When James Menconi was hired as assistant principal at Monroe Elementary in 1992, reading scores were dismal. Only 18 percent of the students at the Logan Square neighborhood school were reading at grade level. “Something is wrong here,” Menconi recalls thinking to himself. A year later, Menconi, a reading specialist, was promoted to principal. “So I started working on a couple of things,” he says.

Menconi has launched a comprehensive reading initiative, spanning slow to gifted students. Reading Recovery was brought in for struggling 1st-graders. Remedial reading teachers work with students in small groups and one-on-one. Accelerated Reading aims to motivate students to read books on their own.

Test scores are reflecting his efforts. Last year, 36 percent of Monroe’s students scored at or above grade level on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; 40 percent scored at or above grade level in math, up from 20 percent eight years ago.

Fifth-grade teacher Sandra Socha credits Menconi’s fundraising. “He’s a great proposal writer,” she says. “He’s brought in funds for lots of things—for beautification [and] for educational programs.”

However, at a principals meeting this winter, Menconi learned that Monroe would lose $460,000 in state and federal poverty funds in the 2000-2001 school year. That’s a whopping 38 percent of the school’s discretionary budget. “It was a total shock,” says Menconi. “When something like this happens, you really need to be put through some kind of transition. You’re talking about a lot of staff reductions when you lose that much money.”

Menconi now faces the daunting task of deciding which programs and which personnel will be cut. Meanwhile, he continues to battle overcrowding. There are 1,320 students using every inch of a building designed to serve 700 students, and a three-story annex built to serve another 300. Several hundred neighborhood children are bused out.

MAR 9 More money, please!

Six Monroe local school council members are holding an emergency meeting this morning in Menconi’s office. They’re composing letters to Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Ald. Vilma Colom to alert them to the consequences of losing $460,000 and to plead for financial help.

The council wants $250,000 in transitional funds, or hold-harmless money, from the Board “to help us defer the trauma of these reductions.”

Monroe is losing all of its $319,000 federal Title I funding, which is based on a variety of poverty factors. The pill is a particularly bitter one for Monroe to swallow because it fell just a quarter of 1 percent short of the board’s cutoff.

“That’s just one or two families, and for that we lose $319,000,” says LSC member Roula Georgiopoulos.

LSC Chair Idida Perez adds, “We’re going through this because the criteria they use hasn’t been adjusted. Parents are being forced to work because of the new welfare laws, but they’re still low income.” (Perez is the chair of the CATALYST editorial board.)

Monroe also is losing about $140,000 in state Chapter 1 money. A couple of factors contributed to this decline. First, fewer Monroe students signed up for the subsidized lunch program, the sole measure to qualify for the money. On the other hand, more students systemwide are eligible for a finite amount of state poverty funds. In other words, the same amount of money must be distributed over a wider base. This year, schools received $710 per low-income pupil; next year, they’ll get $692.

Menconi predicts four to six teachers and aides will have to be let go, and class sizes could rise to 35 students or more. The band, field trips to Washington D.C. and Springfield, Ill., and several reading programs—Reading Recovery, PALS and Accelerated Reading—all face the chopping block unless the board helps out, he says.

MAR 14 Planning for the next school year.

At 7:30 this morning, about 25 teachers meet in the library for a School Improvement Plan planning session.

Monroe does not have an SIP committee. Instead, every teacher is invited to join in the process. Parents are encouraged to participate as well, says Menconi, “but early in the morning isn’t a good time for them. This should be an open process.”

There are two or three SIP meetings a week throughout the month of March. Despite the early hour and voluntary participation, the meetings are well attended.

Today’s agenda will concentrate on this year’s accomplishments. At the next meeting, attendees will talk about the year’s defeats.

Teachers divide into three groups to discuss instructional programs, professional development and parent/community relations. Each takes 20 minutes to compile a list of achievements.

The professional development group agrees that the best sessions are provided by Monroe’s own staff, not outsiders. Information provided by fellow teachers tends to be more realistic and specific, and less theoretical, says art teacher Judith Chambers. “They give you ideas that are already working, not something where you listen and then say, ‘That will never work with our kids,'” she comments. “You also get to know everybody on the staff in a different way.”

Chambers then throws out an idea. “I’m interested in doing an inservice on bulletin boards.” This brings a round of applause from her teacher colleagues, who are on a monthly rotating schedule to decorate Monroe’s bulletin boards.

