Viola Boyd, a parent advocate and former local school council member at Crown Community Academy, prays her fortitude will not desert her. She is the second among 41 speakers scheduled to address the School Reform Board of Trustees at its Oct. 28 meeting on Pershing Road. Boyd has never spoken in front of the board before, and nerves eat at her.
But as she begins the 2 minutes she’s allotted—complaining that the Crown boiler is broken and the playground needs resurfacing—her anxiety falls away, and Boyd speaks with mounting authority. At the end of her remarks, Schools Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paul Vallas requests her phone number. After she obliges, she eyeballs Vallas and says, “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Early the next morning, Vallas is in his sixth-floor office, seated in shirt-sleeves at the long table that passes for his desk. The balding, fast-talking 43-year-old is fighting a cold (“I’m draggin’,” he says) and is due at the First National Bank shortly after 8:30 a.m. to address some retired executives who volunteer with the schools. He decides to take a pass and arranges for an aide to substitute for him at the bank. But he can’t shake Viola Boyd. At 9:30 a.m., Vallas picks up the phone and calls Crown Academy.
Boyd is in the school’s parent room, mentally composing the letter she plans to send Vallas, when she’s summoned to take a phone call in the school office. “Mrs. Boyd, this is Paul Vallas,” she hears when she picks up an extension. “I’m going to be out in your neighborhood this morning. Can I stop by? … Great. I should be there in half an hour.”
If I’d known Paul Vallas was coming, Boyd thinks, I’d have curled my hair. At Pershing Road, the six-foot, five-inch Vallas slips on his suit coat and heads for the door. Though he’s had no plans to be in Boyd’s neighborhood, Vallas can’t pass up the chance to meet with yet another constituent who has sought his help.
Since July 1995, Vallas, the former city budget director, has run an empire of 557 schools, 45,000 employees and 424,000 students in a frenetic style that leaves his associates breathless. On paper, Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James is the system’s educational leader, but by most accounts this onetime principal of Lindblom Technical High School has a secondary role.
In his first year as chief executive, the tireless Vallas performed a series of financial feats that gave ballast to the school system for the first time in memoryall with an accessibility and lack of affectation unseen in prior school bosses. “There used to be this mystique about superintendents,” reflects Cozette Buckney, a former principal who is Vallas’ chief of staff. “This was the person in charge, someone you wouldn’t necessarily bother with your problems. You know, you don’t call the president of Amoco because you have problems at the pump. But Paul is sympathetic and open, and people feel they can go to him.”
To some, this personal approach to school administration is a deficit. “He’s the ward committeeman,” observes Beth Katsaros, associate coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC), which has members from some 100 schools. “You want something done, you talk to Paul. That works for garbage cans, not for policy.”
CALSC and other organizations devoted to local school control want more deliberation and grass-roots participation in setting the school system’s course. “You need more time to consider alternatives to all the things they’re proposing,” says Sheila Castillo, CALSC’s coordinator. “We’re not talking about three-year studies; but time to weigh the impact of this or that solution can be helpful.”
Vallas doesn’t see an issue. “When I meet with people, I get a different sense of what people are thinking,” he says. “They talk standards and accountability. They don’t want process—they want results. Remember we’re dealing here with a high school dropout rate nearly 50 percent and an average ACT score of 16 or 17. This is criminal. This is educational malpractice, and it’s not going to continue.”
Vallas feels that the decentralization advocates who dominated the first years of school reform in Chicago were ineffective and that now it’s time for fast action and tough love. With an enormous assist from the General Assembly, the School Reform Board of Trustees has been able to sweeten the system with new resources and programs, many of them of Vallas’ own invention. The team that Mayor Richard M. Daley sent also is raising academic expectations and promising a stiff whack for those who don’t meet them. “The schools will care about you,” says Vallas, “but now there will be consequences for non-performance.”
Vallas at a local school
A School Board driver pulls a black Chevy Lumina in front of Crown Academy in South Lawndale, and Vallas alights from the front passenger seat—he refuses to ride in back, resisting the reality that he’s being chauffeured. He saunters into the building, a three-story pile dating from the early 1960s. “How ya doin’?” Vallas says to Viola Boyd, on hand to greet him. Boyd and Principal Catherine Jernigan quickly conduct Vallas to a patch of Crown playground, which features pocked concrete and a worn set of monkey bars.
