Alexandra Hunter

Since elementary school, King College Prep senior Alexandra Hunter has been in love with film. In 7th grade at Dixon Elementary in Chatham, she recalls being given a video camera, taught how to use it and told to “go out and shoot.”

“It was great. I’ve loved film and drama since then,” says Alexandra, who shot commercials and short films and, while still in elementary school, won an award from a film organization and the chance to review films in Italy.

So when it came time to choose a high school, Alexandra didn’t hesitate. She chose King College Prep in Kenwood. She and her mother, Carmen Hunter, attended an open house and heard the school’s glowing spiel promising top-notch teachers, a challenging curriculum and three specialty academic programs: architecture and engineering, information technology and, for students with Alexandra’s interests, the performing and visual arts. The selective enrollment magnet, formerly a low-performing neighborhood school, seemed a perfect fit.

But four years later, as she prepares to graduate, Alexandra says the school reneged on its promises. As a sophomore, she was so frustrated that she considered transferring to another school.

The numbers bear out Alexandra’s disappointment: Every other magnet high school in the system fares better than King, the only college prep that is not making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The district’s new high school score cards show King ranks last among selective high schools in ACT scores, the percentage of students meeting state testing standards and the percentage of students making expected gains on the ACT sequence of achievement tests (administered starting in 9th grade).

“I am not surprised at all,” says Alexandra’s mother, Carmen. “I didn’t think King was operating on the same level as the other college preps.” Other parents also grumbled about the school’s performance when the score card debuted last December.

King’s incoming 9th-graders have more academic ground to make up, signaling an even greater need for a strong curriculum that will prepare them for college: This year’s incoming freshmen posted the lowest admissions test scores of any 9th-graders entering selective-admissions schools, according to district figures.

The school’s leadership has been in flux. In January, former Area Instructional Officer Nathaniel Mason become King’s third principal in four years, when former Interim Principal Linda Coles took a job at central office. Coles, former principal of Keller Regional Gifted Center in Mount Greenwood, was installed in 2002 in place of Pamela Dyson, who had been charged with transforming King. Dyson subsequently became principal at Brooks College Prep. (Dyson died in early February.)

And teacher turnover has also been a problem. The year after Dyson left, 21 of 33 teachers and administrators left as well, including 10 staff members who had been at King since it was a neighborhood school. Turnover slowed the next year, with only four teachers leaving. But this year, 11 faculty members left. (Catalyst efforts to reach teachers at King were unsuccessful.)

“I can’t deny that King is having problems,” says David Pickens, the deputy to Schools CEO Arne Duncan. Acknowledging the disparity in achievement between King and its counterparts, Pickens added, “Our goal is to have very little difference from one [school] to another. We are looking at it.”

As for King’s new principal, Pickens adds, “Nathaniel Mason is very experienced and respected. We needed someone who could hit the ground running. When the new LSC is selected in April, they will be able select a principal.”

King’s story illustrates the difficulty of creating elite high schools, a key strategy in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s efforts to attract and keep middle-class families in the public school system.

September 1998: Grand plans, then a protest

Eight years ago, then-CEO Paul Vallas chose to overhaul King to help fulfill a requirement in the federal desegregation consent decree that all students have equal access to magnet schools. In 1998, King stopped accepting freshmen and Vallas hired Dyson, a founding teacher and staff recruiter for the high-performing Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, to take over as principal and oversee King’s conversion for a fall 2001 reopening.

King had been reconstituted, or re-staffed, the year before because of dismal test scores: Only 6 percent of freshmen were reading at or above national norms, and juniors were only slightly higher at 8 percent. Yet, Dyson was not deterred, and not overly concerned about the school’s poor reputation.

“I don’t think it will hurt,” Dyson said then. “The facility [then under renovation] will speak for itself, and if the school is packaged correctly, people will come.”

She and her team made grand plans.

“We will have dual enrollment where kids get college and high school credit,” Dyson told Catalyst in 2000. “We want professional people to be mentors. We will have job shadowing. We will have professionals working with our staff and they will do team teaching. We are talking with professors at [Illinois Institute of Technology], University of Chicago and Northwestern University.”

To head the performing and visual arts specialty, Dyson hired Marguerite Mariama, a performing artist and professor from The City College of New York (CUNY), who is also an expert at integrating arts into a school’s academic curriculum.

Mariama set up partnerships with local universities, including DePaul and Roosevelt, nonprofit art groups such as Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center and the Ravinia Festival.

“Our collaborations are helping us design the curriculum and prepare our students for careers,” Mariama said then. “These kids will be able to work in the field, be mentored by a film person or someone who does lighting. Many [job] opportunities are behind-the-scenes, and students will be exposed to that.”

