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Nearly seven years ago, Chicago embarked on a bold plan to create 100 new schools. The idea was to open quality schools and close low-performing ones.

It’s a controversial strategy that Chicago’s next mayor will decide whether to embrace or reject.

Today, WBEZ is releasing the most fine-grained analysis to date of how well Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 schools are performing. This is the first of two reports.

Renaissance 2010 has shaken the school system. It’s added schools and painfully subtracted others. It’s removed teachers and shifted students. It’s cost millions.

Consider this a progress report, not a final grade.

This is what WBEZ did: grade by grade, subject by subject we compared test scores from the Renaissance 2010 schools to the neighborhood schools right around them.

And we found Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 schools earn very mixed grades.

My name is Nehemya Stanford, and I am a Legacy sixth grade scholar … Please join us in saying the pledge of allegiance.

Chicago Renaissance
Readers at Legacy Charter School, where student scores beat nearby schools in 42 of 45 comparisons.

Legacy Charter has become a top-performing elementary school in North Lawndale in just five years—and it’s not alone among Renaissance schools. Legacy third graders’ reading scores place them months ahead of kids in the school next door.

With liberty and justice for all…

But WBEZ found a third of the city’s Renaissance 2010 schools do not beat out their neighborhood comparisons even half the time.

Interim schools chief Terry Mazany:

MAZANY: Clearly, as I’ve been saying, there is no silver bullet.

Mazany sits on the board of the Renaissance Schools Fund, which has invested $32 million in 69 Renaissance schools. Mazany says the attention paid to the new schools is encouraging, and he still believes it’s easier to make successful new schools than transform existing ones.

Our analysis, though, shows how hard this work is.

Overall, WEBZ found Renaissance elementary schools outperformed nearby schools 58 percent of the time on the grades and subjects students were tested in.

Renaissance 2010 high schools did better, beating out dismally performing comparison schools 65 percent of the time. We report on them tomorrow.

Renaissance 2010 created different types of schools. Most were charters.

UNO TEACHER: A group of four friends collected aluminum cans … Stasha, why don’t you come up and try this one out?

No other charter school network opened more new schools under Renaissance 2010 than UNO. The schools have helped ease overcrowding in Latino neighborhoods.

But WBEZ’s analysis shows most of UNO’s Renaissance schools outperform nearby schools only about half of the time. CPS gave UNO three new charter schools last month.

ALLEN: The parent in our neighborhood—there’s a reason why they move their child here.

Chris Allen is the director at UNO’s Zizumbo campus on the southwest side.

Chicago Renaissance
‘Learner’s position’ at UNO’s Zizumbo campus, which outperformed nearby schools in just 39 percent of grades and subjects tested.

ALLEN: It is important—those numbers are very important, don’t get me wrong. We use data like crazy. However, the number one indicator is where does the parent choose to put their child.

Allen says parents come to UNO schools for order, safety, and rigorous academics. At Zizumbo, students line up silently for bathroom breaks. Little boys wear neck ties.

UNO TEACHER: I would like you to have a seat at your desk in learner’s position … Boys, go ahead.

Among all Renaissance elementary schools, the best performers in WBEZ’s analysis are actually a handful of magnet schools run by the school district—with regular union teachers and a standard school year.

Schools that opened most recently show low performance in our analysis. Renaissance supporters say the schools need time to work.

MORTON TEACHER: You’ve got a couple minutes before it’s time for your next assignment … what are you doing? STUDYING … Every empty moment of the day. Is that clear? YES.

Morton School of Excellence in East Garfield Park is surrounded by some of the most troubled schools in the city. Last year it scored worse than all of them.

But you wouldn’t guess that if you visited here.

MORTON TEACHER: So now we’re going from 48 ounces… how many pounds? And use your study guide so you can see what you need to do.

FOUR adults are working in small groups with this sixth grade math class.

Eighth grader Maurice Robinson says he definitely noticed when Morton was declared “new” and reborn as a Renaissance 2010 turnaround school. All staff was fired; the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership took over.

MAURICE: It’s actually way better ‘cause last time we didn’t have the good teachers, the good principals—none of that. We would do anything we wanted to do, like talking in the hallway. Nobody never said nothing.

Renaissance 2010 has shaped Maurice’s education. He attends Morton because his first elementary school was closed and is now a charter school.

Principal Angel Turner says the most recent round of tests tell only part of her school’s story.

TURNER: We’re on an upward trajectory in terms of improving student achievement. Morton went from being the absolute lowest performing school in the city, to being the fourth school in the city with the largest gains.

KNOWLES: Are we willing to live with some margin of error? We should be, because we’re trying to create new paths forward for children and family.

Timothy Knowles is head of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, which started three charters under Renaissance 2010.

Knowles says the city should make Renaissance 2010 routine.

While WBEZ’s numbers show Renaissance elementary schools outscored neighborhood schools on 58 percent of comparisons, those same neighborhood schools outscored the Renaissance schools just 28 percent of the time.

If we stop opening schools we stymie innovation, Knowles says.

KNOWLES: But along the way, we should be doing careful cost-benefit analysis. And asking ourselves is this worth the upheaval.

Knowles believes the critical question is whether more children are being better educated now. And whether the results justify the costs.

That’s a harder question to answer when the results are mixed.

Darnell Little contributed reporting to this story, which aired on WBEZ on February 17, 2011. It was produced with support from The Hechinger Report. WBEZ thanks IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, for valuable assistance with data analysis and presentation.

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