“Those are attractive,” Vallas says sarcastically at the sight of the monkey bars. “You know what we can do for you—we can put in a new playground. Do you know about the mayor’s campus program?” Boyd and Jernigan give a wide-eyed response at the mention of a joint venture with the Chicago Park District to install 25 campus-parks a year. “This playground will have a wrought-iron fence, with greenery all around,” Vallas says. “You need new windows on the building, too. How’s your ceiling?”
With that, Jernigan ushers the CEO indoors, where he pops his head into classrooms, reluctantly takes a cup of coffee (“I don’t need to be more hyperactive than I already am.”) and compares his prominent pate with that of the school psychologist: “You know what they say, grass doesn’t grow on a busy street.”
In the library, Vallas falls into a discussion with a chunky 8th-grader named Steve. He tells Steve that the School Board is installing freshman academies at high schools, designed to isolate incoming students from their older peers and motivate them to succeed. “Some people are complaining about these academies, but they’re good,” Vallas contends.
Steve wonders why he has to be tested so often. “We don’t want kids to fall behind,” Vallas explains. “Then you have to go to summer school, but the threat of summer school will make you work harder, don’t you think? The way I see it, the time you spend in school now is going to set the course of your life. It’s like laying concrete—if you do it right, it will last 40 years.”
Quickly Vallas is back in the hallway, making notes on a legal pad. He touts a new program called Parents as Teachers First, which is striving to train parents, many of them public aid recipients, to improve the educational setting in the homes of low-income parents. “These parents are walking into CHA high-rises where even social workers won’t go,” Vallas marvels.
Crown Academy has a uniform policy—children wear blue tops and bottoms—and since Vallas has faith in uniforms as a discipline tool, he engages in a colloquy on the subject with some 4th-graders. “If everyone wears a uniform, you can’t tell who has grungier clothes and who has nicer clothes,” he observes. A girl notes that youngsters get killed over wearing gang colors. “Isn’t it ridiculous to fight over clothes?” Vallas says.
He stays and stays. Where Vallas can be long-winded in private conversation and in speeches, coursing in a nearly unstoppable tide from one topic to the next, in school visits he asks questions and listens, especially when children address him.
Vallas is pleased that the school engineer is at the hardware store instead of waiting around for him, a sentiment he shares with the man upon his return. He makes a second appearance in the kindergarten. Back in the hall, an 8th-grader named Laquandis makes a suggestion about the policy for getting into competitive high schools that Vallas likes. The CEO beams and promises to funnel the idea to Blondean Davis, his deputy chief education officer.
“You have a wonderful school,” he tells Boyd and Jernigan on the way out, “and I’m going to get it fixed. Call me next week, will you?”
Praise for the board
Thanks to a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Paul Vallas assumed command of the nation’s third largest school system with many advantages denied his predecessors. (See Catalyst, September 1995 and story on page 13.) Prime among those advantages were access to well over $100 million that previously had been hands-off—notably teacher pension funds and a chunk of state Chapter 1 money—and freedom from many union work rules.
Vallas, the former city budget director, set to work quickly. He assembled an administrative team that combined some talented officials from the Daley administration, like himself, with veterans from the Board of Education. Vallas and company were able to overcome a $150 million deficit, bump principals up on the payscale and sign teachers to a contract that gave them four years of modest pay hikes.
With raises all around and considerate treatment—the board did not, for example, take the Legislature’s opening to dilute teacher seniority rights or raise class size—Chicago’s once obstreperous teachers union has become fulsome in its praise. “The relationship is now one of cooperation and sensibility,” says CTU spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “If there’s a problem, one of our officers can pick up the phone and get through. There isn’t a whole layer of functionaries passing off your call so that important people aren’t disturbed.”
Along with Board President Gery Chico, formerly mayoral chief of staff, Vallas used his impressive budgeting skills to cut costs (for example, in insurance, transportation and central-office personnel, reduced now to 1,000 staffers) and to tap new sources of revenue.
The new administration won investment-worthy bond ratings from the top New York rating agencies (the first since the late 1970s), facilitating the floating of bonds to fund $320 million in school construction and rehabilitation—the first installment of an $806 million work plan. To date, reports Chief Operating Officer Ben Reyes, 219 schools have been ordered rehabilitated, and a dozen facilities or additions have been put on the drawing board. Reyes, Daley’s former general services commissioner, also has been the Reform Board’s point person in privatizing repair services.
