At the outset of school reform, Earhart Elementary School was an above-average school for Chicago; 33 percent of its students scored at or above national norms in reading, compared with 24 percent citywide. Today, the small Southeast Side school is outstanding, with 75 percent of its students hitting that mark. While Earhart soared, Beethoven Elementary School, a garden-ringed oasis among the Robert Taylor Homes, managed to climb out the basement. In 1990, only 5 percent of its youngsters scored at or above national norms in reading. Now, 19 percent are at that level, a slight decrease from last year’s all-time high of 21 percent. Although still far below the city average of 30 percent, Beethoven’s reading scores are exceptional for its neighborhood, where every other non -magnet school is on probation.
Earhart and Beethoven are among the 107 elementary schools that made substantial overall gains in reading over the last seven years, gains of at least 10.5 percentage points, according to an analysis by the reform group Designs for Change. These schools, 25 percent of the total, had their ups and downs but generally showed patterns of steady growth.
Although their worlds are far apart, Earhart and Beethoven both demonstrate the kinds of changes Chicago schools can and must make to improve student achievement.
Seven blocks south of Beethoven, Terrell Elementary School shows how circumstances can conspire with misguided effort to thwart positive change. Terrell is still stuck in the basement. With reading scores slipping from 6 percent to 5 percent, it is one of 82 elementary schools, 17 percent of the total, that declined from 1990 to 1997. Earlier this year, the Chicago Academic Accountability Council recommended that Terrell be reconstituted. The school was spared that medicine, but its principal, a one-time award winner, was dismissed.
Here are these schools’ stories.
Prior to reform, tiny Earhart Elementary was not even a school in its own right but, rather, the branch of a larger elementary school a mile away. “When you’re a branch, you get the crumbs that fall off the table,” says Earhart’s local school council chair, Melva Pratt. “And oftentimes, there weren’t a lot of crumbs.”
The principal spent most of his time at the main school. Left on their own, some Earhart teachers engaged students in “busy work” and did little to challenge them or spark their creativity, Pratt believes. “If you don’t have a good principal in there to hold teachers accountable, then teachers don’t hold students accountable, and there’s not a lot of learning going on,” she notes.
Under reform, the School Board turned branches into full-fledged schools with their own councils and principals. Parents elected to Earhart’s council were thrilled but cautious with their new responsibilities, according to Pratt. Before selecting a principal they wanted to know precisely what that principal should be held accountable for.
Throughout most of their first two-year terms, members attended workshops offered by the board, universities and non-profit groups all over the city. In the initial excitement over reform, “practically every Saturday somebody was having a workshop,” Pratt recalls. “You name it, I went to it.”
In 1991, Earhart’s counsel finally selected Hellen DeBerry, assistant principal at Paderewski Elementary and a former reading specialist. Says Pratt: “We made sure we had a principal who was intelligent, who had been in the system and knew how to work it, and who had the same goals as we did–to make our school one of the best in the city.”
DeBerry had one additional qualification, according to Pratt. Earhart’s previous principal had been white, and council members wanted an African American, whom they believed would better understand the challenges poor, minority children face. “Our children need role models,” Pratt insists. “Especially low-income children who might have problems with self-esteem–they need to see [people] who look like them in positions of authority to show them they can make it.”
In selecting a younger, female, minority principal, Earhart mirrors the system as a whole. A 1992 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that 40 percent of principals who had been board appointees were minorities, compared to 69 percent of those selected by LSCs. While councils didn’t fire on the basis of race, the study found, they almost always hired principals whose race matched the racial composition of the school.
During the first year or two of reform, most schools held off on instructional improvements to concentrate on “environmental” ones such as safety, discipline or building repairs, according to the Consortium. Earhart had few problems of this kind, although DeBerry did tighten up discipline in the 5th and 6th grades. “I suspended a lot of kids my first year here, just to set the tone,” she explains. Unlike some principals, however, DeBerry moved swiftly to address instruction.
Reading, the skill fundamental to all subject areas, was her top priority. As a former reading specialist, DeBerry had definite ideas about what a language arts program should look like.
