Project Net Across the Sea

Chicago, Ill., District299, Wilmette, Ill., District 39 and Birmingham, England (LocalEducation Authority, LEA) took a significant step along the educationreform road that they have been traveling together during the lasttwo years when the sister cities held "A Working Conference on SchoolReform" at the University of Chicago, May 11-12, 1998. The conferencebrought together educational leaders from different parts of theworld to make recommendations that can be utilized to guide urbanschools successfully into the 21st century.

Chicago and Birmingham,like all major urban school districts, face a common task to ensurethat standards of educational excellence are achieved. This task isessential to the regeneration of the social and economicinfrastructure of each city as both grapple with the transition froma heavy industrial past to a technological future. This transitionchanges an economy from one dependent on a steady supply ofrelatively unskilled and semi-skilled workers to one demanding highskills and high levels of education.

Chicago and Birmingham, like all major urban school districts, face a common task [that] is essential to the regeneration of the social and economic infrastructure of each city as both grapple with the transition from a heavy industrial past to a technological future.

Both cities have respondedto the educational challenges of this transition by changingexpectations about educational outcomes, reordering budgetarypriorities, and making the political commitment to transformation. Asa consequence both cities have earned a reputation within theirrespective countries for having made some significant progress inthis common task. Thus, it was appropriate for the school reformconference to dialogue on the progress achieved in learning fromsuccesses in Chicago and Birmingham while simultaneously proposingsolutions to some of the remaining obstacles to success.

Diverse CommunitiesWith a Common Bond

The Chicago Public Schools(CPS) serve a population of over 415,000 students, 79% of whom comefrom low-income families. Approximately 90% of the students are fromminority populations; almost 55% African American, over 30% Latinos,and 4% other minority groups. Individual eleven-member local schoolcouncils, comprised of parents, community representatives, teachersand the local school principal, are directly involved in schoolgovernance and improvement.

Wilmette, District 39, anorthern suburb of Chicago, serves more than 3,200 students in gradesK-8 and includes the major portion of Wilmette, Illinois and a smallportion of adjacent Glenview. The village of Wilmette is aresidential community of about 27,000 with most adults engaged inprofessional and business pursuits. Wilmette is 16 miles north ofChicago's urban center and is partially located on the shores of LakeMichigan.

Many families settle inWilmette to qualify for the residency requirements to matriculate atthe elementary schools, middle schools, junior high schools and thehighly acclaimed New Trier Township High School. Citizens devotesubstantial amounts of time and effort in maintaining high qualityeducation in District 39, as evidenced by their involvement with theEducational Foundation, local Parent Teacher Organization and SchoolBoard.

The LEA in Birmingham,England serves approximately 200,000 students in 460 publiceducational settings designed for young people in nursery schools,primary schools, secondary schools and college. Birmingham is amulticultural urban industrial center, which shares many of thesocial dynamics and educational challenges of its sister city,Chicago. Since the Educational Reform Act of 1988 and theestablishment of a National Curriculum, all schools are required toteach identified core and foundation subjects. Educationaladministrators in Birmingham recently developed primary, early yearsand secondary "guarantees" that offer special curriculum andmanagement advice to school headmasters and teachers. The variouseducational reform issues in Birmingham and England have manyparallels in Chicago and the United States.

Forum forLearning

"Urban centers such asChicago and Birmingham have thousands of young people, who within afew years will seek jobs and careers to provide a good quality oflife for themselves and their families," Mayor Richard M. Daley saidin welcoming the delegates. "Only appropriate, high qualityeducational opportunities can help them achieve the bright futurethey aspire for." He said Chicago and Birmingham are actively engagedin the type of educational reform that can ensure opportunities forstudents. Additionally, Mayor Daley told them that while there ismuch to celebrate, many challenges remain.

Using recent reforms intwo metropolitan school systems in the United States and the UnitedKingdom, the conference engaged leading educators, academics,business people, and foundations in interactive conversations aboutthe future of education. Conference goals were twofold: to increaseunderstanding of the challenges of school reform and to develop a setof recommendations to guide change in metropolitan school systems aswe approach the next millennium. Electronic polling equipment andcomputer presentation software facilitated discussion and recordedbuilding consensus regarding recommendations.

