One day last fall, Marian Breland finished a math lesson with her 3rd-graders at Beidler Elementary School and then, while her students worked on problems at their desks, joined visitors in the back of the room.
“OK ladies, what do I need to change?” she asked eagerly.
Erma Cole and Eddie Quaintance, staffers from DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, thought she had done just fine. But Breland wasn’t going to let them off that easily. She went on to ask questions about a child who wasn’t doing his work and about using bulletin boards to show the progression of her children’s work.
“I have tried everything,” Breland said of the reluctant student. Together, the educators decided to move him next to a high-achieving student who could serve as a role model.
“I’m a beginning teacher,” Breland later told Catalyst. “I need the feedback to see what I’m doing right and wrong. I like when they come. If they came more often, it would be fine with me.”
The Center for Urban Education has been Beidler’s external partner only since August. By many accounts, this partnership is far better than the one Beidler had with its first external partner, famed educator Marva Collins.
“When they sit in a meeting, they’re like a family member,” says Shirley Stevens, who teaches 5th grade. “They’re not going to tell you what to do. They make suggestions. I think the teachers have really taken to it.”
“I’ve been very impressed and pleased,” says 3rd-grade teacher Marybeth Rand. “I see a move toward unity. They suggest that you do things, but everything isn’t set in stone, and they present things in a positive way.”
“I’m fine with these people,” concurs 2nd-grade teacher Ora Walker, pointing to Cole and Quaintance. “But the other external partner, all she did was criticize and write a big report. And if I’d ask her something, she had no suggestions for me. She’d just write her [critical] paper.”
Collins’ approach “was always negative,” says another teacher. “It seemed like what you did was never good enough.”
However, test scores soared after Collins and her son, Patrick Collins, began working with Beidler in February 1997. The previous spring, only 10.2 percent of its students scored at or above the national average in reading. A year later, 32.5 percent did, enough to get the school off probation. Located in East Garfield Park, Beidler enrolls 407 students in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade.
Daryl Ramsey, Collins’ assistant, credits the test-score rise to Collins’ teaching methods and their emphasis on phonics, but some teachers say the increase was the work of good teachers in the grades taking the tests. Debra Williams, the chair of Beidler’s local school council, says it probably was a combination of the two, plus the work of Principal Geraldine Moore. [Williams is not related to the Catalyst associate editor with the same name.]
Saying she doesn’t want to “mention bad feelings,” Moore declines to talk about the school’s experience with Collins.
Under the school system’s accountability program, schools that get off probation are required to keep their external partners for one more year. So Collins returned to Beidler the fall of 1997. Within a couple months, she was gone.
“The principal stated our services no longer were needed,” says Ramsey. He says Moore told him she wanted Marva Collins herself to spend more time at the school.
Collins made a name for herself in the 1970s when she left the Chicago public schools to open Westside Preparatory School, a private school that boasted of dramatic successes with all of its students. Parting shots at Chicago teachers angered many in the system. Collins still oversees her own school, Marva Collins Preparatory, located on the South Side and runs Marva Collins Seminars, Inc., which works with educators.
When the Office of Accountability first put schools on probation in 1996, it assigned Collins as the probation manager at three elementary schools: McNair and Pope as well as Beidler. Unlike other probation managers, she also served as the external partner at these schools. She no longer works at any of them.
After she left Beidler, the school had neither until Region 4 Education Officer Jose A. Rodriguez took over as probation manager last February. He blames the gap on a “miscommunication.” Rodriguez says that all he knows about Collins is that, “they were absent” when he got there and that “at some point, they stopped providing services and support.”
Last spring, Beidler’s reading scores dropped almost as much as they had risen the previous year; only 13.5 percent of its students scored at or above national norms. Moore says one of the main reasons was mid-year teacher turnover.
Back on probation, Beidler needed a new external partner. Rodriguez invited Moore to a meeting that he knew Barbara Radner, the head of the Center for Urban Education, would be attending. Rodriguez says he likes her program because “it’s teacher-focused.”