But while the school was busy crafting specialty curricula, it neglected to advertise them. In May 2001, the School Board announced that King wouldn’t reopen as scheduled because only 50 students had applied.

Dyson had hoped to enroll 250. In contrast, close to 2,000 8th-graders jockeyed for 200 slots for freshmen at Northside College Prep when it opened in 1999, and 2,050 8th-graders vied for 381 slots at the new Walter Payton College Prep the following year.

At King, the announcement set off protests from parents and students, who charged that the postponed opening came after students were admitted and had attended orientation, and after the selection process for other magnet schools had ended. Some students were then offered the chance to enroll in other selective schools.

September 2001: ‘Miracle on 44th Street?’

To attract more students, Dyson enlisted 10 recruiters (many of them teachers) to visit elementary schools, hold open houses and send out e-mails and recruitment brochures, in a big push to get the word out about the “Miracle on 44th Street.”

“We were disappointed, but undaunted,” says Mariama. “We really had to get out and tell our story.”

In fall 2001, it was “the story” that caught Alexandra and her mother’s attention. Alexandra was already envisioning a career in broadcasting and film.

Carmen remembers that she heard about the new school, and then attended a high school fair with her daughter. “I met Dr. Dyson and Ms. Brice, the science teacher, and I was sold after they talked about how wonderful the school would be,” Carmen says.

In November, Alexandra and her mother attended an open house.

“We were told that the school would help us prepare for the ACT. Dr. Dyson told us we would learn broadcasting and we’d also have drama,” says Alexandra. “That’s when I knew I wanted to go.”

Alexandra didn’t know what to expect in high school, but she was sure that she’d learn more about film and broadcasting and be prepared to get into a good college that would give her a shot at a career in the highly competitive field.

The school’s advertising push paid off. It attracted 1,500 applicants for the 200 slots available in its first year.

But in September 2002, when the school opened and Alexandra was a freshman, a major shakeup took place.

At freshman orientation, Dyson announced she was leaving and Coles would take her place. Coles had no experience as a high school principal or teacher, but Duncan’s administration believed that her background at high-performing Keller gave her the instructional expertise to lead King.

“I wondered why they’d change the principal when she seemed to have everything down pat,” says Alexandra. Still, she was excited and looking forward to her freshman year.

But two months into the school year, Alexandra got her first inkling of trouble ahead.

In her drama class—part of her specialty program—students had written scripts and were preparing to film and edit them. But the teacher—who had only one year of experience, according to CPS records—didn’t know how to work the camera, a regular camcorder. Nor was he familiar with terms used in creating a film.

“I asked him about blocking, which is where you have a person stand to get the best [camera] shot, and he didn’t know what I was talking about,” Alexandra says. “I knew because I learned this in 7th and 8th grade.”

Next, the partnerships and mentoring opportunities never materialized. Mariama left not long after Dyson.

“We were supposed to have internships our junior and senior year, but the partnerships didn’t happen,” says Alexandra.

Cathy Smith-Dale, a parent member of the local school council, notes that partnerships in the other specialties didn’t develop either.

“My son has always wanted to be an architect,” says Smith-Dale. “So when I found out about the architecture and engineering program in 2001, we didn’t want to consider any other school but King. But later, there were no partnerships.”

At a January 2005 School Board meeting, she expressed concern to Duncan and Board President Michael Scott. “My son is a junior and he has not had the opportunity to have a relationship with IIT,” as the school had promised, Smith-Dale told the board. “King promised that students would have one-on-one [mentoring] with an architect, and it has not manifested.”

Mariama says the partnerships, at least for the performing arts program, were supposed to be put together even though she was leaving. (Teachers from the other two specialty areas were in charge of putting together their own partnerships.)

“My goal was to make King a premier performing arts school. My vision was huge, but it was doable,” says Mariama, who now works with school districts in New York. The school had partnered with Northwestern, DePaul Theatre Arts, the Art Institute, Roosevelt University, Ravinia and the University of Chicago. “We had it [set up] so our students would segue into their programs,” Mariama explains. “I told all the partners I was leaving and to continue. Dr. Coles said she’d follow through.”

But the partners contend that when Mariama left, their association with the school fell apart.

“When she left, there was no contact,” says James Gandre, the dean of performing arts at Roosevelt University. “It’s unfortunate because we’d been talking about the possibility of our students working with some of the kids [at King]. Performing arts teaches so much more than any one other subject can do. The investment pays off handsomely, especially in city schools.”

Melissa Meltzer, who was in charge of theater school admissions at DePaul, agrees. “This was a great idea to get universities involved and give students college credit,” says Meltzer. “But there was nobody who saw this as a priority.”