When she arrived, Earhart’s program consisted entirely of a “skill-and-drill” reading textbook. DeBerry quickly switched to a book with more real literature. Over the next three years, she folded in the other three language-arts skills–writing, listening and speaking. Unlike reading, these skills are not measured on the all-important Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, but DeBerry believes they are critical. “I used to tell my students, if you can’t read and write and speak you will never get a job,” she says.
“Junior Great Books,” a series that teaches students to analyze and discuss high-quality children’s literature, now complements the regular textbook, as do novels for class projects and pleasure reading. Grammar exercises and bi-weekly essay writing begin in 1st grade; topics range from “A person I admire” to “A world without clocks.”
To practice public speaking, students give monthly presentations to the class, on a topic of their choice. They also memorize poems each month to recite aloud. Fifth-graders recently tackled Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.”
Another secret to Earhart’s success with reading is an early start–formal reading instruction begins in the middle of kindergarten. Most Chicago public schools hold off until 1st grade, leaving students behind their middle-class peers, who often learn reading at home. “We do not, I feel, have the luxury of spending a whole year in teaching socialization skills,” DeBerry says. “They would never catch up.”
Any child not reading fluently at the beginning of 1st grade gets extra help. Every day, a teacher trained in the highly regarded Reading Recovery program provides one-on-one tutoring and a group lesson to about eight children.
Language arts is first up each day, stretching from 9 to 10:30 a.m. On a morning in mid-June, kindergartners are reading “Playhouse for Monster” in unison, a story well-into the 1st- grade reader. “Monster made a sign. It said, Keep out!”
A few doors down, 3rd-graders are engrossed in a Junior Great Books fairytale about a ruthless toad who longs to become virtuous. During the discussion, students must respond to each other’s ideas, not merely the teacher’s questions. They also must read passages aloud from the story to justify their interpretations. Hands wave excitedly; responses come in complete and over-enunciated sentences: “I would like to say that. … I disagree with Candace because. … I wanted to add to Melvin’s comment.”
Meanwhile, 6th-graders are giddy over the essays they wrote last night for homework, and are now reading aloud. But when the teacher momentarily steps from the room, those who begin whispering are quickly shushed by classmates.
“When you go from class to class, there’s a learning culture,” DeBerry notes. “It isn’t just one isolated classroom teacher here or there. It’s everyone. It’s the atmosphere in the place. If you’re not focused, you’re out of step. It’s evident to you and to everyone around you.”
To help establish a good learning climate, DeBerry and the LSC drew on the powers bestowed by the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, including control over state money for low-income students that previously were controlled by central office.
Earhart put its discretionary dollars to good use, creating two positions that strengthened core subject areas. Twice a week, a full-time math resource teacher, Rose Cartwright, tutors below-level students. Once a week, she leads “hands-on” lessons in every classroom; for example, students work with blocks to learn abstract concepts such as borrowing and carrying. In addition, she trains teachers in the latest strategies for teaching math. Since Cartwright came on board, math scores have soared.
A full-time science resource teacher, Evans Saxton, has made it possible for Earhart to drop hum-drum textbook lessons in favor of activities and experiments that are too time-consuming for classroom teachers to set up on their own. For instance, Saxton had 3rd-graders pour water over pans with dirt “hills” and model houses to examine the effects of erosion. Science test scores also have climbed.
In DeBerry’s view, the biggest plus of reform is that principals won the power to select their own teachers, without regard to seniority. “I don’t think anyone else is in the position to evaluate and hire someone to work here with me,” she says. “Only I can do that.”
However, a 1992 Consortium survey of principals found them divided over whether reform had improved the quality of their faculties. While they acquired control over hiring, firing incompetent teachers remains a time-consuming process.
In this area, DeBerry ran into a bit of luck when a 1993 retirement incentive cleared out much of her staff; at the same time, she persuaded some non-retiring teachers to leave. As a result, she was able to create her own team almost from scratch.
In general, principals do not hire teachers with the intention of building an instructional team, according to Consortium Director Anthony Bryk. As a consequence, a school’s teachers may not hold similar ideas about what constitutes good teaching, which makes it difficult to work together on improving instruction.
DeBerry is an exception. “Any time you have an opportunity to hire someone, that’s a golden opportunity,” she says. “You can always get the right person, the person who shares your vision and can work with the group that’s already here. And that’s why we have such a cohesive group now.”