A main thrust is getting teachers and kids organized so they keep moving through the curriculum. Instructional calendars and charts are posted outside each classroom in a Radner school.
At first, Moore was dubious. “I didn’t buy into it,” she recalls. But she sent several staff members to other Center meetings and had them talk with other schools using the program. The teachers were impressed and won Moore over. And Rodriguez persuaded the Office of Accountability to pick up the whole tab. Beidler had been scheduled to assume most of the costs of its external partner.
Moore says Radner, “hit the ground running. Anything we needed, from markers to papers to duplicating our memos, she got for us. She did an in-service with our teachers and explained the whole program.
“Her staff is in our building two, three, four times a week, making sure we don’t feel we’re out there alone. I get calls constantly saying, ‘Mrs. Moore, is there anything you need, anything we can do for you?’ She makes you feel important, like you’re special.”
This year, the Center for Urban Education is an external partner with six high schools and 25 elementary schools. Typically, it assigns one staffer to each school. Given Beidler’s experience with Collins, however, Radner decided it would take a pair, a veteran teacher and a younger one, to win the confidence of the entire faculty. Quaintance is 66; Cole, 33. Both taught in the Chicago public schools.
“With some teachers, you can go right in, and with others, you need to gain their support,” says Cole. “You read people. You try to get them to trust you.”
“What we’re saying to the teachers is, let’s get organized and focused,” says Quaintance. “The calendars enable anyone—the children, a parent—who walks into the room to see what they’re expected to learn.”
“I like this much better than the lesson plan booklets we used to have,” says Breland, who is in her second year of teaching.
Not all her colleagues immediately went along with the new system. In mid-October, though, Cole says everyone seems to be using it.
“We ask our principals to visit every classroom on Monday to see if the calendar is up,” says Radner. “If it’s not, we want them to say, ‘I’m coming back. Is it going to be up? What can I do to help you get it up?'”
The other highly visible part of the center’s program is children’s use of so-called graphic organizers. In one classroom, for example, children used a piece of construction paper, folded into sections, to draw pictures showing the main ideas of a story they were reading.
Making learning visible
“It makes learning and intelligence visible,” explains Cole. “Our children aren’t always able to explain things in written fashion. Graphic organizers help them explain what they know. If a child draws the life cycle of the butterfly, you know if they have it in proper sequence.”
Another part of the program is forging links among different groups within the school community and among different schools. Workshops are held monthly for parents. Five teachers from each of the center’s schools attend monthly workshops at DePaul, where they share teaching strategies. Principals from these schools also meet monthly and visit each other’s schools.
Principal Myrtle Burton-Sahara of Locke Elementary School, who became Beidler’s probation manager in September, provides loose oversight. She attends monthly probation team meetings and writes a monthly report for the Office of Accountability. Burton-Sahara sees herself primarily as a mentor to Moore. She visited Beidler only a few times the first two months of school, but says she was in phone contact with Moore and DePaul more frequently.
Close to target
“She answers questions I have and also brings us information from the board,” says Moore, who is in her fourth year as principal of Beidler. Moore says, for example, that when she asked for help writing a reading improvement plan, Sahara-Burton “came over, showed me the different components and how to put it together.”
“She’s also very familiar with the DePaul process, so that’s a plus,” Moore adds.
The probation team is composed of the principal, assistant principal, two teachers, a Region 3 representative, the probation manager and a representative of the external partner.
“The meetings give us an opportunity to meet with the probation manager and other team members to talk about the basic goals of getting off probation,” says Quaintance. “Through the joint planning, I see more communication. And I see the organization of learning going on.”
Radner expects Beidler to get 20 percent of its students above national norms in next spring’s testing and, thereby, get off probation again. “In terms of staying off probation, and to get moving consistently forward, that’s a three-year process at a minimum,” she adds. “I do think a school can make a leap once everybody’s energy gets focused. Then, [scores] should continue to rise, but I don’t think continue to leap.”