After four years of probation with scant improvement on reading tests, Manley High School in East Garfield Park has embarked on the most intensive—and expensive—staff development program in the city and, likely, the state.
For the next three years, outstanding teachers with experience mentoring other teachers will serve as full-time coaches for the school’s faculty, working on instruction techniques in reading, writing and core courses. For starters, two foundations each have pledged $100,000 a year; the CPS Office of Accountability has put up $75,000 for the first year; and Manley has chipped in $125,000 from its discretionary funds.
The program is known as IWRAC, for Integrated Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum.
Launched last fall, it already is winning the hearts and minds of teachers. In January, 40 of Manley’s 65 teachers completed a survey anonymously. All but one agreed that IWRAC “had been respectful of the teachers at Manley.” All but two rated the quality of inservice sessions as good or higher. Almost 90 percent said IWRAC has helped them become better teachers.
Now in her fourth year at Manley, English-turned-reading teacher Susan Wineburner says she was about ready to call it quits. But IWRAC has restored her confidence enough to stick with the school. “The decision I made to come back next year is because they’ll be around,” she says.
IWRAC arose from a collaboration involving the Steans Family Foundation, which focuses its giving on North Lawndale (Manley is situated nearby), and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
“We were really struggling, trying to get the scores up,” says Principal Katherine Flanagan. While improved, the percentage of Manley students reading at or above national norms has yet to break into double digits. “It wasn’t that the teachers weren’t trying, but whatever they were doing wasn’t working. At that point, yes, I’m open.”
About a year ago, Flanagan and representatives of the two foundations asked Connie Bridge, a visiting associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to make an assessment of teaching at Manley. What Bridge found was common to low-achieving schools. “There was a need for improving instruction overall,” she says. “Much of the instruction did not focus on higher-order thinking skills. There was not much focus on engaging kids with the text.”
Bridge, Flanagan and Assistant Principal Joan Forte scouted for coaches over the summer, looking for teachers with at least five years of teaching experience, wide knowledge of instructional strategies and experience mentoring other teachers. “We knew that initially, when the rubber hit the road, they were gonna get resistance, even hostility,” says Peter Martinez, education program officer at MacArthur. “We wanted people who would not overreact to it, who would take it in stride and continue to be positive and supportive. That’s what we got.”
“We did our hiring in July and early August, much later than we had planned,” notes Bridge. “We got lucky with the quality of folks we found.”
The coaching team they put together spans the major subject areas. Jennifer Hester is a reading specialist completing a doctorate at UIC. Margie Neal is a social studies teacher from Irving Park Middle School. Josephine Gomez is a science teacher from ACORN Charter High School. The school could not immediately find a math specialist who fit the bill, so for the first year, it is making do with visiting consultants from UIC’s Interactive Mathematics Project.
To build trust, the coaches initially walked softly and let administrators wield the big stick. They spent the first semester getting to know the faculty through inservice sessions on reading strategies; they also made themselves available to teachers who wanted someone to observe them. A few, mostly younger teachers “saw it as a lifeboat” and jumped on board, says Bridge.
The veterans were nervous, she reports, especially since Manley is among the schools involved in re-engineering, which ultimately could force some teachers out of their jobs. “They had to gain trust that what we were doing had no connection to that. That took a while.”
Though the coaches made headway the first semester, Hester says that by November it was clear they would need added leverage to gain access to all classrooms. Bridge and Flanagan agreed to make observation mandatory. By late February, says Bridge, most of the faculty had been observed at least once.
The key to IWRAC’s success in building trust is simple: Its people walk in Manley teachers’ shoes. “This is a very different sort of inservice and external partner than we’ve had before,” wrote one survey respondent. “There is a very truthful aspect to it. I believe them when we have a conversation, because I know they teach our kids. … Yeah, they’re not blowing smoke and telling me about something they read in a book; something they did in some of the nice suburban schools. And that helps me trust them more.”
As at other schools, Manley teachers are introduced to one new reading strategy each month. What’s different is that the coaches are on site every day to answer questions, model, observe and give feedback. Also, knowing their colleagues’ specific course curricula, they can suggest concrete ways to integrate the strategies into lessons.
“In the past we had people come in, give us a strategy and disappear,” says social studies chair Cindy Degand. “The follow-up wasn’t good. Now there’s a structure. Strategies build off of one another; it’s not just a hodgepodge.”
In early April, Degand demonstrates through her U.S. history class for juniors what she herself has learned. Her goal is to get students to read texts with an eye for evidence to support a proposition and to write notes when they come across some.
She begins by reading a passage aloud and having students shout “stop” whenever they hear evidence supporting the proposition that separate but equal schools are unconstitutional. Her text is the U.S. Supreme Court decision on school desegregation in “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.”
A few days later, students are to examine the philosophies of Black Power, black nationalism and nonviolent resistance to injustice, and decide which was most effective in winning civil rights for African Americans. To get the three philosophies across to students quickly, Degand uses a “jigsaw” strategy—breaking the class into small groups to read documents related to one of the three philosophies. Students must find evidence to support the proposition that the philosophy they are studying is most logical and effective in winning civil rights. One member of each small group reads the documents aloud while the others decide when to say “stop” and take notes.
Before starting the activity, Degand reminds students about previous, relevant practice: the “Brown vs. Board of Education” exercise and a lesson where students debated which contemporary musician is the best singer.
In one group, Jasmine Mitchell reads a short article about the Montgomery bus boycott and a reflection by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how he came to embrace nonviolent resistance. Hitting a tricky sentence in the King reflection, she asks: “Am I reading that right?” Then she rereads the sentence: “Nonviolent resistance does resist.”
“Stop,” says classmate Terence Brownlow. He paraphrases the point by saying, “Just ’cause you don’t fight don’t mean you’re a coward.”
Near the end of the period, groups report to the whole class on their propositions and the support they have found for them. A student assembly begins this period, so class evaluations of the three philosophies will have to wait.
Coach Hester has observed Degand’s lesson and will meet with her the next morning to discuss what she saw.
Degand clearly enjoys weaving reading and writing skills into her subject matter. “It’s not the skill-and-drill test prep,” she says. “We’ve had a little of that. The kids resisted that. This is a sneaky way to get the skills in, and the kids don’t fight it.”
Students Catalyst spoke with appreciate the new effort, too. “The teachers influence us a lot to do our best,” says sophomore Tiesha McElroy. She and fellow sophomores Samaria Dent and Nancy Nelson agree that the quality of teaching and teachers’ levels of expectation have improved.
They also find the reading strategies helpful, especially QAR, which stands for Question-Answer Relationship. In this technique, students are taught to analyze the kinds of questions that accompany a reading passage and to decide what kinds of information they need to answer them. “Right there” questions require stated, factual information. “Author and me” questions are more inferential, requiring students to apply their own knowledge to what is stated in the text. “On my own” questions can be answered solely from the student’s opinion, but reading the text may provide a supporting example.
Nelson enjoys making up her own questions about a reading. “It makes you feel smart,” she says. “Say if you want to be a teacher, you know how to make up some questions. They’re giving us a lot of responsibility.”
Despite evidence of early progress, most of the partners in Manley’s unique endeavor are trying to keep their expectations for test gains low.
But administrators and teachers feel the pressure. “I’m praying to God that we do improve, even though I know it’s a process,” says Flanagan.
Already, Martinez of MacArthur and CPS Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen are considering how to replicate this model at a lower cost, should it prove successful. One option: Assign coaching teams to more than one school. “If it turns out to be effective, then the question you have to ask yourself is, What would you have to do to do this in broader numbers?” says Martinez. “You’re talking about a very expensive proposition here.