Vallas next focused on school trouble spots. He moved to disband the LSC and fire the principal at Tilton Elementary School for malfeasance, and led highly publicized interventions at Prosser High School and Hale Elementary under new state-sanctioned authority to declare a school in “educational crisis.” The city’s school reform groups objected to what they considered precipitate action. A federal judge subsequently ordered Vallas to rehire the Tilton principal because he did not follow the law, but relations between him and the reform groups have remained chilly.
Fast starts too fast?
Meanwhile, the Vallas era has brought a welter of new educational programs and policies: alternative schools for disruptive students; an expansion of preschool programs; at certain grade levels, required summer school for students doing poorly in reading and math; and standards aimed at ending social promotion, the practice of automatically advancing students regardless of their achievement. Upcoming are curricular objectives for every grade, a tightening unseen since Ruth Love’s reign as superintendent in the early 1980s.
Many of the present-day programs in the schools arise directly from Vallas’ own mind. “I’m smart enough to recognize a good idea,” he says, “and a lot of good ideas are just out there.” Years ago, for instance, parent mentoring programs in Arkansas and Missouri impressed Vallas, and now he’s imported the idea here. Summer school for low-scoring students emerged from a discussion about 3rd-graders falling behind. “That idea was born in a span of 60 seconds,” says Maribeth Vander Weele, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who directs the board’s Office of Investigations.
Wayne Watson, president of Kennedy-King College, first met Vallas in September 1995 when they walked together through the Englewood neighborhood in a back-to-school parade. “In the hour and a half that we were together we had cut three deals,” Watson says, mentioning college outreach centers in local high schools, a radio program and a general promise to work together.
By and large, execution comes about with great dispatch. “In the old era an idea would go to a committee for study, and there’d be recommendations, revisions, a pilot, and then maybe it would be implemented,” comments Blondean Davis. “But Paul has little tolerance for that. Now the turnaround is very short.”
One day this fall, Vallas was visiting a school with Ald. Dorothy Tillman when it occurred to him that underachieving students might profit from an after-school program that took children and their families all the way through dinner. Within a week, Davis had a $2.5 million proposal set for Vallas’ approval, “and he wanted to know why it wasn’t ready sooner,” Davis laughs.
However, fast starts have spelled faulty starts as well. Vallas acknowledges that last summer’s required program for low-scoring 8th-graders was conducted poorly at some sites. And his version of the Arkansas and Missouri parent mentoring programs has had an uneven start. (See story in December issue, page 23 or the online version)
Vallas and Rev. Jesse Jackson
It takes Vallas’ driver a half hour to ferry the CEO to his noontime engagement in Kenwood, a luncheon of the Rainbow/PUSH Action Network that is focused on juvenile crime and parent involvement in schools. Prime on the agenda is a five-point pledge for parents to sign on Report Card Pickup Day. Recently, Vallas has taken the unprecedented step of asking local churches to adopt schools, providing homework centers and volunteer tutors, and for thatand his can-do attitude—he appears popular with the crowd.
“Brother Vallas has a vision to make things happen in a system that used to be bogged down in the cesspool of politics,” says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rainbow/PUSH president, as he introduces the schools chief. “I don’t know what to call him. Superintendent? Czar? How about just Paul Vallas?”
“The strongest institutions in many of our neighborhoods are the churches, the synagogues and the mosques, and we have to find a way into them,” Vallas says. He goes on to mention by name all the principals attending the luncheon. “These are the captains in the field who have to make the tough decisions,” he says as the principals bask in applause.
“We are poised to put more money into the classroom,” Vallas continues. “In the past, there have always been excuses. People say it’s the parents, the tests, the funding. Today there are no excuses.” Then he takes a gratuitous stab at the reformers, whom he views as out-of-touch elitists. “Remember that dealing with the toughest kids—immigrants and those at risk—has always been the task of the public schools. Some of the education elites like to lose sight of that.”
By the time Vallas concludes his remarks, he has spoken 10 minutes and avoided formally endorsing the five-point pledge, the crux of the luncheon. “I like the pledge, but my name doesn’t have to be on it,” he will explain later.
