Who’ll Tell the Story of School Reform?

No disrespect whatsoever intended, to the Sun-Times or to the Tribune, but school reform in Chicago has advanced to a point that’s way beyond the dailies’ ability to do it justice.

As Roy Larson, acting director of the Community Renewal Society and an old newsman himself, told us the other day, “The papers have had a hard enough time covering the Chicago school board. What are they going to do with five or six hundred councils?”

Linda Lenz, the Sun-Times’s education writer for the past 11 years, was asking herself that question some months ago; and in her mind the journalism that the hour demanded took shape–a newsletter that would go out to all 6,000 council members and serve as their common bulletin board, so that no council would labor in isolation from all the others. Lenz took her notions to Roy Larson, and he liked them.

Meanwhile, as it happened, some people with money were talking to Larson about their notions, and their notions were a little bit different. Months of confabulating followed, as everyone’s ideas got mixed in together. Last Friday, Linda Lenz’s friends at the Sun-Times threw her a party and said bon voyage; Monday, she went to work at the Community Renewal Society as editor of Catalyst, the hybrid newsletter/journal on public education that Lenz intends to bring out early next year.

“It’s two publications in one,” says Lenz. “It’ll come out monthly for nine months during the school year. Six issues will take a newsletter format, like the Chicago Reporter”–which CRS has been publishing to general acclaim since 1972. Suppose a local council somewhere cooks up an innovative reading or counseling program; the newsletter, Lenz explains, is where the other councils will be able to learn about it. They’ll also learn from each other’s mistakes.

The other three issues will be the journal. “That will be more analytical,” says Lenz, “and it will be aimed at policymakers–local, state, and national. The analysis will involve some hard reporting as we try to get a picture of what’s happening out there, and what’s not happening.”

To make the journal’s picture not merely comprehensive but pungent, Lenz intends to round up some 20 “voices” of school reform, diarists of the trench warfare. “Voices of School Reform” was in fact the working title of Lenz’s new publication until CRS settled on Catalyst late last week. When Peter Gerber, director of education programs at the MacArthur Foundation, discussed the change (made to avoid confusion with the advocacy group Voices of Illinois Children), he sounded slightly distressed.

For the journal idea was originally Gerber’s. “We’d been thinking of a journal with both a local and a national audience because a lot of people are interested in what’s going on in Chicago and will it work?” says Gerber. “We want to chronicle what goes on. We also want to provide perspectives on what is going on–in the voices of the people who are participants and the voices of the people who are analysts who come to look.”

Foundations don’t usually create the projects they wind up giving money to, but the MacArthur is a little different. Gerber talked the Joyce Foundation and Chicago Community Trust into getting behind his campaign, and they set out to find someone who would do a journal the way Gerber wanted it done. There were months of negotiations with the Community Renewal Society, yet the choice of CRS strikes us as virtually inevitable.

To begin with, Gwen Jordan, CRS’s director of community relations, had been talking to Chicago Community Trust about doing some sort of “published resource” since 1988, which is when the trust offered $5 million to nonprofit organizations for programs advancing school reform.

Then there was CRS’s political neutrality, the Reporter’s demonstrated expertise in examining the city, and Roy Larson’s own talents and ambitions. Larson, who had been religion editor at the Sun-Times before he took over the Reporter in 1985, is an expansionist. Last year he created the Community Renewal Press, which began by bringing out handsome pamphlets known as “Occasional Papers” and is now publishing books. He’s ready for more.

Larson mused about the demands that reform will make on the new superintendent of schools, and then compared that job to his own, particularly in the two months since Dr. Paul Sherry resigned as director of CRS and Larson began filling in.

“It will take an administrator with a peculiar set of gifts to bring this off,” said Larson, who now shifted gears. “I’m having the best time of my life these days organizing creativity, bringing different combinations of people together and making them work. And that’s what this superintendent has to do. I watched Don Zimmer this year with a great deal of respect–finding the combinations that work. It’s an art.

