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Journalist John Merrow Visits TC Urban School Reform Students

John Merrow, host and executive producer of Public Television's The Merrow Report, previewed his latest documentary and fielded questions from students of urban school reform at an early November meeting of Professor Dorothy Shipps' Reconstructing Schooling in Urban Environments class.

The students were among the first to see the film, titled A Tale of Three Cities: The Mayor, the Minister and the General, which aired on Public Broadcasting stations across the nation during November. The hour-long documentary traces the politics and realities of urban school reform through the experiences of superintendents in Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle as they try to repair the ailing schools in their cities.

"It shows how easy it is to fail, and how hard it is to succeed at school reform," said Merrow, who worked as an English teacher before beginning a career in journalism.

A Tale of Three Cities also provided Shipps' students, who have been studying Chicago as a core case for urban school reform, an opportunity to see Chicago in the context of what has happened in other cities.

The three cities employed very different approaches to reform, including the individuals they chose to lead their cause.

"Urban school reform is mainly about change in governance," Professor Shipps explained later. "And the skills that the leader of that change brings to the table and the stories that the leader tells are important to the success or failure of the effort."

In Chicago the so-called "mayoral takeover approach" was used as Mayor Daley in 1995 assumed responsibility for the third largest school district in the nation, a district with a 33 percent drop-out rate and many schools at the point of dilapidation.

Philadelphia hired minister/lawyer turned educator David Hornbeck in the summer of 1994. He arrived with a plan he called "Children Achieving" and a messianic approach to restructuring the school system and implementing new standards.

Seattle turned to charismatic retired four star General, John Stanford, to improve its schools. While Seattle wasn't in the dire state that Chicago and Philadelphia were in, it did have a 25 percent dropout rate and only 50 percent of its students passed basic skills tests.

The people of Seattle, including the teacher's union, rallied behind Stanford and his motto: "What is in the best interest of our children?" He began a reading initiative and opened enrollment to all city schools, creating an environment where schools competed for children and the funds that followed them to the school of their choice.

Sadly, Stanford died of leukemia in 1998, but not before he was able to achieve some of his goals for Seattle schools, including the narrowing of the gap between white and minority children's performance on standardized tests.

Hornbeck's reception in Philadelphia is a stark contrast to the welcome Stanford received in Seattle. The 12,500-member Federation of Teachers bristled at his call for a program similar to Seattle's, where a committee comprised of the principal and several teachers at each school control hiring and firing of teachers. While Hornbeck fought the union he didn't make a dent in seniority rules, which he felt too often sheltered incompetent teachers. Despite often adversarial relations with the union and the state legislature, Hornbeck can boast higher test scores and a two-year contract extension through the 2000-2001 school year.

Chicago's reform movement, which has been called "a model for the nation" by President Clinton, gave Mayor Daley sweeping powers when the Illinois State Legislature passed a law stripping the Chicago union of much of its power.

However, Chicago's school reform actually began in 1988, when legislation allowed every Chicago school to elect a Local School Council, which had the power to hire and fire principals and gave principals the power to hire teachers regardless of seniority. The success has left both the local reformers and the central office claiming credit for improvements.

Merrow ended his presentation on a positive note. "None of the urban school systems in the film can declare victory," he said "but all seem to be making progress."

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