Harlan High School stands on a tree-lined street across from a row of tidy bungalows in Roseland. With its clean brick walls and park-side location, it hardly fits the image of an urban school of last resort.

Yet that’s what it has become. Last year, Harlan lost 77 percent of Chicago public high school students in its attendance area—a total of 1,529—to other Chicago public high schools. That’s the highest “defection rate” in the city.

An 8th-grader at a nearby elementary school puts it bluntly: “Most people who come out of here, if they don’t make the score, they go to Harlan,” she says, meaning grade-level scores on standardized tests. “If they made the score, they go to CVS or Simeon or Hyde Park—any other high school.”

Harlan, which opened in 1958, once boasted a very different reputation:

“One of the premier high schools on the South Side,” recalls School Board member Gene Saffold, Harlan ’72.

“An incredible school with an incredible faculty,” says Channel 7 talk show host Bill Campbell, Harlan ’68. “They always expected the most: ‘Excellence with no excuses.'”

Albert Foster, the district’s recently retired director of school intervention, attended Harlan in its glory days (Class of 1962). A March 1999 visit to the school left him deeply discouraged. For one, the building was in terrible disrepair: missing hall tiles, beat-up desks, plexiglass windows that had grown opaque, broken heating ducts that left classrooms cold.

“I must admit I had not seen many places that were worse,” he recalls.

But the most disturbing discovery came when a student approached the board’s accountability team in a hallway. “You guys are from downtown?” the boy wanted to know, and then proceeded to plead for help. His class math class had been staffed all year by substitutes, and the boy desperately wanted to learn the subject. “I said, ‘Isn’t that gut-wrenching? A kid begging to get into a class where he can be taught.'”

The school, Foster later learned, had only one certified math teacher. Eleven teaching positions had been vacant since September.

Harlan’s decline was gradual and, by most accounts, began in the mid-1970s. Middle-class Roseland was growing poorer, and the once integrated neighborhood was rapidly losing white residents. Still, the school attracted its share of good students, veteran teachers recall.

At the time, the alternatives were several vocational schools and two elite technical schools. “Permissive transfers” also allowed students to attend schools where they would improve racial balance. For the most part, though, Chicago public high school students of the ’70s stayed in their own neighborhoods.

Like many South Side high schools, Harlan was desperately overcrowded. The building was designed to house about 1,300 but enrolled some 3,500 students. Twenty-six mobile units stood out back, teachers recall.

The first blow to Harlan’s reputation came disguised as a blessing. To relieve overcrowding, the district opened two new high schools on the Far South Side, Corliss in 1974 and Julian in 1975. Harlan students were given the option of attending either. They left in droves.

“Because Harlan had such a high profile in the community, and it was a basketball powerhouse, I was a little dumbfounded,” says computer teacher Jack Oehmen, recalling the sudden exodus.

Former Harlan teacher and school alum Janice Ollarvia, now principal of Fenger High School, thinks students were attracted by superior facilities at the new schools. “Harlan was built when they were tossing schools up, and the quality of the construction wasn’t that good,” she explains. “It soon started to show.”

Magnet schools came next. Whitney Young opened in 1975, became a selective magnet school in 1980 and drew top students from across the city. Then in the early 1980s, the district launched magnet programs to attract students of different races to segregated high schools. Harlan’s neighboring high schools got programs in computer science or communications or literature and history, but Harlan was designated a “community academy” that would stress basic skills.

As fewer top students opted for Harlan during the ’80s, the school’s Advanced Placement offerings in English, math, history, biology and chemistry dwindled to none, Oehmen recalls.

Sports teams suffered, too. “You might think: Give me a school of low-achievers, and I’ll have a heck of a sports team,” Foster remarks. “No you won’t. Those kids don’t go out for sports … don’t go out for clubs. Then your school doesn’t have much in offerings.”

“And why you might not think that should be a factor, it is,” agrees history teacher Leo Boughton, who once coached the basketball team. “A lot of kids will gravitate towards schools that have good athletic programs even if they themselves are not athletes.”

Achievement continued to decline, the building to decay. Harlan’s principals may have felt too overwhelmed to fight for the school or were simply resigned to their circumstances, Foster speculates. “Somebody should have been over at the board beating on the table, ‘We’re dying out here.'”

By the mid-’90s, only 7 percent of Harlan students scored at grade level in reading on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency. Oehmen recalls that era as a low point for student morale. “Most had been sent here and didn’t want to be here. Somehow, Harlan had become the school of last resort.”