Talk turns to conserving the amount of paper used on the bulletin boards, which are meticulously maintained at Monroe. “There won’t be any money for art supplies next year,” Menconi reminds the group, referring to the funding cuts. “You’d better start conserving.”

The group dubs quality circles as a “wonderful” professional development accomplishment. Quality circles are twice yearly meetings between Menconi and same-grade-level teachers. An aide takes over while teachers are away from their classes.

“It’s a chance to talk about the kids and share any problems the teachers might be having,” says Menconi. “I’m meeting with the 8th-grade teachers tomorrow. We’re going to talk about who’s failing and what interventions need to be taken.”

Sandra Wadington has been teaching a gifted 7th- and 8th-grade English class since the program was expanded to those grades four years ago. Gifted classes for younger students in 1st through 6th grades have been around much longer.

The junior high students didn’t immediately thrive in the program. “The peer pressure not to succeed in the regular classroom was just incredible,” says Wadington, who has been at Monroe seven years. “Nobody wanted to stand out. Nobody wanted the others to know how smart they were.

“It took a couple years in the gifted program for them not to be embarrassed and not think of themselves as nerds. Now, they’re very proud of themselves. Their scores have zoomed up. Our gifted program carries the scores [for the school]. Very few students aren’t reading a year or two above grade level. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable this program is to the students.”

Students are tested to see who qualifies for the program, which isn’t as selective as a gifted magnet school. The gifted centers, says Wadington, look at students above the 95th percentile. “We would dip down into the 85th or 90th.”

Her 30 gifted students today are concluding a unit on the Holocaust. They are discussing “Night,” a novel written by Elie Wiesel. Working in groups, they tackle questions such as: What part of the book did you find most sad? How would you have punished the Nazis?

Wadington’s regular 7th- and 8th-grade English class studies the Holocaust, but students skip research projects which are done by the gifted students. Another difference between the two levels: Regular classes read an abridged, modern English version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The gifted students read a complete version in old English. “The gifted class also reads more novels in a year. The pace in the class is quicker,” she says.

But the funding crisis casts uncertainty for this program, too. “We don’t have enough novels, we need computers, we need modern things,” Wadington says.

The regional gifted office gave her money for a printer to hook up to the two computers in her room, but the computers were out of memory so the printer doesn’t work. “We’re trying to purchase more memory, but again, it’s a matter of funding. We have no Internet connection. My kids are interested in so many things, and we don’t have access to it.”

MAR 17 Board agrees to soften the blow.

For the past week, Menconi has been lobbying the Region 2 office and the board budget office for “hold harmless” money to soften the impact of the funding cuts. Today, he learns from CPS Budget Director John Maiorca that Monroe will receive $158,000 from the board. Now facing a lower shortfall of $300,000, Menconi hopes he won’t have to cut as many—or any— positions.

“When a school loses a significant amount of money [more than $100,000], we try to help them through the transition period,” says Maiorca. “With the federal money, if a school falls below a certain percentage of their population considered to be poverty, it’s like falling off a cliff. They don’t get any of it. With the state money, it depends on the number of students you have.”

Since the beginning of the school year, Monroe has lost 148 students to transiency. According to Menconi, 97 of those children would have qualified for free lunch because their families receive welfare. To make sure Monroe recovers some of the poverty funds it lost, Menconi says he is planning to enroll students who were bused out this year—a strategy that will also increase class size.

Class size in several grades declined this year compared to previous years. Alexis Forsythe’s 1st-grade class dropped from 31 students in August to 24 in March. Teacher Sandra Socha has 27 children in her 5th grade, the smallest class she recalls having in 34 years teaching at Monroe. “I’ve had as many as 35, and you notice every body you have over 30. This year, I got lucky.”

The 2nd and 4th grades were the biggest this year. One 4th-grade class has 36 students. If Menconi follows through with his plan, next year will not be much better. More students translate into more money, which can be used to pay for teacher aides, pullout programs and support staff. “I’m very worried about overcrowding next year,” says Menconi. “We’ll certainly go into our waiting list and make sure our classes are filled [in the fall] because we have to make a decision: Do we keep the staff and programs we have or do we reduce the teacher-pupil ratio?

“The staff has been … adamant about keeping our support programs, keeping PALS, keeping Reading Recovery, keeping the band. They’d rather have the extra staff [than a lower student-teacher ratio]. The research is powerful that supports staff development over reduced class size. When you have augmented staff that can pull children out, the children are getting the kind of help they really need.”

