Behind Grants to Chicago Public Schools: A Push for Collaboration and Innovation

The Chicago Public Education Fund recently made a big announcement—it plans to award financial and program grants to 25 of Chicago’s public schools. The purpose of these grants is to implement innovations that each of the schools designed themselves over the summer as part of the foundation’s “Summer Design Program.” This is a $240,000 investment toward rethinking the use of time and talent in the classroom, physically restructuring classrooms, and peer engagement for teachers.

The Chicago Public Education Fund’s CEO, Heather Y. Anichini, said in a press release, "Solutions to the challenges in public schools exist. They emerge through the insights, collaboration and leadership of principals and teachers. Our grants allow educators to implement and measure the impact of innovative, student-centered strategies they designed during our Summer Design Program."

Sounds interesting, right? To learn more, I connected with Chaula Gupta, the foundation’s vice president of program investments, to get a few details about the needs, challenges and expectations that lie ahead. She’s managing the team dedicated to identifying, investing in, and scaling organizations and programs that grow the number of high-performing public schools in Chicago, so if anyone knows how this will play out, it’s her.

What do you feel is the biggest need in Chicago Public Schools right now? 

Chicago has made incredible progress in recent years, keeping more students in school, more students graduating and increasing ACT scores. To continue that progress, we need to continue to support our strongest principals and keep them in their schools, making a difference in students’ lives, for longer.

We also need to continue providing educators with opportunities to collaborate and innovate. Great principals—of which there are more than there have ever been beforeneed the space to lead, to create new strategies that redefine what’s possible for Chicago’s students. We can better support principals and educators in leading this change in their own classrooms and schools, and they can support each other by sharing best practices. The Fund is leading this work, with programs such as our Summer Design Program, the Chicago Principals Fellowship, and more.

Can you provide an example of an innovative strategy that could help an elementary school transform student learning? How about a CPS high school?

In elementary schools across the city, The Fund has seen a strong interest in transforming student learning. Last year, we saw significant growth in literacy scores at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School as a result of a program developed during the Summer Design Program (SDP). Through SDP, the school redesigned their master schedule to more effectively use time, talent and technology. With the new schedule, students and teachers had time for additional support, including guided-reading instruction in small groups led by resource teachers. The team has built on this success by expanding guided-math instruction and by moving to full-school personalized learning as a member of The Fund’s Breakthrough Schools: Chicago cohort. Belmont-Cragin Early Childhood Center (ECC) then also participated in the 2015 Summer Design Program to help with the transition from the ECC to Belmont-Cragin Elementary School. The team will be introducing a digital bridge between the two schools, connecting students and teachers to fortify a bond that will help better prepare the pre-K students and their families for elementary school.

The Fund has also worked with educator teams at two outstanding high schools, Urban Prep – Bronzeville and Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, to develop innovative strategies that transform student learning. At Urban Prep, the Summer Design Program team developed an after-school program for struggling freshmen. They found that students who were behind academically were also not able to participate in extracurricular programs—programs that oftentimes help maintain students’ interest in school. The team developed an alternative after-school program that combined tutoring, character-building exercises and camaraderie among teachers and students to help improve on-track rates and GPAs. As a result, the team saw an improvement in on-track rates—a key predictor of graduation—from 29 percent to 81 percent among students in the program.

Gwendolyn Brooks has participated in the Summer Design Program over two years as they implement a fully integrated STEM program. With support from The Fund, Brooks launched STEM-I, the freshman-year STEM curriculum, in 2014–2015 and will be expanding to STEM-II this year. Over the course of four years, the school will have wall-to-wall integrated STEM for all grades. One of the priorities of the 2015 Summer Design Program team was to develop a mentor program that gives Brooks students real-work experience in STEM fields—which is being implemented over this school year.   

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for these grantee schools as they try to implement new innovative strategies?

The first challenge that The Fund has seen, and that we are able to help with, is time. At The Fund, we believe that solutions to classroom challenges exist, but educators need the time, space and resources to collaborate in order to address them. The Summer Design Program provides these to educator teams, and has resulted in some amazing innovations—which we have seen over the course of three years.

The other key challenge is change management. Innovation is change, and strong principals recognize that and are able to use their skills to support the implementation of their innovation, while making sure they have strong buy-in from the entire school. These small-scale pilot programs often show quick, powerful results. We encourage teams to identify and celebrate small victories, and to always be thinking about ways to be inclusive of more educators.

Do you expect funding for this particular grant program to continue in future years?

Over the past three years, we have seen a lot of great results and outstanding innovations from the Summer Design Program and our subsequent grants. We expect that we will continue funding this program, but just as we ask of educators, we will continue to iterate and improve on the program in years to come.

The Summer Design Program just had its third year, and is founded on the idea that great principals and teachers make successful students. Questions about the program can be directed to the Innovative Educator Network team at ien@thefundchicago.org. Sign up for the grantmaker’s newsletter to keep up with new deadlines and opportunities.

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