Field Elementary School Principal Brian Metcalf sits in on Saul Rodriguez’s fifth-grade reading class. Last year, Rodriguez and one of his colleagues suggested they split the students into all-girls and all-boys classes. Metcalf was hesitant, but tries to treat his teachers as professionals, so he let them give it a try. [Photo by Marc Monaghan] Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

When the principal of Field Elementary left abruptly in April 2011 and a spry Brian Metcalf took over, math teacher Roger Gutierrez was not sure what to think. 

He didn’t know if Metcalf would want him to stay on at Field, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay on either. Metcalf was youngish—in his late 30s—and a fit, slightly built man with a lot of energy. Gutierrez thought Metcalf might want to hire up-and-comers in his own mold. 

Though it was only his third year of teaching, Gutierrez was a career-changer, old enough to have a receding hair line and three children. To get to work, he traveled from the Far Southeast Side to the Far North Side, so he half-way thought about finding a job closer to home. 

But Gutierrez had begun to develop a rapport with his students and their parents, especially the Mexican mothers and fathers who considered him an ally. 

“I had gotten to know the community,” he says. “I think people want to stay at a place, to get to know the kids and be able to make a difference. “

Gutierrez worried that Metcalf would not want him because he had been hired by the principal who just left so abruptly. Gutierrez was “that guy’s guy”—so much so, that Gutierrez suspected colleagues viewed him as a spy for the administration. 

Especially at low-performing schools like Field, principals often set about doing their own unofficial “turnaround,” pushing out existing teachers to bring on hand-picked hires to carry out their vision. 

And Field, in Rogers Park, was in desperate need of vision. The school had sunk to the bottom rung on CPS’ academic performance scale. Fewer and fewer students enrolled each year, and half of the children in the school’s attendance boundary didn’t go to Field, according to CPS data. Single-family homes in the area sell for as much as $650,000 and condos for $350,000, but the school is 98 percent low-income. 

Metcalf was Field’s fourth principal in the past decade. Plus, the school had higher-than-average teacher turnover. 

Gutierrez, whose brother is a principal, knew there was a good chance he would be gone. The one thing he believed might save him was his skill with technology. “I was the only one that knew how to fix the copy machine,” Gutierrez jokes. 

But to his surprise, rather than take a clear-the-decks approach, Metcalf went against the grain. He dug in deep with the idea that stability and good teaching were important to the school’s growth. Perhaps it was the naiveté of being a new principal, but Metcalf says he believed he could have both.

“I came in and looked at a number of things,” Metcalf says. “There was a sense of urgency, but I did not go around handing out pink slips or e-3ing (the process of firing a teacher). I just started talking to teachers, saying ‘How can we do that? How can we change? What do you need?’”

With only two years at the helm, it is too soon to say whether Metcalf will turn out to be the superstar principal who transforms Field into a consistently high-achieving school that attracts more neighborhood children. But under his leadership so far, students’ academic growth is far above average, as is attendance—of both teachers and children. The on-track rate, a collection of indicators that aim to predict high school graduation, has also improved.

Plus, only two teachers have left Field in that time. One returned to military service and the other left the school for personal reasons, Metcalf says.

Metcalf devotes much of his time to being “in the trenches” with his teachers, observing them in their classrooms and spending weeks at a time with those who are struggling. He believes they can improve, and he demands that it happen. 

“I have high expectations and I help them get there,” says Metcalf.

His background gives him a wealth of expertise and authority as an instructional leader: Metcalf was an assistant principal at another North Side school before coming to Field. Prior to that, he taught Spanish for more than a decade at Simeon and DuSable high schools.

At first, Gutierrez says he was nervous when Metcalf came to his room. But over time, he has gotten used to it and now, he even appreciates it. Gutierrez calls himself a “tinkerer” who always wants to know how he can fix things. He values Metcalf’s explicit feedback, as well as the fact that he will even teach a lesson himself to demonstrate how something should be done.