DeBerry is painstaking in her hiring. Many principals advertise positions locally and choose a candidate after a single interview, but DeBerry advertises at college and university placement offices all over the Midwest. Promising candidates face a panel–DeBerry and her two assistant principals–on their first interview. Those who pass muster meet alone with DeBerry, who invites them to speak with other staffers.
While Chicago schools are under heavy pressure to raise test scores, DeBerry screens out teachers who view high scores as their primary goal. Rather, she looks for people who share her belief that the purpose of education is to help children grow into “well-rounded” adults who love “to learn for the sake of learning,” and who hold an interest in a wide range of subjects, including the arts and literature.
Staff members are aware of their shares outlook on teaching. “We’re a creative bunch,” reports 5th-grade teacher Michael Flynn. Creative projects spring up in all subject areas at every grade level–5th-graders wrote screenplays, 6th-graders will create artworks in the style of the ancient Greeks, even 3rd- graders must produce an original science fair project.
Earhart’s small size–just 222 students–clearly contributes to its success. A substantial body of research, including studies done by the Consortium, confirms that elementary schools with enrollments under 350 hold distinct advantages. They are easier to manage, which fosters higher program quality, better discipline and more engaged students. Small faculties are better acquainted, conflicts are fewer, and cooperation is greater, leading to greater commitment and higher morale.
Earhart’s small size makes for good communication. Some conversations are formal, as during summer planning sessions. But most are informal and daily–over lunch. Squeezed together around a table in the faculty lunchroom, teachers brainstorm themes for projects, discuss students with learning difficulties and get advice.
“I’ll say, ‘You guys, they can’t get the long division!’ And they’ll give me ideas,” says 6th-grade teacher Maria Shay, who taught 4th grade last year.
Teachers also share high expectations for students, who are expected to work above grade level, and a personal interest in students’ well being, Earhart parents observe.
“The caring goes beyond the academics,” says parent Florine Powell. “[Teachers] call you on their own time to discuss a problem or even a child’s emotional reaction to something.”
Teachers’ attitudes seem to rub off on students, notes Sharon Pryor, mother of a 5th-grader. “My daughter came home and told me, ‘Someone’s having trouble in math, but we’re all helping her.’ I don’t know how they’ve done it–but the kids all care about each other.”
A 1996 Consortium study found that students were most engaged with learning at schools where teachers combined caring with academic rigor. Neither personal attention nor a strong academic program alone had much impact on students’ effort and interest in school work.
Teachers frequently cite parent support for academics as key for children’s success in school. Teachers at Earhart are no different, but, unlike colleagues elsewhere in the city, they have few complaints. Nearly all Earhart parents respond to discipline problems and help with homework, they say. In contrast, more than half of Chicago teachers reported in a 1995 Consortium survey that parental support was “limited” or “minimal.”
Student absences are low at Earhart, too–95 percent of its students are present on any given day–and parent turnout for open houses, conferences and assemblies is high.
However, Earhart has some built-in parent support that most other schools don’t enjoy. About 55 percent of its students are in a magnet program, meaning parents chose the school.
Yet, LSC Chair Pratt notes that Earhart is outscoring nearby Robert A. Black Magnet, which is better-funded and serves a more privileged population.
“Earhart took those local, neighborhood, low-income, minority kids that folks say can’t learn,” she says. “We’re proof that they can.”
When Principal Lula Ford arrived at Beethoven in 1989, improving instruction wasn’t her first priority. “I asked the teachers what their greatest impediments to teaching were,” she recalls. “And they said, ‘Discipline.’ So for one year I handled discipline exclusively.”
Teachers, she found, expected students coming from the projects to be loud and confrontational. Because her goal was to “discipline with dignity,” she told her staff to crack down but without yelling. During that first year, she often marched unruly students home and gave their parents advice. “I would remind them never to do anything physical to the child,” she says, recommending no television and an early bedtime instead.
Parents noticed the results. “It was like a whole different school,” reports Arthur Killins, father of five. “Children sitting in the classroom doing their work like they were supposed to do. Before they were walking the halls like wild animals.”
Other noticeable improvements came that year. Discretionary money paid for a fresh coat of paint in halls and classrooms–the first in 15 years–and new classroom furniture. To boost school pride, Ford entered Beethoven in every contest she could find–from writing to art to double dutch jump-rope–and started a cheerleading team.