“When I took on the new job, a friend said I was trying to see if it’s possible to find poetry in bureaucracy. I think Giamatti said it one time at Yale–that he was the poet of the infrastructure.

“The new paper’s a function of the Community Renewal Press,” Larson went on. “One of the reasons we were asked to do this–getting back to the poetry of the infrastructure–is we had in place an infrastructure that had demonstrated an ability to bring this off.”

The MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust have committed themselves to backing Catalyst for at least two years. Funding is likely, too, from the Joyce Foundation and the AT&T Foundation, but those boards won’t meet until December. Catalyst will also be under the eye of a 15-person editorial board that Gwen Jordan is rounding up. A third of this board will hail from outside Chicago, with the balance consisting of a variety of local figures. “The board will be another reality check,” said Larson.

Its model is the Chicago Reporter’s board, which meets every two months and goes on an annual retreat. It’s chaired, Larson mentioned, by Benjamin Kendrick, “a first-rate man. He would tell me how different reality is when looked at from the top of the Sears Tower than when looked at from his point of view on the west side.”

Larson said, “Way back in the early stages of this, when I was trying to figure out some way to cover education, I remembered something old Jack Egan told me when I started at the Sun-Times. He said you can never believe what comes out of headquarters. Find an old priest you can trust on the north side, and one on the south side and one on the west side, and check them occasionally for reality, to get a sense of what’s really going on.”

Larson thinks Catalyst’s board and “voices” will give it a rough equivalent of those old priests. The newsletter/journal will be launched with a press run of 15,000 copies, which will be mailed gratis to all council members, plus various other parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders and to those national policymakers who mean to keep an eye on the Chicago experiment.

“At one time,” said Larson, “when we were thinking of how to distribute this, we thought of doing it through the regular [school] board routing. But we don’t want to reach people that way. The medium would take over the message.”

Linda Lenz was an unusual reporter. We knew many of her predecessors on the education beat, and for them education was a burden to be borne for a year or two, a venue where young comers could demonstrate their mastery over politics and high finance.

“It was a government beat,” said Lenz. “You covered the school board, reported on personnel changes, reported on the money . . .” Lenz liked education and stayed with it. But as she said, “It’s been one major story after another. There’s been barely time to catch my breath to write about teaching and learning.”

We asked her if she thinks school reform can work.

“It offers tremendous potential,” Lenz said. “Schools will get better only if you have a wide range of people working on them, and reform has clearly done that. I think the fact it has brought in business and community and civic organizations, all these different groups, is almost as important as its structure, and if in five years I say it hasn’t worked it’ll be because these people have dropped out, not because the structure was wrong. People have to see this is evolutionary. Just changing the structure won’t change education.”

She told us, “One interesting thing to follow will be who gets to be selected to be principal. What traits are considered valuable by the councils. The principal is just truly the key.”

Does she expect many councils to fire their principals?

“I don’t think many will. But that’s a hunch,” Lenz said. She went on, “This first go-around there will be tons of problems with these local school councils. I hope people recognize that and don’t get discouraged.”

That Special Disaster

We were extremely pleased by the high level of philosophizing inspired in local sports pages by the Bay Area earthquake. Early punditry took the position that the quake had laid bare the inconsequence of the World Series, which should now be dispensed with. This stern attitude puzzled us: if the Series had become too meaningless to put up with, why was there no clamor to call off the Northwestern-Minnesota game?

But the dump-the-Series school of thought soon gave way–though Terry Boers hung on to the bitter end–to lofty dissertations on the noble irrelevance of baseball and its role in the healing process. The spirit of A. Bart Giamatti clung to these pieces.

Did anyone but us notice, however, that no more people died in the ’89 quake–which was not the “big one”–than die in an average plane crash? Did the quake truly put the Series in its place? Or was the quake received in such an awestruck way because it had the presumption to happen at a World Series?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.