The luncheon drags on, with questions from reporters and guests. A woman named Citchell Holiday confronts Vallas over his support of a campus for King High School that will cost her the jazz coffeehouse she has launched in an old firehouse. “The only thing being inconvenienced by that campus is your firehouse,” snaps Vallas, who has walked the perimeter of the proposed campus, making sure that no residents will be displaced by its installation. “That firehouse is a hazard.”
By the time Vallas exits the PUSH building, everyone who manages to reach his ear has had a word with him. At curbside he submits to an interview by a Channel 5 reporter who’s been waiting for his reaction to the latest installment of the Tilton School saga. The day before, Vallas suspended the reinstalled principal, Debrona Banks, over alleged new improprieties, and now she’s charged that he sent a small army of police officers to remove her from the school. Vallas says that no more than two officers were involved, claiming that’s pro forma in such situations.
Vallas is running an hour and a half late as he slips into his car—a common occurrence. Even so, he instructs his driver to run him by the firehouse that’s in dispute.
As he arrives back at board headquarters, the conversation has drifted to Jesse Jackson. “We’re not drinking buddies, but I have admiration for him,” Vallas says. What sewed up his respect was meeting Jackson’s sons. “They are clean-cut and well-mannered, not something you always see in celebrity kids,” Vallas remarks. “You can tell a lot about a man by his family.”
It’s no accident that as the schools CEO, Paul Vallas is an apostle of tough love, since he grew up in a close family that defined the philosophy. The Vallases occupied the downstairs of a two-flat fronting Palmer Park in Roseland. The four children (Paul was the second oldest) bowed to the mindset of their father, Gust, an accountant who worked incessantly and expected the same of his offspring. “I wanted my children to be raised like I was,” says Gust. “We stressed the value of education, but the work ethic was very important.” The Vallas children held part-time jobs, usually in restaurants, and grew up in awe of their father. “We all tried to be like him, the person he was, the worker,” says Dean Vallas, the next-youngest brother to Paul.
Paul was a skinny boy who scribbled sports statistics on napkins and battled a stutter—the need to compensate for the speech impediment is one reason Vallas figures he speaks so quickly today. He attended Catholic, Greek Orthodox and public schools. At Sandburg High School in Alsip, where the family moved from Roseland, a friend remembers Vallas as “extremely conscientious and extremely insecure.” Says Vallas himself, “In high school I was just drifting. I was in this big, impersonal place, with my stutter and acne problems. I played on the football team, but poorly—I was the last guy on the field, if I got on the field at all. No one ever counseled me.”
Without good grades, his parents refused to send him to a four-year college, and so he attended Moraine Valley Community College; he also bused tables and manned the kitchen at the Country House, a restaurant Gust had opened in Alsip so his children could work with him. When Paul’s marks slumped first semester, Gust told his son, “You have a choice: Do well in school or you’re getting behind the grill.” Vallas remembers his father’s dictum as a defining moment. “That’s when I decided to apply myself,” says Paul, who pulled all A’s and one C the second semester—and hasn’t looked back.
“He’s like an immigrant in his head, and that’s why he shines so,” muses Dean, who operates the Country House today. “When everybody is sleeping Paul is figuring out what to do next. What defines him is that he works harder than everybody around him, while making the sign of the cross—a metaphor for doing what’s right.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in political science from Western Illinois University in Macomb, Vallas taught for a year at Koraes School in Palos Hills, a Greek Orthodox grammar school he himself had attended when it was located in the city. In 1979, he was back at Western pursuing a second master’s in history and dreaming of a diplomatic career when he was hired as a Senate staffer in Springfield.
He ended up working on the revenue panel under then-Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch. “He was intense and excitable,” recalls Netsch. “He worked terribly hard and was filled with ideas.” In 1985, under Netsch’s sponsorship, he became director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, the fiscal and budget arm of the Legislature.
On Mayor Daley’s staff
Four years later, Mayor Daley hired the gangly figure in hand-me-down suits to become city revenue director, where he oversaw tax collection, licenses and parking tickets. He closed tax loopholes and reorganized the audit department—his addiction to hard work and his sense of righteousness still strong. “I remember one New Year’s Eve I stayed late waiting for this one company to bring in a $14 million audit settlement,” Vallas recalls. “That stuff was really exciting.”