“You don’t get reading scores [up] in one year,” Ford explains. “I knew that I must do something immediately to get the teachers’, the parents’ and the children’s attention. I knew that I must have some other indicators of success first.”
The Consortium on Chicago School Research confirms that quick, tangible school improvements, while largely symbolic, can help principals rally support for real change. Researcher Penny Sebring notes that Chicago has a long history of short-lived school reforms that tend to come and go with each superintendent, leaving teachers wary of any new program or policy. In overcoming skepticism, “the quick hits are helpful,” she says, “and maybe necessary.”
In her second year, Ford’s priority was reading instruction. Like her counterpart at Earhart Elementary, she switched reading textbooks, opting for a literature-rich series over a “drill and worksheet” format. Discretionary funds helped pay for the new books.
She also used discretionary funds to hire four additional teachers so she could reduce class size for her lowest achieving 1st- and 2nd-graders. With as many as 28 students per class in the primary grades, struggling readers weren’t getting the individual attention they needed, she decided.
Ford and her staff put part of the blame for low test scores on the brevity of the school day, too. A standard school day in Chicago is 315 minutes, about half an hour shorter than is typical in suburban Cook County, according to a 1992 Catalyst survey. Beginning in 1993-94, Beethoven teachers agreed to work and extra hour and devote that time to reading. Discretionary dollars paid for their extra wages.
With the extended day in place, the percentage of Beethoven students reading at grade level or above jumped to 11 percent in 1994, but the biggest gain was yet to come. In 1995-96, Frances Oden, Ford’s successor, added “Junior Great Books” to the after-school reading program. That year, scores leaped to 21 percent. Teachers credit the program’s challenging literature and in- depth discussions with improving reading comprehension.
Last year, Beethoven extended its school day still longer, which allowed it to add an after-school math program. Again, the school saw test scores soar: The percentage of students scoring at or above average in math rose from 23 percent to 32 percent. The extra time was courtesy of the School Board, which offered to pay for an extra hour of instruction, an hour of recreation and a hot supper for all children at 40 elementary schools. Only probation schools were encouraged to apply, but Oden lobbied for it anyway and won. For extra pay, teachers agreed to stay until 6 p.m. four days a week.
Beethoven pitched in with new teaching strategies. Oden invited a university consultant to show teachers how to help students understand abstract math concepts with “hands-on” activities. For example, 2nd-graders learned multiplication by counting groups of Cheerios, and they designed kites to learn about symmetry. “When they’re having fun, they don’t notice they’re learning,” comments 2nd-grade teacher Geneva Smiley. “They think it’s a game.”
Despite the exhausting workload, faculty morale runs high at Beethoven, and turnover is low. While the school’s hiring process is not as rigorous as Earhart’s, Beethoven is able to hold on to dedicated teachers. In fact, many say they wouldn’t work anywhere else.
One is 2nd-grade teacher Mary Kay Brockmyre, a recent transfer. At her previous school, the principal blamed teachers for low test scores and didn’t seek their views on making improvements. “A lot of the teachers were cynical and unhappy,” she says. “Everybody went in their rooms and closed their doors. I really felt isolated.”
At Beethoven, teachers meet regularly and share ideas. Formal grade-level meetings occur weekly, giving teachers an opportunity to discuss difficulties students are having, design tests or brainstorm new activities. The school is divided into primary, intermediate and upper-grade “cycles.” Each cycle meets monthly, which helps teachers keep track of what material other grade levels are covering so that skills and content aren’t neglected or needlessly repeated.
In addition, classes start 10 minutes early each day. This cuts teachers’ morning preparation time from 30 minutes to 20 minutes, but the faculty recoups the time every Friday, when children are dismissed at noon. “Banking” prep time is now commonplace in Chicago schools; the practice was made possible by the Reform Act’s introduction of union contract waivers. Teachers typically use the concentrated prep time for meetings and workshops. At Beethoven last spring, the Adler Planetarium taught science projects in the library to some teachers while visiting artists worked with others on dance, drama and art projects to enhance the reading program.
Last year, Beethoven drew on several of its strengths–strong leadership and school organization, and a willingness to work hard–to address a potential crisis: The percentage of students reading at or above average slipped from 21 percent to 19 percent, only 4 points above the trigger for probation.