The panel topic of "Roleof Central Administration: Supporting or Pressuring Schools" openedwith brief remarks from a cross-Atlantic panel on support strategies,advisory systems, professional development and technical and servicesupport provided for schools on probation in Chicago. In addition,pressuring strategies such as reconstitution and Chicago probation,national LEA inspection, and national examinations in Birminghamconcluded this segment of symposium.

The second component ofthe conference addressed the fact that Birmingham, much like Chicago,is confronted with similar issues dealing with "The Challenge ofDiversity." Birmingham has launched a major inclusion policy withambitious targets on mainstreaming special education pupils. It hasalso renewed its attention to significant gender disparity in schoolperformance. Given a growing immigrant population from India,Pakistan and African Caribes, schools are coping with abilitygrouping and English as a Second Language (ESL) services. Recruitmentof minority teachers remains a challenge.

"Innovative Practices inSchool Improvement" was the topic of the third panel. There isconsiderable British interest in Chicago's experience with creatingsmall schools, charter schools and new partnerships. Birmingham'sinitiatives include parental choice, the concept of "value added"services, and school based budgeting.

Gery Chico, president ofthe Chicago school reform board of trustees, said the differencesbetween Chicago and Birmingham school districts are not as importantas the similarities. "We share a deep responsibility to educatethousands of children so that they can enjoy a good life, and we alsoshare an urgent need for schools that can deliver this education," hesaid. "This conference focuses on our common ground as a basis forsharing the lessons we've each learned in the last few years. Bylearning from each other, we both benefit. More importantly, ourchildren will benefit."

Electronic polling equipment and computer presentation software facilitated discussion and recorded building consensus regarding recommendations.

"The last three years havetaught Chicago and Birmingham some lessons about what it takes torevive schools in urban communities," said Paul Vallas, CPS chiefexecutive officer. "We have learned that you need to have highexpectations for students...[those] who cannot read andcalculate at grade level are essentially incapable of acquiring anyother learning. Reading and mathematics are the essentials, thehammer and screwdriver for education."

ExchangingInformation and Places

Cozette Buckney, CPS chiefeducation officer, said the recent conference grew out of Project NetAcross the Sea (PNAS) which is a collaboration between Chicago PublicSchools, Wilmette Public Schools, and Birmingham (UK) LEA designedand developed by staff in the School Partners Program of the ChicagoPublic Schools. The project grew out of the City of Chicago's SisterCities International program to involve selected public schools inChicago, Wilmette and Birmingham.

The goal of the projectwas to provide opportunities for students, teachers and schooladministrators from different areas around the city and around theworld to discuss, teach, learn and expand their multiculturalunderstandings in a global society. The project goal will berealized, in part, by using the Internet to facilitate electroniccommunication and learning. These efforts involve students in aninternational, interactive learning project thus ultimately enhancingschool curricula.

During the project'sinaugural year (1996-1997), schools exchanged basic contactinformation, completed technology renovations and began to discusstopics of mutual interest. The Chicago Public Schools 1997 delegationto Birmingham was comprised of eight veteran educators withprofessional backgrounds in bilingual and English as a SecondLanguage (ESL) instruction. With the exception of threeadministrators from Chicago and Wilmette, participants wereidentified as the result of a selection process involving Project NetAcross the Sea schools with exemplary bilingual programs. Thedelegate selection process began with a letter describing theexchange program, which included an application form for a model ESLteacher. Applications were received, reviewed and evaluated onprescribed criteria. Following the credential review, eight teacherswere invited to interview; the results of this interview determinedfive finalists and three alternates. The United States delegates,their professional positions and their home schools follow:

Donna Czajka - ESL Teacher
Lyon Elementary School, Chicago, Ill.

Nick Repkin - ESL Teacher and Technology Coordinator
Swift Specialty School, Chicago, Ill.

Janice Hickman - International Baccalaureate Coordinator
Region Six, Chicago, Ill.

Annmarie McNeela Ricker - Reading, ESL Teacher and Computer Laboratory Coordinator
Peirce Elementary School of International Studies, Chicago, Ill.

