Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of students who are retained attend schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Even though the School Board has poured tens of millions of dollars into expanding pre-school, full-day kindergarten, summer school and after-school programs, some high-poverty elementary schools retain upwards of 40 percent of their 3rd-graders who are tested. That’s more than twice the city average.

Yet even within the poorest neighborhoods, some schools retain very few students, the Consortium on Chicago School Research has found. Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn is one of these stand-outs. Although 98 percent of its students come from low-income families, the school has retained only 5 percent of its 3rd-graders in the past two years, and has never retained a 6th- or 8th-grader.

At first glance, the reasons for Carnegie’s success are elusive. The school hasn’t rolled out any innovative new programs lately. Teachers, a typical mix of veterans and novices, follow the same math and reading textbook series found in many Chicago schools. Principal Thomas Avery says he’s just doing his job; he’s uneasy at being singled out for a profile.

Under Avery’s nine-year leadership, however, the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills has risen dramatically—from 20 percent to 40 percent in reading, and from 12 percent to 55 percent in math.

“What you have is your average student and your average teacher,” observes 4th-grade teacher Sandra Slaughter. “What you see here is above-average effort—on the part of the teachers and of the students and of the parents.”

Carnegie teachers and students do indeed put in long hours. An after-school program provides an hour of clubs, sports, homework help or intensive help in math and reading. The School Board’s Lighthouse program extends the day an hour further with additional time for math and reading. Unlike at some schools, all students in grades 1 to 8 are encouraged to stay—not just the low-achievers or those in the “retention” grades.

In the months leading up to spring testing, teachers put in three hours each Saturday, working with small groups of students who need an extra boost.

On school days, teachers routinely show up early and stay late to plan lessons, with some arriving as early as 7:30 a.m. Avery often finds them busy in their classrooms well after 6 p.m. “Sometimes I have to tell people, ‘You’re spending too much time at the school. You need to go home,'” he says.

Asked why they are willing to work so hard, teachers credit the support they get from their principal. “He gives us 100 percent,” says 6th-grade teacher Catherine Hegwood. “And as a result, we’re able to give 100 percent to the students.”

“The morale is high—extraordinarily high,” agrees 5th-grade teacher Leslie Barron, a Carnegie veteran. She notes the changes since Avery arrived in 1991: The school devotes a full hour and a half to reading each morning, during which time no interruptions are allowed. No intercom. No visiting parents. “Teaching comes first.”

Textbooks show up before school starts—not in October, November or December, she continues. Teachers no longer have to mount a campaign just to get basic supplies like chalk and copier paper. They don’t even have to argue for time off to go to professional development conferences; Avery encourages them. “When teachers have what they need to do their job, they don’t mind putting forth the extra effort,” Barron explains.

Giving teachers his full support was crucial to turning the school around, Avery says. When he arrived, staff morale was low, he recalls. “I wanted to change that. I wanted [Carnegie] to be a place where teachers wanted to come to work.”

Toward that end, he quickly approves teachers’ requests. At the same time, he checks to see that teachers use what they get—that new books are opened, equipment used, information from conferences shared with the staff. “So the word around here is, be careful what you ask for,” he quips.

Building a new school culture took time, however. Over the years, he encouraged 10 or so unsatisfactory teachers to leave.

Changing the culture also required a careful introduction of new teachers to the school. Knowing that the attitudes of new teachers could be shaped for better or worse by their colleagues, he paired newcomers with top teachers to mentor them.

When Catherine Hegwood arrived three years ago, “I watched teachers and patterned myself after what they were doing,” she says. What she observed were high expectations for academic success, personal concern and regular contact with parents. “OK, let me try that and see if it works for me,” she decided.

In particular, Avery has tried to impress on teachers the need to uncover, in cooperation with school counselors and parents, students’ problems that may interfere with learning. “As educators, we cannot take it for granted that just because we’re teaching a lesson the student is learning. If the student is not learning, it’s up to the teacher to find out why.”

Cheryl Jolly, who does vision and hearing screening for the School Board, finds Carnegie teachers unusually attuned to their students. Unlike teachers at many schools on her rounds, she explains, those at Carnegie know who is supposed to have eyeglasses and, as a consequence, students actually wear them. (The School Board itself has identified poor eyesight as a major cause of reading problems among 8th-graders who were sent to transition centers last year.)

“We know the kids,” says Lynda Neely, who teaches 8th grade at Carnegie. “We know everything about them. We know who needs shoes, we know who had a quarrel last night, and they know that we know.”

To find out what students have to say about Carnegie, CATALYST sat down with two boys and two girls randomly selected from the 8th-grade class.

Teachers are “really strict,” they report, and that goes for behavior, homework and wearing school uniforms. The work, they agree, is challenging. For instance, they’ve started reading “Romeo and Juliet,” which is required for CPS freshmen. And just last period, in social studies, they had to rewrite the Declaration of Independence in their own words.

But strict doesn’t mean boring. Carnegie teachers keep things interesting, especially in the after-school program, the children say. There, a teacher might have them act out a story to improve their reading comprehension. “They do stuff so it’s fun and we don’t fall asleep,” says Khrishawan Person, 14.

Asked whether they’ve ever had a hard time getting teachers to explain something they didn’t understand or to answer questions, a complaint CATALYST has heard among retained 8th-graders, all four shake their heads no—vigorously—and run down a list of teachers they go to for extra help.

Students also get tutoring, they point out. The nearby University of Chicago pays 15 of its undergraduates to work at Carnegie during school hours. Another 15 University of Chicago law students tutor after school.

All four students Catalyst interviewed also say they feel comfortable talking to teachers about personal problems. “If something is happening at home, the teacher will say, ‘Whatever you say, it will stay in these four walls,'” explains Tavaris Grandison, 13.

The principal takes a personal interest in them, too, according to the 8th-graders. William Topps, 13, admits that he has been in trouble. At one point, Avery sat him down for “a nice long talk” about a boy just like him who got shot by a gang. “He asked, Did I want that to happen to me? I said, no.”

The principal sent him home for a couple of days to think it over, as William puts it. That talk and one with his mother convinced him to change his ways. Now Avery is writing him letters of recommendation to high schools, William says. “He be helping me out.”

“To me, Carnegie school is like an extra home,” he adds.

“Kids have to know you care,” Avery insists. “They have to genuinely know you care about them. You can get anything from a kid—anything from a kid—when they know you feel that way.”

Indeed, a 1996 Consortium study found that students were most engaged with schoolwork when staff combined caring with academic rigor. Neither personal attention nor a strong academic program alone had much impact on students’ effort and interest in learning.

While the threat of retention does spur some 6th- and 8th-grade students at Carnegie, teachers say, others are motivated by a desire to do well, or by parental expectations. Overall, teachers say, parents support their efforts—from monitoring homework to enrolling their kids in the after- school programs.

Switching schools frequently, which can have a devastating impact on student learning and is a common experience among retained students, is no longer a major problem for Carnegie and its students. Since the early ’90s, Carnegie’s mobility rate has fallen from about 40 percent to 20 percent. Avery attributes the decline to parents’ increasing confidence in the school.

Parent Miriam Polk, vice chair of Carnegie’s local school council, finds that the enthusiasm of Carnegie’s staff rubs off on parents. “You have teachers who are very fired up about teaching, and when parents see that, it makes them want to participate more,” she observes.

Avery doesn’t claim to have any special strategies for drawing dedicated teachers to Carnegie. He supposes he’s just been lucky.

Linda Parker, curriculum and technology coordinator, disagrees. “Word gets out—Carnegie is a good place to be. Teachers seek this school out.”

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