A week after the disappointing test results arrived, Oden called a faculty meeting in the all-purpose room to rally her troops. Next year, she announced, the entire staff–including teachers for music and gym, parent volunteers, the assistant principal and Oden herself–will help out in classrooms. “I want everybody who’s living and breathing to teach reading from 9 to 10:30. Because we are not going on probation. It’s as simple as that.”
“That’s right!” some teachers shouted. The room erupted with applause.
Later, Oden spread reams of computer printouts on her desk to compare each child’s 1997 and 1996 reading scores. Before the year is out, she will have questioned every teacher about every child. Her litany: If scores slipped, why? “How could I have helped you? What else could I have done? Was there anything that you needed?”
In early June, Oden called together an instructional team to brainstorm ideas for improving reading instruction. Oden had a list of her own, which the teacher members critiqued freely. Teachers brought the group’s ideas to their grade-level meetings for feedback and then met again to plot a course of action.
For one, the six teachers attending a university program on strategies for teaching reading will run workshops for the rest of the faculty. Teachers also will add more award-winning novels, a weekly poetry lesson and timed test-taking that mimics administration of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Oden wants at least 25 percent of her students on grade level next year. “I think that’s a realistic goal,” she says.
Beethoven’s approach to language arts appears less focused and systematic than Earhart’s (see article), but Oden shares with Earhart Principal Hellen DeBerry a collaborative leadership style that research endorses. A 1993 Consortium study found that among schools with autocratic principals, less than 30 percent were making substantial improvements in teaching core subjects, whereas more than 60 percent of schools with a “strong democracy” were improving instruction.
Sebring of the Consortium supports the democratic approach. “More people talk to each other, and that builds a sense of focus and vision in the group,” she explains. “You end up with stronger direction and commitment to get there.” Still, she finds that some schools are more comfortable with principals in a “maternal” or “paternal” role and that they, too, are making significant progress.
Dysfunctional relationships among teachers and administrators, however, can undermine reform efforts even when parties largely agree on goals, according to Northwestern University Prof. Charles Payne, who has worked extensively in Chicago schools. Good programs are often implemented poorly, undermined by mutual suspicion and then dropped for other programs, which likewise fail.
Urban school cultures tend to be the most problematic, Payne says. “What you’re doing in the city schools is taking people–principals, teachers, parents and students–with all sorts of class and race differences, putting them a place with very few resources and asking them to do an extremely difficult job. Naturally their anger has to come out someplace, and it comes out at one another.”
In Chicago schools with low levels of trust, Consortium researchers found teachers were less willing to critique their own teaching practices and accept constructive criticism from their principal and colleagues, practices that other research documents as necessary for improving instruction.
At Beethoven, teachers report high levels of trust and say they often seek out each other’s advice. First-grade teacher Dorothy Mitchell has taught at four other Chicago public elementary schools on the South Side. “I’ve been at schools where if you had a deficit as a teacher, you weren’t too quick to open your mouth,” she says. “But here, I might go to Ms. Oden or a colleague if I’m having a problem or I’m looking for other means to reach a student.”
The level of trust is linked to a school’s leadership, research has found. Trust tends to be higher at schools like Earhart and Beethoven, where principals set aside time for planning, seek teacher input, assist with discipline problems and set priorities and follow through on them.
At schools with a history of poor leadership and failed programs, however, distrust often becomes ingrained in the school culture and is hard to dispel, says Payne. One solution is to fire the “naysayers,” but that can be time-consuming, he notes. Instead, he says, some principals focus on giving “all the support in the world to your positive people. Eventually they begin to attract people from the gray middle.”
Students obviously benefit when parents and teachers trust each other. The responsibility for building trust, says Consortium Director Anthony Bryk, rests with the teachers. Many low-income parents lack the education and skills teachers have to help children learn and, as a result, may feel vulnerable, even intimidated, at the school, he says.
At Beethoven, teachers make that effort to bridge the gap.
“When I talk to a parent, I don’t ever say ‘your child.’ I always say ‘our child,'” says 1st-grade teacher Gloria Davis. (It’s a practice Oden encourages.) And the school never sends home an all-negative progress report. “That’s unfair to the child and unfair to the parents,” says Oden. “In every child you can find something good.”