In September 1996, the mayor’s new school team placed low-scoring schools like Harlan on academic probation. Schools were to select a university or non-profit organization from an approved list to help them improve instruction and school management.

Harlan went through a revolving door of external partners. The school dropped the University of Illinois’ Small Schools Workshop, reasoning that dividing staff into smaller “schools-within-schools” was impractical given the small student body, an administrator recalls.

The board dropped a second partner, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, because bringing in the out-of-town consultants proved too costly, according to the Office of Accountability.

By 1999-2000, Harlan was on its third external partner, a pair of CPS reading consultants based in central office.

“Each time, it’s all new paperwork, all new routines,” one veteran teacher says of the constant switching. “You learn to use new materials and next year, start all over again.”

Teachers say they were inundated with paperwork. Under probation, staff are required to document their efforts to improve achievement, such as contacting parents and planning curriculum.

“Each year it became more and more insane,” one teacher recalls. “There were 1,000 things to do.” Between the spring of 1997 and the spring of 1999, Harlan had the fourth highest teacher-turnover rate of any high school in the district, according to data provided by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Over 20 teachers left.

“It got to the point of ‘Why are we doing this?'” another teacher explains. “We get paid the same as people who don’t have to put up with this.”

Some describe their principal at the time, Barbara Edwards, as likable but ineffective. She failed to clamp down on teachers who were repeatedly late to work or neglected paperwork, one veteran recalls.

The school’s test scores remained stagnant. In the spring of 2000, the board ousted Edwards, and scrambled to find Harlan a new leader.

One Wednesday last February, Patricia Grissett, an associate principal at Corliss High School got an unexpected call from Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

In 1999, the board tapped Grissett, then principal of Wendell Smith Elementary School, to serve as associate principal at a school on probation, a position that carried authority equal to the principal’s. Corliss had made progress under this arrangement, and now the board was calling to offer Grissett a new challenge. Could she start Tuesday? Hansen wanted to know.

Grissett, whose soft-spoken manner belies a steely determination, reviewed a copy of Harlan’s improvement plan and called a janitor to arrange a Saturday tour of the building.

The following Tuesday, the Region 6 education officer introduced Harlan’s faculty to their new principal. “I wasn’t nervous, no,” Grissett laughs. “First of all, you have to have a proven track record. Second of all, you have to have a passion for what it is you do.”

Teachers say they were not entirely surprised by the sudden switch in leadership, and took it in stride. “We knew that the board was getting rid of principals,” one explains. “We knew that we had been in this situation for a long time.”

Students were less receptive. Grissett introduced herself at an assembly and laid down some new rules. “Everyone booed,” recalls Anthony Ellis, a junior. “We liked our old principal—she let us do whatever we wanted.”

Several honors students say they viewed arriving at class on time as optional and, the day before vacations, routinely cut out after 3rd period— right in front of the security guards. “National ditch day,” they called it.

Now, with consequences like Saturday detention, tardies are down 50 percent, one girl estimates. The same security guards are more alert, too, the kids say. “They’re going to chase you,” another girl reports.

Students say the new principal made promises they figured she’d never keep. She talked about new floors, new windows, a renovated lunchroom and swimming pool.

Since 1996, the School Board has sunk billions into school renovation and construction, and Grissett got Harlan its share.

“She wrote letters, she called people. ‘How can we not have basic things?’ She just stayed on top of it,” says Associate Principal Gertrude Hill, who is Grissett’s second-in-command.

Foster observes that in this system, principals must squeak to get grease. “She squeaked loud and hard down at central office about her needs.”

“I’ve got to say, it changed the way I feel about school,” says junior Anthony Ellis, an honors student who says he came to Harlan after missing the application date for a more prestigious high school. “At first I was like, ‘Look at this place. I want to transfer.’ It’s all right now,” he adds.

Grissett’s agenda also included developing high-interest programs that would appeal to students struggling academically. When she arrived, she says, “Pitifully, there was nothing. So you were only dealing with a part of the child, the part that was unsuccessful, the part that could not read.”

Under guidelines developed under schools chief Paul Vallas, the board would fund vocational programs only if they met quality standards. None of Harlan’s did, so the school lost them, leaving rooms of dilapidated equipment, including sewing machines, stoves and refrigerators and some printing presses.

