When Pam Glynn walked into Hancock High School four years ago as the new principal, the school was on the verge of falling into an achievement black hole. Over the past decade, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT fell from a third to about 10 percent.

Glynn was charged with changing the school’s downward trajectory. But unlike the new principals at two other Chicago high schools that became part of the turnaround program—Orr and Fenger—Glynn didn’t have the luxury of bringing in her own staff and getting extra resources to reboot the academics and the school’s culture.

With hard work, Hancock began to improve. And this year, Glynn and six other high school principals finally got a big boost: CPS gave each school $5.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant funds, to be spent over three years to implement “transformation.” It’s one of four reform strategies that the U.S. Department of Education is supporting through the $4.6 billion SIG program, aimed at the worst 5 percent of schools in the country.

For CPS, the SIG money will help to answer a critical question: Is it necessary to fire an entire staff, as with a turnaround—as U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan once put it, “blow up a school”—to improve it? Or can the job be accomplished by pouring an abundance of resources into a school that shows a glimmer of promise?

Though this is the first year transformation has been tried in Chicago, it is the most popular of the four strategies among SIG schools nationwide.


Catalyst Chicago participated in a national reporting project on the federal School Improvement Grant program. The project was organized by the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Report at Teachers College- Columbia University and Education Week in collaboration with news organizations around the country. The project examined the impact of the SIG program, which provides money to improve the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools in the nation.

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Transformation is considered easier to implement because a school’s entire faculty does not have to be replaced. In the tiny town of DePue, in downstate Illinois, DePue High School Principal David Higgs says it would have been difficult to find all-new teachers. Though the high school draws from several nearby towns, DePue has just about 1,200 residents. Even finding a new principal was a bit of a struggle, and Higgs didn’t arrive until the second year of the transformation.

So far, 12 Chicago high schools have received grants under the program—a total of almost $70 million.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently posted a request-for-proposals for next year’s round of SIG awards. CPS is already preparing an application for Chicago Vocational Career Academy, one of a record number of 10 schools slated for turnaround next year. It’s unclear whether CPS will try transformation at more schools, or whether it will apply for the federal money to try and fix failing elementary schools. Unlike other districts, CPS has so far used its SIG money solely in high schools.

In choosing the schools for transformation, CPS officials hedged their bets and have taken the position that it will only try the strategy at schools that are already on the way up, and reserve the most drastic tactics—turnaround and closure/restart—for schools that are the most troubled. While the federal law calls for transformation principals to be new or hired within the last three years, CPS leaders decided that its transformation principals must have been in place for at least one year—to ensure that they have something of a track record.

Academically, the schools fit the federal definition of a SIG school—one that is in the bottom 5 percent in the nation. But they weren’t at rock-bottom: The percentage of students meeting standards on state tests was, on average, 12 percent at the transformation schools. In comparison, many other schools in CPS have pass rates in the single digits.

Tilden: From transformation to turnaround

One of the eight schools that received a SIG grant for the 2011-2012 school year never got its transformation under way.

 Now, district officials have decided to implement a more drastic turnaround at Tilden, in the impoverished Back of the Yards neighborhood. But the change in direction left a bad feeling among parents and teachers, illustrating the hurdle that officials face as they try to set the right stage and build support for these reforms.

Tilden, located on the border between a black and a Latino neighborhood and with a mixed student body, was once considered a decent option for students interested in career and technical education. But several of its programs, in finance and health occupations, had been shut down.

Still, the school had recently gotten a new principal, who had graduated from a University of Illinois – Chicago program that specializes in preparing candidates to take the helm at long-failing schools. But then, as often happens in Chicago Public Schools, the new principal decided to take a job at another high school—and took many of Tilden’s better staff with her.

“This greatly changed the building dynamic,” says CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan.

In the summer of 2011, as teachers from other transformation schools were involved in intense professional development, Tilden’s teachers were left out. They started the new school year without any idea of what was going on. Then, in late November, district officials announced that they planned to place Tilden in the turnaround program. Teachers got pink slips, and were told they would have to reapply for their jobs.

