History of the Council

In 1956, superintendents of the nation’s 10 largest urban pub­lic school districts banded together in Chicago to form a coalition that would later serve as the “voice” for urban education. Initially created as a networking and study group, the Council today has grown into a national education policy and research organization in Washington, D.C., with a member­ship of 65 urban school systems.

                                       The Early Years
Ben Willis
In 1956, Chicago School Superintendent Ben Willis convened a meeting attended by leaders of 12 of the nation's largest city public school systems to disucss the future of vocational education. The Council of the Great City Schools had its gensis at this meeting.
Offering vocational education in urban high schools was viewed as a critical strategy for providing America's pre-Sputnik-era industrial workforce with talent. Willis earlier had served as school superintendent in Buffalo, then an industrial powerhouse. He had a special interest, as did many of his urban school colleagues, in ensuring that big city vocational programs were compatible with the needs of an ever-changing workforce.
Sargent Shriver
Sargent Shriver, who was serving as president of the Chicago Board of Education, delivered the keynote address at that initial meeting of the big city school leaders in 1956. In his speech to the gathered educators, Shriver emphasized the importance of standardizing vocational terms, boosting the quality of urban vocational educational programs, and elminating the dichotomy between regular and vocational education tracks.
The meeting was a success and the Council evolved, then, from a series of periodic meetings driven by a single district and leader (Chicago and Superintendent Willis) on a single issue (vocational education) into an influential national organization that would focus on raising urban student achievement, improving school leadership and management, and boosting public confidence in big-city public schools.
In 1961 the group was formally incorporated as the Research Council for the Great Cities Program for School Im­provement, with then-superintendent of Chicago Public Schools Ben Willis as its first presi­dent. An executive direc­tor was named, a staff formed, bylaws drawn up and dues charged to school districts for membership. The 14 charter members of the Research Council were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Franciso, and Washington, D.C.

But it was in 1969 that the group broad­ened its focus to include education policy, and adopted its present-day name. And to help im­prove the quality of ur­ban education in Amer­ica, the coalition invited school board members from its districts to join its ranks.

With a swirl of congressional activity flourishing in the nation’s capital at the time, the Council moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C., from Chicago. It began lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and its member­ship had grown to about 20 urban school districts.

War on Poverty
During the era of the ‘60s, legislation brought increased federal government involvement in education. The first El­ementary and Secondary Education Act was enacted in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson had launched a “War on Pover­ty,” and there was a major influx of mi­norities migrating to the big cities from the rural South.
The first formulas to target federal money toward cities occurred in the ‘70s. The Council had played a major role in pushing through or amending legislation in favor of urban schools.

Initiating Legislation
During the 1980s, the Council began initiating legislation. It was successful in spearheading the:
  • Federal Magnet School Assistance Act
  • Dropout Prevention Demonstration Act
  • Teacher Profes­sional Development Act; and
  • Urban Schools of America (USA) Act; and
  • Smart Start
while leading reforms  in Chapter 1, Vocational Education and the Drug Free Act School Act.
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