Such devotion caused Mayor Daley to promote him to budget director in 1994, where he is remembered for his mastery of figures and a receptiveness to aldermen and community groups. “He was candid and open, which was refreshing after an era of secrecy and manipulation,” says Ald. Edward Burke, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee. “Plus, he had this great energy and an encyclopedic knowledge of government and finance.” During Vallas’ first year, the budget passed without a dissenting vote; the second year, it drew three nays.
In Daley’s cabinet meetings, says Vallas, “School problems would always be on the table. Business leaders were always complaining about the schools, and the mayor came to realize he had to take responsibility for the problems.” When the General Assembly handed the mayor the power to name a CEO in May 1995, Daley turned to Vallas. “He told me—he didn’t ask me—to take the job,” Vallas recalls. With his wife Sharon, a former police officer, fully behind him, Vallas said yes.
With his own staff
Back at his office after the PUSH luncheon, Vallas finds that Hannibel Afrik (formerly Harold Charles), an advocate of an Afrocentric curriculum, has tired of waiting for an appointment with the CEO and has left. Sliding behind his desk, he fields a call from Chico and places one to Ron Temple, president of City Colleges of Chicago, on the issue of vocational education. Vallas riffles through his mail speedily, like a cardsharp performing a shuffle.
The nun who heads an all-girl Catholic high school near North Park Village has written to voice concerns over plans by a community organization to establish a charter school, a state-authorized facility relieved of standard work rules, in the neighborhood. Vallas calls the woman: “Sister Victoria, how are you? I know you’re worried, but I don’t think this charter school will affect you.” The president of the Chicago chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, who’s been cooling his heels in the reception area, is ushered in an hour late. Vallas quickly accepts the man’s offer of mentoring and scholarships. Such partnerships, some aided by board financing, are burgeoning under the new regime.
An appearance at the Coonley School on the North Side is looming when an imbroglio develops over the suspension of Banks. “We’re just firing incompetent people,” Vallas remarks at the accusation by some that disciplining Banks involved ulterior motives. “We have some schools whose academic life barely registers a ripple on the Richter scale.”
Soon he has slipped into Buckney’s adjoining office for a heated discussion of the Banks situation and the impending suspension of Marshall High School Principal Steve Newton, who had a private shower built in the school at board expense. Accountability Officer Pat Harvey is doing emergency duty at Tilton, and her voice can be heard rising off the speaker phone. The meeting stretches to two hours, and Vallas’ appearance at Coonley School on the North Side has to be scrapped.
A room done up in blue that’s near Vallas’ office is scene to most of the CEO’s conclaves with his staff. Weekly he convenes his full cabinet there, and each morning at 7:30 it’s home to Vallas and his kitchen cabinet, a 10-person inner circle that boasts Buckney, Davis, Vander Weele, St. James, legislative aide Phil Jackson, policy chief Len Dominguez, School and Community Relations Director Carlos Azcoitia, Deputy Chief of Staff Ray Anderson, interim Communications Director Laura Steele and community liaison James Deanes. But the conference room can’t contain Vallas; he frequently drifts into gatherings in other offices, gushing opinions.
In meetings, Vallas airs ideas (“The guy has an idea a day,” says one assistant. “He must dream them up at night.”), or else he’s prodding and fretting over some aspect of implementation. “He wants to know what happened, why it happened and what we’re going to do about it,” says Lula Ford, the board’s school leadership development officer. Vallas communicates verbally, not by memo, with a command of fact that awes his subordinates. “You can mention some statistic and think he’s not listening because four conversations are going on at once,” says Vander Weele, “and four weeks later you hear him spouting the same numbers.”
He is often impatient and sometimes flat-out mad. “He yells and screams,” reports one aide. “He’ll ream you, but the good thing about him is that he also tells you he loves you.”
Vallas spurns the entitlements and perquisites of office. Originally he was offered a $175,000 salary as CEO, which was the base pay for his predecessor, Argie Johnson, but he asked for $25,000 less and had the amount frozen for four years. “I wanted people to know I wasn’t in this for the money,” he says. When he travels to New York on school business, he takes the trainan air mishap he’d rather not discuss left him with a fear of flying. He pays for his own meals, he submits no cab receipts, and he blacks out personal calls he makes from hotels, seeking no reimbursement.
It took him months to admit he needed a car and driver and a cellular phone to do his job, yet he once told his driver, “Never open a door for me or carry my bag or call me mister.” At staff meetings, there is no complimentary coffee or rolls; those seeking sustenance can buy it from one of four vending machines Buckney ordered for the executive suite.