Still several teachers quietly complain about having more than 30 students in their classes most years. “The teachers are upset about class size,” says one teacher. “When I was new here, I was surprised that no one had filed a grievance.”

MAR 20 New budget cuts.

Another day, another budget cut. In a letter from Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney, Menconi learns that Monroe will be losing one of two board-funded desegregation jobs. Central office is in the process of restructuring the desegregation program and part of its budget will be shifted to pay for new magnet programs.

“I know it’s good to have magnet schools look good and be well-staffed,” Menconi says. “But please don’t take away [staffers] from the neighborhood schools that are overcrowded and need them so much.”

Monroe will keep its bilingual, at-risk tutoring specialist but will lose a full-time counselor’s aide. Menconi decides to write an appeal letter. He doesn’t know if it will help. “This position is so invaluable to us,” he says. “She handles all of our counselor’s records, special ed records, records of who transfers in and out. We desperately need this position.”

Monroe is eligible for desegregation funds because it’s designated a racially isolated school—Hispanic enrollment exceeds 85 percent.

MAR 21 Core books and a ‘holistic curriculum’

Students are in school for a half-day today. At 12:30 p.m., eight teachers go to Selma Burley’s room for a staff inservice. The top item on the agenda is selecting core books for the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. Each quarter, teachers use a core book as the basis for a thematic unit.

For example, 5th-graders read “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White at the same time the class is hatching baby chicks, learning about life on a farm and caring for toy chicks in plastic eggs to learn about parenthood. They will also spend a day this spring visiting a farm in central Illinois.

“You’re teaching science, social studies, health, literature, and everything is integrated,” says Menconi, who’s a strong proponent of what he calls “holistic curriculum.”

Wadington likes this approach and the core books. “One of the reasons the school has improved tremendously,” she says, “is we’re much more focused on curriculum, and the literature-based approach to reading is great. It’s the only way to go in the upper grades.”

Burley, who teaches a class of 4th-graders and retained 3rd-graders, asks if any teachers at the meeting want to change core books. The teachers say they like the titles currently being used, but many books need to be replaced. “One Hundred Penny Box” is literally falling apart, with pages unattached, says one teacher. Burley writes down their orders and hopes there will be enough money to fill them.

At 1 p.m., teachers and a handful of parents meet in the library for an LSC candidates’ forum. There is no shortage of candidates for the LSC positions. Five teachers, nine parents and three community members are running for the 10 positions. None of the community members is here, but the teacher and parent candidates make short speeches about why they are running.

When the forum ends, Menconi convenes a SIP planning session. He divides his staff into three groups. Each one is to prioritize programs for next year, deciding what is the most and the least expendable. What will be the least painful way of cutting $300,000 from their budget?

Menconi has created oversized charts, which itemize expenses. Each teacher position, for example, costs $40,000 to $45,000. The 8th-grade Washington D.C. trip costs $12,000.

After 25 minutes, the groups report on their priorities. Assistant Principal Mary Kazarian says her group’s top priorities are paper, crayons and other supplies for the primary grades, which cost $32,000 this year. “We feel very strongly that we can’t lose this,” she says.

“Does this mean [you want this] at the risk of losing a teacher?” asks Menconi.

There is rumbling from the group, but no firm answer.

The band program is a priority, the staff agrees, and so is Accelerated Reading, a program in which students earn points for reading books. On the other hand, a “walking” science resource teacher is not a priority. And students can raise their own money to pay for the Washington D.C. trip, some say.

Menconi adds up the cost of the few items given low priority. They total close to $50,000, not nearly enough to offset a $300,000 loss. As the bell rings and the meeting comes to a close, Menconi sighs, “So, we’ve only just begun.”

MAR 27 Retained 3rd-graders doing 4th-grade work.

Of the 33 students in Selma Burley’s classroom, six are retained 3rd-graders. One 12-year-old 4th-grader was retained twice in 3rd grade, then promoted because of her age. She is being evaluated this spring for special education placement.

The number of 3rd-graders who were held back last year (42) was unusually high. Teachers aren’t sure why. Twenty of those 42 passed out of 3rd grade after attending the Summer Bridge program; eight more were promoted after being retested in January.