Beethoven offers support services for parents as well. For instance, a 3rd-grade teacher meets twice weekly with a parents who want to learn word processing, write resumes or fill out job applications. A committed corp of parent volunteers, many of them local school council members, work full-time at the school.
Still, compared to Earhart, Beethoven teachers receive less support from parents when it comes to helping with homework or attending parent-teacher conference, especially in the upper grades. One teacher estimates that fewer than half of 1st-grade parents attend the fall open house. Student absences also are higher than at Earhart, with an average of 88 percent present on any given day.
It also took longer for Beethoven’s local school council to come together. Initially, personality conflicts among council members made it hard to reach agreements, according to the current chair, LaDora McKinney.
McKinney, a mother of seven who herself attended Beethoven, eventually took matters into her own hands. She recruited new LSC candidates whom she thought would work well together. They all won. “Now I have a council where we can all agree on things,” she says. “If we disagree, there’s no hard feelings. We’ll work it out.”
Only seven blocks south of Beethoven, Terrell Elementary at 5410 S. State faces a challenge the other does not: It is in a war zone. Three adjacent, red brick high-rises, known as “the hole,” are the site of intense gang activity. When warfare breaks out, Terrell students from other nearby buildings, which are controlled by an opposing gang, cannot cross by the red ones to get to school.
Board truancy specialist Leroy Slack, dispatched to Terrell in May, found that many parents, fearing for their children’s safety, simply keep them home. He concluded the school had done everything it could to raise attendance. “They can’t control the fear kids have of shooting and drug trafficking.”
The fears are well-founded. On a Monday morning in June, a man was shot dead in the hole; about 360 Terrell students stayed home that day. Police cleared the scene by 8 a.m., but some students still passed the victim’s bloody outline on the blacktop. Most teachers delayed reading for half an hour to talk with unsettled kids.
Principal Reva Hairston used to climb into the high-rises to fetch absent children. Now 65, she sends parent volunteers. Some problems they can solve–for example, if children are at home because they don’t have shoes. “Well, we’ll get them some shoes or some socks,” says Hairston, who within three months would be out of a job. Sometimes parents are less cooperative, even hostile.
The Reform Board launched a number of anti-truancy initiatives last year. Only one of them proved helpful for Terrell. Instead of shipping attendance data to central office, schools now enter the information directly into a centralized computer system. The system has helped Terrell spot truants more quickly.
Another initiative encourages schools to purchase a machine that dials the homes of absent students and plays a recorded message. Hairston decided against it because most of her families don’t have working telephones. A new hotline for reporting truant students hasn’t yielded any calls to Terrell, possibly for the same reason.
Under another program, welfare checks of parents with truant students are forwarded to social service agencies. Parents who come to claim the checks are offered counseling. Terrell says its agency has threatened to hold checks but has not followed through. Beethoven Elementary Principal Frances Oden, who uses the same service, also has found the program ineffective; she suspects the agency is overwhelmed.
In addition to irregular attendance, many Terrell students have under-developed language skills, a common problem among low-income children. A 1988 study by the Chicago Sun-Times found that only half of children entering Chicago kindergartens could speak in full sentences or identify the colors red, white and blue. In stark contact, 90 percent of children in the upper-middle-income suburb of Wilmette could perform these tasks.
Research studies have shown that parents on welfare typically converse far less with their young children than do working-class or professional parents, thus stunting their vocabularies. By the age of 3, differences between the groups of children are profound and continue to grow.
Teachers at both Beethoven and Terrell have observed children in the middle grades able to “read” words but not understand them. “It’s like dealing with children from another country,” says 4th-grade teacher Marsha Dada, who found students confused by words like “realized” or “fortune.” Defining unfamiliar words is a challenge, she says. “Our most basic synonyms might not be enough to make a connection.”
Preschool and kindergarten can help build language skills, and the new board has promoted both, mandating kindergarten and adding 250 preschool classrooms for at-risk kids. Another new program trains parents to act as home tutors for 3- to 5-year-olds. At Terrell, nine parent tutors served 27 families in 1996-97.