His accessibility is legendary. He returns phone calls from whomever. Unannounced visitors, including parents and whole LSCs seeking a moment of his time, are rewarded if they can wait long enough in the reception area. “If a person wants to see me bad enough, they are going to see me,” Vallas remarks. “My modus operandi is, make myself available.”
Some say Vallas’ style of management doesn’t conform to the modern age. “If he were a good business type, he’d push the decision making and the accountability down instead of holding onto those things himself,” remarks one close associate. “He isn’t a good systems guy, someone who builds an organization that can function without his hand always on the tiller.”
Vallas contends he does delegate and that “I only get directly involved if there’s smoke.” But his underlings testify to his personal involvement, and they have accustomed themselves to the breakneck pace, the long days—12 hours at a minimum and some weekends—and Vallas’ frequent phone calls. “Paul accepts nothing but total commitment,” says Buckney. “If there’s anything else on your agenda, clean it off.”
Vallas himself labors six days a week, including three nights and most of Saturday. In his off-hours, Vallas can be found with Sharon and their three young sons in their Beverly house. (The Vallases, under a pact they struck early in their marriage, intend to give their offspring a religious education at a school affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, Sharon’s denomination.)
On weekends, Vallas finds release in first-run movies like Michael Collins and Ransom, sometimes taking them in twice. “I see movies as an art form,” he explains. “I read books I like twice, too.” However, he has given up jogging, a longtime habit, reverting to early-morning bouts on a home exercycle. “I’m eating crap, I’m not working out enough, I’ve gained 20 lbs., and my doctor says I’ve looked better,” Vallas recently complained to brother Dean.
Probation policy problematic
Vallas takes criticism poorly (“Paul always likes to be right,” says Sharon), an unfortunate trait given the escalating flak flying his way. Consider probation.
Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a 19-year-old research and advocacy group, fears that probationed schools will revert to gimmicks—drilling borderline readers or shifting students to special education, where they aren’t tested—to raise reading scores. “It’ll be gamesmanship instead of people looking at the quality of the teaching,” he insists. Tony Bryk, senior director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago, says the board has bitten off an impossibly large number of schools to resurrect: “This is an extraordinary undertaking by a central office that doesn’t have the capacity for it.”
Doubts about probation don’t sit well with Vallas. At a recent Reform Board meeting, Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, which counsels LSCs, attacked the program by retelling an exchange she’d overheard between two high schoolers: “I know that people are saying that we are all a bunch of dummies.” In a fit of pique, Vallas shot back: “There is nothing more damaging than having someone graduate from high school and be unable to get into college, or have to get by on a 9th-grade reading level. I know we are going to disappoint some of you who want to celebrate the problems, Zarina, by actually improving performance.”
As to the fear that schools will conspire to jiggle up their test results, Vallas says, “If somebody is trying to short-circuit the process, our teams are going to detect that.” And he underscores the quality of the probation teams, which are to include the more skilled of his principals, teachers and West Side private educators Marva Collins and Paul Adams.
Vallas and school reformers stake out opposite positions when discussing school performance over the past six years. Vallas underlines the fact that the bulk of schools still are doing abysmally. Reformers, on the other hand, point to an upward trend in test scores at the elementary level, where most reform activity took place. (See story on page 27 of the December issue, or here in the online version.) Three-fourths of elementary schools registered gains between 1990 and 1996, says Moore.
Vallas’ grandest venture yet would overhaul the high schools with a slimmed-down core curriculum; freshman-sophomore and junior-senior academies; and a partial outsourcing of vocational education and college prep courses to college and technical schools. The massive project is being engineered by seven task forces laboring under board direction. Yet some educators question its prospects.
William Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says tentative plans give short shrift to teachers. “They are the key to whatever happens, and they need time and space to think deeply and act collectively,” he remarks. Bryk, a member of the restructuring steering committee, sees the Vallas model as similar to the classic Catholic urban high school and favors it for some settings. “But to organize all the high schools this way is a mistake,” he comments. “The spirit of reform is to create a diverse system, not one following a single vision of schooling. Education can’t be standardized from above. Unless you touch the hearts and minds of those on site, these things generally fail.”