Coles says her hands were tied. “We didn’t have the funds to support [Mariama’s] salary,” she says, adding that the salary was paid by Schools and Regions (a CPS department that no longer exists) and that start-up funds for new schools could not be used for salaries.

Last year, however, Coles hired a coordinator to build partnerships with local universities, using additional discretionary funds that the school reaped when its low-income enrollment increased.

September 2003: not learning anything

For Alexandra, however, the effort came too late. In 2003, as a sophomore, she was so disappointed in the film and drama curriculum that she switched to band. At least, Alexandra says, she would learn how to play the flute and read music.

“I realized that there was no broadcasting class, no TV class, no cinematography, so I switched,” she says. “What I was doing was a waste of time. We were not working with lighting, sound or any cinematic properties. I wasn’t learning anything. And [acting, drama and film] was supposed to be my major in college.”

That same year, King’s teacher turnover was the highest among the other college preps, according to data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

While King’s specialty programs never lived up to expectations, more importantly—especially for students’ college prospects—neither did its academics. Last year, fewer than half of students met state testing standards. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, a key measure of academic rigor, is only 6 percent; the school currently offers only three AP courses, according to 2005 statistics: biology, chemistry and U.S. government and politics. The 2005 schoolwide ACT score was 19—too low for most competitive colleges.

While Alexandra maintained A’s and B’s, as a junior she began to doubt that she was being prepared for college. She performed poorly on the math and science portion of the Prairie State Achievement Exam last year, as did most King students.

The lagging performance is a serious matter for parents. “I’m very concerned with how little progress our students are making,” says Smith-Dale. “This is not what a college prep is supposed to be.”

Valencia Rias, a policy associate from Designs for Change, agrees. “If these schools are not at least at 75 percent and better, what good is being a college prep?” she says. “Their focus should be to get students into good colleges. There should be a template for all of them and some mandates, especially since parents have to jump through hoops to get their kids in.”

In her senior year, Alexandra has sought out programs on her own to help prepare for college. She was accepted into Gallery 37’s Center for the Arts program, where she studies video production every day for two hours.

“Even though I’d switched to band, everyone in the performing arts division was given a chance to be in Gallery,” she explains, adding that it took her three years to find some way to learn the production skills she was expecting to learn at King. “But better late than never, right?”

Alexandra, a self-assured student who isn’t shy about seeking out opportunities, also says she received very little help from King in her college search, although she says the school offered some ACT test prep and a counselor helped her apply to a college bridge program to earn college credits. She has applied to seven universities.

“Some of my teachers wrote me letters of recommendation, but other than that, I got nothing,” says Alexandra, who worked with her mother to search out colleges and send applications.

January 2006: Leadership, money, support

In retrospect, Carmen Hunter blames lack of leadership and central office support for the school’s problems.

“When Dyson was there, there was a plan,” says Carmen. “What happened to the plan, I don’t know.” She questions why the board would place an elementary school principal in a high school, especially a school that had problems getting off the ground. (In comparison, when the board decided to revamp troubled Lindblom again, it picked Northside College Prep’s assistant principal, Alan Mather, and hired Mason, King’s new principal, as a consultant to help with the effort.)

Pickens says central office believed that Coles was the right selection for King because, as principal of a magnet school, she knew what good teaching and learning looked like. One expert notes that choosing an elementary school principal to head a high school is not necessarily a bad idea, if the person has leadership ability and support from the district.

“They need high expectations of students and adults,” says Frank Barnes, a senior associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “They need to have some vision of what an effective school looks like. And you need money for the kinds of things that make a difference—support for teachers to learn the new curriculum, bringing in technology, and support for families and different partnerships that might be necessary to ease the transition.”

In retrospect, Pickens acknowledges that the district did a clumsy job of installing Coles. “Dyson created the school; Coles inherited it. I think we could have done this better,” he says. And while Dyson had only been on the job a year, she was replaced to create “a clean slate,” Pickens says.

Any principal charged with transforming a failing school needs to learn quickly, says another noted expert, adding that the district should allow for a transitional learning period and provide as much support as possible, including installing experienced assistant principals.

“When you have someone who has leadership qualities and lacks experience, the first is usually a loss because the person is on a very steep learning curve,” says Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University. “That usually occurs even with an experienced principal. But for someone who has not had those relevant experiences the learning curve is very steep.”

Any changes for the better at King will come too late for Alexandra and her classmates, who will graduate in June.

Now, Alexandra says if she could have done things differently, she would have chosen another school. And while cautiously optimistic, she is concerned that her high school education will hinder her in college. “I’m not sure if it will. I certainly hope not.”

Intern Emily Horbar contributed to this report.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail

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