAC member, echoed her concerns, but said she is not ruling out the merits of combining smaller schools in the three-wing building to create a school that best meets local students' needs.

"We are much more concerned about the students who are here and creating the best environment for them,"Boyd said.

Providing programs for high performing students in tandem with potential dropouts shouldn't be out of the question, TAC members say.

Faced with the reality that roughly 30 percent of all public high-schoolers failed to graduate last year, some TAC members said that they are receptive to adding an alternative school at Arai to give all local students a shot at success.

Administrators from the Richard Milburn Academy, who operate a similar program at an alternative school at 1448 W. Superior St., said their proven track record of retaining and turning around under performing students could be key to helping hundreds of local teens from slipping through the cracks.

They propose adding a small alternative school within one wing of Arai to accommodate up to 125 students each school year. A 15-to-1 student teacher ratio is among the school's formula for success. So is integrating counseling, alternative teaching methods and job placement skills, administrators say.

The Milburn academy, under the proposal, would use a standard CPS curriculum in the charter model school so students who improve their grades can transfer to mainstream high schools.

Other programs being pitched for Arai include:

  • Visions of Success, a high school program. As a performance school, it would operate under the parameters of a typical Chicago public school, adhering to curriculum and teachers' union hiring practices. But the programs would be tailored to training students for entering the job market in industries such as health care, where workers are in demand.

  • The Chicago International Charter School, an emerging chain of charter schools throughout the city, pitched opening a college prep school named the Ralph Ellison Campus that would promote a progressive and advanced curriculum. CICS officials, however, are not interested in operating in cooperation with another school.

Parents are concerned that any choice of a school that doesn't require a local school council would shut them out. Teachers, too, voice that concern.

While overhauling the programming at Arai is imminent, teacher Joan Mallet, who has worked at Arai for 25 years, said morale among faculty and staffers is plummeting. Teachers think that they have been excluded from the 2010 process, having not been allowed to join the TAC committees, she said. "None of the teachers are coming out because they think it's a done deal," Mallet said.

If the campus becomes a charter or contract school, teachers would have to reapply for their jobs. And the wages being offered under all six proposals reviewed by Pioneer Press would be a pay cut for more experienced teachers and those with graduate degrees.

Arai Principal Barbara Hayes said she is doing her best to boost morale and keep teachers on staff.

"It's commendable that we haven't lost more teachers," Hayes said. "It just shows the commitment that they have to the students, even though their jobs are in jeopardy."

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