Natasha Oussenko - ESL Teacher
Mather High School, Chicago, Ill.

Charles Schr'eck - Administrator
School Partners Program, Chicago, Ill.

Rosa Ramirez - Principal
Madero Middle School, Chicago, Ill.

Sandra Stringer - Principal
Romona Elementary School, Wilmette, Ill.

As part of the reciprocalagreement, delegations from both sides of the ocean enjoyed one-weekvisits to their respective partner cities, observing schools anddiscussing Best Practices in Teaching English as a Second Language."The collaboration shows us that school districts can learn from eachother on issues like school improvement, literacy, communications,technology and, most importantly, on how to get teachers energeticand supported and feeling that they can give the best to the nextgeneration," said Tim Brighouse, chief education officer ofBirmingham education department.

As an integral componentof the Project Net Across the Sea agreement, selections werefinalized for project staff to participate in theTeacher-Administrator Exchange Program sponsored by the United StatesInformation Agency. Three teachers from CPS and two teachers fromDistrict 39 participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange for1997-1998. Principals and headmasters observed and "shadowed" eachother for a three-week period in each country. Teachers exchangedinstructional positions for a full academic year during their programexperience. The exchange of ideas and philosophies further affirmed acommitment to practical application of theoreticalfoundations.

The administrativeexchange component of Project Net Across the Sea (PNAS) allowedexperiential knowledge about innovative curricula and instructionalmethods that have a positive influence on student achievement. Thegoal of the exchange ascertained administrative "best practices" thatcan be reviewed and possibly incorporated into the visiting homeschool and district. Improved educational outcomes are theanticipated result of the exchange of information and expertise onteaching "best practices."

While visiting partnerschools administrators carefully scrutinized the following fourcurricular areas: administrative professional development, effectiveeducation of special needs students, student centered learning inEnglish as a Second Language programs, and business and educationalpartnerships for vocational education.




Administrative Professional Development

Administrative preparation
Scope of activities/responsibilities
Parent and community relations

Effective Education of Special Needs Students

Identification of student needs
Preparation of teachers
Inclusion of special needs children into schools

Programs Designed to Meet the Needs of Limited English Proficient Students (LEP)

Student centered learning
Multiculturalism and curriculum

Business and Education Partnerships for School to Work Initiatives

Incorporation of pertinent school to work information into the curriculum
Assessment of student progress

A number of educationalareas are examined as indicated. Exchange participants were partneredin pairs to examine specific areas. This inquiry sharing reduces theresponsibilities of individual investigating and reporting whileimproving the objectivity and comprehensiveness of the findings ofthe teachers and principals.

Under the direction ofKaki DiPinto, technology coordinator, Wilmette District 39,curriculum resource pages for the Project Net Across the Sea homepage was developed by 20 staff members from Chicago and Wilmette. Thefollowing address provides access to relevant curriculum informationfor all PNAS participants:

For furtherinformation, contact:

Chicago Public Schools
School Partners Program
Office of the Chief Executive Officer
1819 West Pershing Road
6 East (North)
Chicago,IL. 60609
(773) 535-7104
(773) 535-3917 (fax)

Annmarie McNeelaRicker
Chicago Public Schools
Peirce School of International Studies
1423 West Bryn Mawr Avenue
Room 211
Chicago, IL. 60660
(773) 534-2440
(773) 534-2577 (fax)

Kaki DiPinto
Wilmette Public Schools
Technology Coordinator
District 39
615 Locust Avenue
Wilmette, IL. 60091
(847) 251-9507

Annmarie McNeela Ricker isa reading teacher and computer coordinator at Peirce School ofInternational Studies. As one of eight initial delegates representingthe Chicago Public Schools, she spent nine days in Chicago's sistercity of Birmingham observing schools and discussing Best Practices inTeaching English as a Second Language (ESL). Ricker has over 20 yearsof teaching experience, including ESL and remedial reading, andimplementing the computer as a tool. She is also vice-president ofJulienne Importing Company, a family-owned and operated business.Currently, Ricker is writing a doctoral dissertation at NorthernIllinois University on the topic of Chicago public school teacherselection.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.