Whatever restructuring plan is finally adopted (a draft will start circulating in December), Vallas promises it will respect the role of teachers. He says the revamping may spare “top-performing schools,” but he notes that, in general, “the high schools have plummeted” and that uniformity will be necessary in most places.
Vallas and reform organizations
While Vallas derides reform organizations as “cottage industries” that feed off charitable foundations, their complaints sometimes get addressed. For example, last February a letter from Vallas and St. James directed schools to budget some of their discretionary money for next summer’s required summer school program—an order that reformers saw as encroachment on local control. Subsequently, the administration backed off, tapping unexpected federal funds instead. (See Catalyst, , September 1996.) And despite early administration talk about mandating the use of Direct Instruction, a scripted, phonics-based reading program, no school has been required to go that route. (See Catalyst, , September 1996.)
When pressed, reformers even acknowledge that the new regime has done much good. Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the reform group Parents United for Responsible Education, praises the administration for its construction and repair program (“It’s an abomination how our children were being housed.”), the move to end social promotion and adoption of a streamlined school improvement plan.
Initially the reform groups met regularly with Vallas, but those days are gone. Vallas has tired of being constantly hit upon. “The students, the parents, the taxpayers, the communitythey are behind us,” says Vallas.
To be sure, the informal Vallas is widely hailed as he goes about the city. “Paul!” cabbies and pedestrians shout when he passes by. Within days after his visit to Crown Academy, after architects and engineers have materialized to start fixing what’s wrong, Viola Boyd comments of her savior, “I see Mr. Vallas as a man of his word. He’s concerned about bringing things together for us.”
Observers say Vallas’ monolithic control buys subservience. “He deals with [everyone] one on one,” notes Castillo. “If you complain to him, you might not get what you want, and so who’s going to disagree?”
Bryk sees it somewhat differently. “Paul respects people who will go toe to toe with him, but people get intimidated,” he says. “They will say one thing in private and another in public.” But Bryk adds that Vallas “tends to be very quick with his ideas, and he dismisses criticism without considering that there might be a grain of wisdom there.”
Business leaders, seeing Vallas as their champion, are glowing in their praise. “He brings a sound business approach—accountability with benchmarks for completion,” says Jerry Roper, president and CEO of the 2,200-member Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which is helping Vallas recruit 45 business managers to pitch in at probationed schools. “There’s nothing egotistical about this. Every decision is being made with children in mind.”
Donald Ames, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, composed of the CEOs of 50 major state corporations, echoes Roper’s sentiments. “Vallas has done things to get rid of barriers to good education that the law doesn’t even require him to do,” Ames marvels, pointing to the promotion policy and required summer school for low achievers.
For the moment, Vallas has the support that counts most, namely that of the Reform Board trustees and the mayor, with whom he enjoys a cordial, professional relationship. “Paul is a solid, results-oriented executive,” Chico remarks. Daley chooses to praise Vallas’ whole team, saying Vallas has done “an excellent job—everyone has.”
The suggestion that Citizen Vallas might hanker after a political career causes him to chuckle: “I don’t have the hairline for politics. I have crooked teeth and the remnants of that speech impediment. Besides, nobody should use this job as a stepping stone. We’re not careerists here. This will probably be my last government job.”
End of a long day
Vallas says the true test of how he’s done that job—his own piece of accountability—will be if reading and math test scores rise, “and if they don’t go up 10 per cent, I won’t be satisfied,” he says. “I want the ACTs up and truancy down, too,” he adds. “After four years, we’ll let the public be the judge.”
Minutes before 7 p.m. Vallas and St. James slide behind microphones at the downtown studios of WBBM Radio. The pair will be answering questions from host Dick Helton and from callers during “Talk to the Schools,” an hour-long show the station airs monthly.
Where St. James is careful in her responses, Vallas takes matters head on. He denies he muscled Debrona Banks from Tilton, instead listing new irregularities on her part. “When we run into a situation where there is open defiance, a reluctance to work with us, then we have to step in,” he says. When a caller suggests that the probation of schools constitutes discrimination against blacks, Vallas says the schools, after all, are 90 percent minority. “The bottom line is this—we don’t accept anyone not doing well,” he concludes.
It’s well after 8 o’clock when his driver drops him at the entrance to the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where he’s due at a black contractors dinner. “They are going to give me an award,” he says, “but I really have to go to hammer home our message. These are the dog days.”