“The current state of the school, and the learning environment at the start of the school year, has led to the district’s decision to propose a turnaround at Tilden,” according to Shuftan.

Even though the district has decided to change directions, Tilden will likely still get the SIG award, says Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. (CPS, though, will have to revise and update the plan that was submitted for the school.)

But teachers, parents and community members were stunned at the decision. In Chicago, the announcement of a turnaround often sparks angst, as teachers and parents worry about the unknown and about bonds between students and school staff being severed.

For teachers in particular, going from one extreme to another—from elation at the news of the grant to the shock of being fired—was devastating. Teachers and parents at schools facing a turnaround often beg district officials to provide the existing school community with the extra resources that a turnaround brings.

“It was taken from us,” says Donna Perry, a special education teacher at Tilden since 2003. “We had $6 million at our fingertips and we wanted to use it for our children.”

Social-emotional learning

Schools that have received the federal SIG money for transformation have an outside partner to provide support for tasks such as developing curricula and providing outside learning opportunities. DePue High School’s outside partner is the state Association of Superintendents.

In Chicago, five transformation schools work with CPS’ Office of School Improvement, which uses many of the same strategies that have shown success in turnaround schools. For example, to bring order to the school climate and cut down on tardiness, staff do hall sweeps—clearing the hallways once classes start.

One of the transformation schools works with America’s Choice, which offers help with curriculum. (Josserand says they also have worked on culture and climate issues.) Two schools work with the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Work. The network’s goal is to help principals and schools develop systems to prepare low-income students to enter, and stay in, 4-year colleges.

In addition to an outside partner, transformation principals and leadership teams come up with an improvement plan. Each school has hired three to four people to work on social-emotional issues. They have attendance deans and student advocates. Most have brought on at least one additional social worker.

Wells Principal Ernesto Matias says these extra supports have made a real difference for his students. This year, two of his students attempted suicide, one student was shot and several young women became pregnant. In the past, the school had only one social worker—whose main job is maintaining paperwork for special education students—to deal with issues like these.

This year, in a matter of minutes after their problem was discovered, students were sitting down talking to Edwin Caraballo or one of his six social work interns. Caraballo says once a student becomes involved with him, he stays on them.

“I go after kids and try to break their bad habits,” he says. “If they don’t come to school, we will hunt them down.”

Caraballo works closely with the school’s on-track interventionist. Sara Shields is a data maven, keeping tabs on the grades and attendance of 9th-grade students. The minute she sees a dip, she takes action.  

But Shields says her job entails more than keeping close tabs on students when they seem to be on the path to trouble.  “I interact with students,” says Shields, whose office is in a classroom on the third floor, in the midst of the freshman wing. “I build relationships with them. One of the most successful ways to keep students on track is to build relationships with them.”

Intensive academics

 Keeping students on track toward graduation also requires additional academic support. At transformation schools, these staff are often called interventionists or reading transformation teachers.

At Hancock, Glynn brought on Ray Salazar to be a writing coach. Salazar teaches classes, but he also pulls students out of their regular classes and works with them on their papers. Salazar says he has helped more than 180 students, along with training teachers on how to better help their students in class.

Glynn says when she first arrived at Hancock, the teachers seemed disconnected and the expectations for students were low. Hancock has about 1,000 students and is in a working-class Latino neighborhood.

Back then–before the school became part of the district’s transformation effort–Glynn joined the Network for College Success, which was just starting to work with a group of high schools. The network suggested that Glynn have students take a survey designed by Harvard University education professor Ronald Ferguson that asks what students think about their classes.

This way, the students–not Glynn–deliver the news to teachers.

“The results were eye-opening,” Glynn recalls. Students said that teachers had low expectations of them and that their classes were not rigorous.

Glynn then had intense conversations with teachers about their practice. She worked hard with the teachers to improve their lesson plans and to raise their expectations of students. Some of the teachers were unhappy and left.  But most of them stayed and have gotten better.

Now, Glynn says she’s glad she kept the old teachers. “When you have a brand new set of teachers, it is difficult to know how it will play out,” she says. “They may be well-versed in content, but may come from a different socio-economic group and might struggle to connect with kids.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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