But research suggests that preschool alone won’t close the language gap and that what’s needed is intervention from birth onwards. The Reform Board moved into this new arena with Cradle to Classroom, which helps teen mothers at 18 schools with, among other things, parenting skills to support their children’s intellectual development. Says Hairston: “We start from behind, and we’re forever trying to catch up.”
Terrell has tried to catch up using a number of strategies, all with limited success.
In one, it added two hours of after-school tutoring three days a week. Unlike Beethoven’s extended day, Terrell’s was voluntary, and many of the kids who needed help most didn’t attend, according to Hairston. So, for 1997-98, attendance is mandatory, as recommended by Terrell’s probation manager, former Beethoven Principal Lula Ford.
Terrell also stepped up standardized test preparation, also under Ford’s guidance. Last school year, students spent many of their after-school hours taking practice tests. Under pressure to raise scores, many other schools did likewise.
But according to H.D. Hoover, senior author of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, “There’s no evidence that practice tests are useful in raising math or reading [scores.]” Students might try sample problems to learn the format, but “beyond that, time would be better spent on typical kinds of classroom materials,” he says.
Terrell’s greatest undertaking so far has been its reading curriculum. Several years ago, teachers voted overwhelmingly to adopt Success For All, a highly regarded program designed at Johns Hopkins University. Teachers were trained, and expensive books were purchased. But after Terrell landed on probation in September 1996, a regional administrator pressured it to switch to another program. While successful elsewhere, both programs ran into problems at Terrell.
Terrell’s problem with Success For All, says Johns Hopkins consultant Rachel Nicholas, was that “the principal did not enforce the program. Some teachers were doing a beautiful job with it, and some were not doing the program at all. Then the [school’s] facilitator quit because she felt she wasn’t being backed.”
Terrell’s instructional coordinator, Carol Moffett, has a different view. She says the facilitator alienated teachers by refusing to allow a modification they deemed necessary. Nicholas also opposed the change until the program’s designers could approve it, which they eventually did. “It was like, ‘It won’t work until I tell you it will work,’ ” says Moffett. “And by then, you’re a year behind and you’re frustrated.”
The replacement program, which is called Morningside and uses Direct Instruction for reading, fared no better. Teachers found it hard to work with the program’s consultant, who frequently contradicted a coach who did most of the classroom observations. “She [the coach] would tell them to pick up the pace, he would tell them to slow down,” Moffett explains. “Teachers would say, ‘He’s saying this, and she’s saying that. What are we supposed to do?'” Ford agreed the consultant should be dismissed.
The switch to Morningside in grades 3 to 8 reduced time for another popular program, developed with Barbara Radner of DePaul University. She had worked with Terrell teachers since 1992, helping them draw up schedules for covering skills and content in all subject areas. Skills were woven into units on high-interest topics like rain forests. Without time for Radner’s program, Terrell teachers doubt they covered all the science and social studies material mandated by the board and state.
Although Radner’s program was cut at Terrell, she is still the school’s board-approved “external partner.” The board is paying for all probation schools to get help from universities or other institutions to improve instruction.
Despite Terrell’s low scores, Radner saw progress with Success For All. Most teachers had gotten into a rhythm with it, and kids were engaged. She questions the switch to Morningside. “If you play hop-scotch with programs, your teachers are going to have to learn a different routine, and you’re going to lose momentum with both kids and teachers.”
The board’s chief accountability officer, Philip Hansen, suspected that Morningside and Radner’s program might conflict, and advised Hairston against the switch. “I offered to talk with the regional officer” who was promoting Morningside, he says. “She opted to go with it anyway.”
According to Radner, the key to improving test scores at Terrell is not new programs but better staff organization. Her program required weekly grade-level meetings where teachers could discuss teaching strategies, but she had to trek down to Terrell to make sure the meetings happened.
Closer monitoring of classrooms is also essential, she says. Looking at results from 16 schools she partnered under probation, those that made the most progress had principals who observed classrooms regularly and gave teachers feedback.
Hairston says discipline problems prevented her from spending more time in classrooms. But under probation, the school did make some serious efforts to improve staff organization.
A curriculum team with nine teachers started up in May under Moffett’s leadership. “Without one, we were swimming in the dark,” she says. Among other tasks, the team works on improving the continuity of skills taught from one grade level to the next. Another team was formed to address discipline problems.