Though Metcalf believes teachers can improve, it isn’t always easy.

One day, he Metcalf points to April Harper and tells her, only half-jokingly, that she’s responsible for some of his gray hair. Harper responds that if it weren’t for him, she likely would have left teaching altogether. 

Harper is just in her second year of teaching and had a difficult time her first year. Metcalf hired her because of her passion for one of the toughest jobs in a school: teaching special education. 

Before enrolling at Northeastern Illinois University to become a teacher, Harper worked as an aide in a classroom for autistic children and fell in love with the job. “That was it,” she says. “That was my calling.”

At Field, she was placed in a special education classroom for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students who had a variety of learning or behavioral disabilities and different skill levels. Almost right away, she felt overwhelmed. 

An admonishment from a former professor stuck in her head: “He said that what you do as a child’s teacher changes his or her life,” Harper recalls. The weight of that responsibility was too much at times. 

At first, Harper had 19 students—more than the maximum allowed for special education classes. Scheduling was another challenge. The students attended different classes with non-special education students, so there was a flow of children in and out of the room. 

Metcalf hired another teacher to split up the class so Harper would have no more than 12 students. 

But she still found it daunting to teach to each student’s ability level, keep up with schedules and complete all the required paperwork. “There were many times that I was in tears, ready to leave,” Harper says. “There were so many blank spaces in their academic [background] that there was so much area to cover.”

Metcalf soon realized she was in trouble. So he camped out in Harper’s classroom, observing where she struggled and giving her teaching strategies to help. He also met with her for hours after school and on Saturdays, helping her plan lessons and put together systems to make her classroom run smoothly.

A year later, Harper is much more at ease. On the white-board at the front of her class, she breaks the day into 20-minute segments of time to keep track of the work to be done. 

Mid-morning one Monday, Harper has her students read a short passage on Cleopatra, each one taking a section. One boy stumbles on several words, such as “snake.” Without missing a beat, Harper tells him the word and then praises him for doing a good job. Then she reads the whole passage out loud and has students answer a few questions. Each of them appears to follow along, and they answer the questions correctly.

“So you all got it,” Harper says to the class. Without wasting any time, she tells three students, the seventh-graders, to go to their regular-education class with other students in their grade. She quickly starts a math lesson with the remaining three eighth-graders.

Harper says she could stay at Field for 20 years, doing the same thing. “I just love it. I just love the children,” she says. 

For more veteran teachers, Metcalf takes a different approach.

Last year, Saul Rodriguez, the fifth-grade reading teacher, and a colleague suggested to Metcalf that the students be split into an all-boys class and an all-girls class. “Our strength was working with boys, so we thought that splitting them up would force us to get better in working with girls,” says Rodriguez.

But Metcalf was not so sure. “I was not a fan. I was saying ‘No’ and they were saying ‘Yes.’ There was push-back, but it was never disrespectful. I have the ultimate veto power, but if they could frame it in a way [to show] that it is better for children, I was open to it.”

Metcalf had concerns, but finally agreed to let the teachers try it. 

Rodriguez says that the boys have skyrocketed under this approach, but there are still some concerns with the girls.

In addition to seeing teachers as collaborators and being open to their ideas, Metcalf also believes in treating them as professionals. For one, he seeks out opportunities to send teachers to conferences of the professional organizations for their subject areas. “It is a very sacred thing to attend conferences,” Metcalf says. “We want our children to be lifelong learners, so we need to be the first partakers of [learning].”

Gutierrez took a pass the first time Metcalf invited him to attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference, partly because it was such a foreign idea in CPS that he didn’t see how it could be valuable. But he has attended now for the past two years and raves about the experience. 

“They have been career-affirming,” he says. For one thing, Gutierrez gets a chance to kibitz with teachers from across the country, and realizes that he isn’t alone in the struggle to meet ever-higher expectations for teaching and learning. 

He also got a whole bunch of new ideas. “I came back with a suitcase full of resources,” he says. “It was really, really wonderful.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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