Grissett set out to salvage what she could. She asked education-to-careers director Creg Williams to tour her building. “Can I have a food service? A tailoring class?” she remembers asking. Because equipment was so outdated, she says, he rejected every idea.

Back at the drawing board, she hit on an idea. The school did have a computer lab and a teacher with a state certificate in computer science. One of the board’s approved vocational programs was information technology. Harlan applied and has been awarded $160,000 for new computers and wiring. The school has since added a carpentry program and junior ROTC.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve instruction have moved more slowly.

Hiring good teachers is one challenge. “Once you get the stigma of being a low-performing school and of being on probation, it limits the pool.” Hill explains.

Getting good teachers is a matter of beating other schools to the punch with early advertising and quickly scheduled interviews, the principal explains. Keeping them requires support.

Joyce Woldemariam, who has a master’s degree in mathematics, decided to switch schools this year. She says she chose Harlan for its small size and because it was her first interview. She reports she has a cabinet full of supplies and easy access to administrators. “They tend to ask a lot—what do you need? And I like that.”

Harlan now has a math department of fully certified math teachers.

Grissett also selected Harlan’s fourth external partner, DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. Teachers say DePaul is the best external partner they’ve worked with. For one, some say, they don’t just hand out advice. “They actually work with us. After we learn the strategies, they come into our classrooms and model the strategies,” says English teacher Katherine Brown.

Teachers also meet weekly by department to work together on lesson plans, tests and a common curriculum. “It’s no longer going to be laissez faire, where each teacher does their own thing based on what they’re comfortable with,” Foster explains.

Despite these efforts, though, the percentage of Harlan students scoring at or above grade level has risen to only 13.

Teacher morale has improved, but it’s still not high. The school lost two newly hired teachers to college prep schools. Some battle-weary veterans complain of fatigue. Some remain skeptical of the principal’s program, Foster says.

Of concern to everyone is the school’s high concentration of special education students, who make up 25 percent of this year’s enrollment. They include students with behavior disorders and those with mental disabilities who need to be escorted from class to class, says Grissett. “We are overwhelmed. They slow down instruction in your classroom.”

Faced with the goal of raising test scores, the school has made changing the composition of its student body a top priority.

“We’re more aggressively looking for alternative placements for students who are not successful here,” explains Assistant Principal Constance Buckner. That can mean alternative high schools for older students, she says, or a special education school for a student with a severe behavior disorder.

Recruiting better students is another strategy, one that Foster encourages at struggling schools. Sometimes staff doubt it’s possible, he observes. “I say, ‘Start small and build.'”

In fall 1999, the board opened Harlan’s Math, Science and Technology Academy, a magnet program that offers four years of accelerated math and science classes. It accepts only students with at least average standardized test scores. This year, 63 freshmen enrolled.

MSTA coordinator Darryl Brown notes that his students’ high attendance rate should boost the school’s overall average. “It’s one of the things that has to happen for us to get off probation.”

Last Spring, the Board also approved Harlan’s request for an Academic Center for gifted 7th- and 8th-graders. Twenty-seven 7th-graders enrolled this fall.

“I tell you right now, my 27 little 8th-graders next year will bring up the scores of the high school because they’ll be taking high school classes,” predicts Marcia Arrington, Academic Center director.

The trick will be keeping them for 9th grade, she says, “I’m hoping to keep half of them. And that’s going to be a challenge.” For one, Harlan needs to present them with a more rigorous high school curriculum than it currently has, she explains.

Parent Barbara Ray, a financial analyst, says her 7th-grade daughter will probably apply to Chicago Agricultural high school and Brooks college prep next year. But she acknowledges Harlan might have an edge: “She’s already here. She’ll have her friends here.”

Neighborhood elementary principals are taking note of improvements. Principal Sandra Lewis of Harold Washington elementary used to avoid mentioning Harlan to her students. Now, she says, “I’m sharing with them that it’s OK to go to Harlan. ‘You’ll get what you need there.’ I feel comfortable doing that now.”

By and large, however, the school’s bad reputation lingers on in the community. Foster remarks that the school’s decline didn’t happen overnight, and won’t be reversed overnight, either.

Meanwhile, Grissett has pressed him into service on her newly formed alumni committee. Its goal is to recruit former classmates to serve as mentors, participate in career day and raise scholarship money.

To that end, Foster, in his retirement, recently found himself helping stuff 1,500 envelopes for an alumni association membership drive.

“Our goal is ‘The Falcons shall soar once more,'” Foster chuckles. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s a possibility.”

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