One positive aspect of probation, Moffett says, is that it made teachers realize that success in individual classrooms would not be enough to raise scores schoolwide. Probation “focused us on trying to band together and think of the children collectively as our children,” she says. “We realized we sink or swim together.”
Hairston thought probation might have worked if there had been more time–it was not until January that support arrive from central office. That month, probation manager Ford met with Radner and a team from the school to write up a corrective action plan; it included more faculty workshops on reading instruction, daily homework, a new math textbook and more practice tests.
During the rest of the school year, Ford visited classrooms twice and dropped by the school a number of other times. Her impressions were generally positive: The principal was visible in classrooms and hallways, the school was orderly, parent programs were under way, and most teachers were interacting with students rather than hiding behind their desks.
“They might have done everything they were supposed to do,” Ford concedes. “The end results were not improved reading scores.” For that reason, Ford recommended reconstitution, under which faculty may be dismissed and the principal reassigned to a desk at central office.
In June, the Academic Accountability Council, a board-appointed body, recommended reconstitution because reading test scores had not improved–only 5 percent scored at or above national norms. In July, the board decided to reconstitute only high schools, but it did dismiss Hairston and principals at 10 other schools. Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen says elementary schools were spared the harsher penalty because they are smaller and new “leadership can make a significant changes in a short period of time.”
At the time of her dismissal, Hairston was only weeks from retirement, but the board ousted her anyway so it could select the school’s interim principal. Ford says that if left to the local school council, the job probably would have gone to an insider. “We need somebody fresh,” she explains.
The job went to Ceola Barnes, who had served two months as an assistant principal of Curtis Elementary and, before that, 16 years at Corliss High as a special education teacher and administrator. Barnes was selected by four top education officers–Ford, Cozette Buckney, Blondean Davis, Patricia Harvey–for her “high energy, experience with curriculum, and super organization,” according to Davis. No application process was involved in the board’s selection of interim principals. Among the four officers, says Davis, “We know everyone.”
Meanwhile, Moffett feared that with the threat of reconstitution still looming, teachers would jump ship. Hiring is not an easy task at Terrell. The neighborhood deters many prospects, and white teachers have been especially hard to find, according to Hairston. As federal law mandates a racially balanced faculty, she often was forced to keep qualified black teachers on as temporaries, rather than hire them permanently. During 1996-97, eight classroom teachers out of 32 were temporary, two were substitutes.
Over the summer, 12 teachers left, some for permanent jobs, some for schools not on probation. “Finding replacements is not difficult,” Barnes discovered, “but finding qualified, effective teachers is.”
Barnes also needed replacements for six LSC members who recently moved, now that dilapidated buildings in “the hole” are slated for demolition.
Also greeting Barnes on her arrival were the results of the board’s new summer school program for low-scoring 3rd-, 6th-, and 8th-graders. The program did not fare well at Terrell. Teachers found the board’s lessons too difficult for below-level students, particularly 3rd-graders. At summer’s end, most failed the retest and were retained. This year Terrell has six 3rd-grade classrooms and one for 4th grade.
But Barnes, a cheerful, energetic woman, feels up to the challenge. She arrived at Terrell in August not only bursting with ideas, but also buffered by a windfall. A federal program that ended in the early ’90s was clearing out its coffers. As a result, Terrell and four other probation schools are promised $500,000 a year for the next three years.
Barnes put some of that money to immediate use, hiring a reading specialist to coach teachers in the classroom, and a full-time disciplinarian to cut down on disruptions and free her to spend time observing teachers. “That’s my main job, to be in the classroom,” she says.
For reading, Barnes gave the curriculum team its pick of programs. “It doesn’t matter what I think if you don’t buy into it,” she told them. The team selected the textbook they used prior to Success For All and voted a return to Radner’s program.
Grade-level meetings happen weekly this year, with Barnes sitting in. Grade-level chairs also meet weekly to discuss curriculum. Teachers say they are pleased with the new organization, describe the principal as “upbeat,” and report “an air of optimism” in the building.
So far, no gang-war outbreaks have hurt attendance, and as apartments in “the hole” are vacated, violence may subside. The dwindling population could also potentially cut the student enrollment in half, giving Terrell some of the benefits of a small school.
“I feel very optimistic,” Barnes reports. “We have a lot of obstacles to overcome but we are moving.”