Four times a week, an aide comes to Burley’s room to work with the retained 3rd-graders—and an occasional struggling 4th-grader—on math. Today, the aide pulls two and three children at a time into the hallway to work on multiplication. Retained 3rd-graders also are pulled out one or two periods a day by a remedial reading teacher. “They definitely need [the extra help],” says Burley. “They need a lot of one-on-one. If I had a full-time aide in here, it would make an enormous difference.”

Many 4th-grade teachers say retained 3rd-graders are having no trouble doing the same work as their 4th-grade classmates. “The concepts in 4th grade are very similar to those in 3rd grade,” says Connie Lussi, a teacher whose class includes some retained students.

“And a lot of 4th grade is review,” adds Burley.

Menconi prefers to combine retained 3rd-graders with 4th-graders for psychological as well as academic reasons. “If you keep them in 3rd grade,” he says, “you deflate their self-esteem. You want to dignify the child as much as possible. When they’re in their proper age cycle, the children provide scaffolding for one another. They share strategies for learning and learn effectively from one another.”

The remedial reading teacher isn’t available today, so the 3rd- and 4th-graders all spend second period with Burley, who hands out a “Scoring High” test preparation booklet. The 4th-graders work independently on vocabulary words, then go over their answers with Burley. The 3rd-graders are given a lower-level booklet to work on independently. They’ll go over their answers with Burley later this afternoon.

The 4th-grade students read their answers to their classmates. Many are wrong. They don’t know the meanings for words such as “lure,” “dispatch” or “warped.” “These are hard,” Burley tells them, as she defines the words for them and tells them the correct answers.

Later, Burley comments, “Children with a language background other than English, where English isn’t spoken at home or in their community, have a really hard time with vocabulary. It’s something we need to work on a lot.”

In a small, cramped room in Monroe’s basement, Antonio Cotto teaches band. In rows of folding chairs, students are balancing sheet music on their laps as they learn to play the recorder.

Children as young as kindergarten learn to play the recorder in Cotto’s band. In 5th grade, students have the opportunity to audition for the beginning or senior band. Those who make it are assigned to one of the 40 school-owned instruments, many of which were purchased in recent years with grant money.

Menconi launched the band program in 1995 “because some children might not be terribly talented at academics but they can pursue music or art as alternatives and go on to successful careers,” he says.

Today, 2nd-graders show a visitor how much they’ve learned, playing several classics like “Turkey in the Straw” on the recorder. “They love it. You can see by watching them,” says Cotto.

Monroe also pays Erika Hollenback to provide musical tutoring to band students several days a week. Budget cuts threaten to eliminate her position, which costs the school $12,500 a year. The entire band program costs Monroe $55,000 a year. If band gets cut, “I’ll cry,” says 7th-grader Miguel Rivera, who plays percussion. “I’d miss it.”

MAR 30 Security funds slashed.

Monroe School has four security wands. They have been locked in a vault since they were issued to Monroe last year.

After a reported shooting inside Parkside School in South Shore last week—no one was injured—Menconi decides it’s time to get them out of the vault. This morning, he tells Assistant Principal Genaro Benitez to meet with the security staff during tomorrow’s professional development day to discuss the wands.

Three full-time security guards work at Monroe. If they each used the wands, it would take too long to check all 1,300 students each morning as they arrive for school, says Benitez.

To compromise, guards will use the wands only when a student looks suspicious, Benitez says. “We’ll have to use our judgment. We may have to implement something where they walk around carrying the wand. We’re thinking about that.”

A week later, Menconi’s attention will be drawn back to security. Another letter from Cozette Buckney informs him that security funds will be reallocated; next year, the board will pay for only one security guard at Monroe.

Menconi heads back once again to his word processor and types up a letter of appeal. “We have two huge buildings with many doors, two parking lots, plus 460 children we have to monitor in the morning as they get on buses [to go to other schools],” he says. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s no way I can have less than three security guards.”

Monroe’s discretionary budget can’t pick up the slack, Menconi adds. “We’ll have to go without [the guards]. I don’t have the money.”

The board plans to spend an additional $2 million for security positions next year, 50 more guards for high schools and about 14 more for elementary schools, says Budget Director Maiorca. Those numbers will probably increase after the board hears and settles all of the appeals.

The board has been paying for all three guards at Monroe, Maiorca adds. “They haven’t funded any positions at all out of their own money. While they’ve lost some [state and federal] money, they have almost $800,000 in state Chapter 1 dollars. We thought it would be appropriate for them to pick up at least one position themselves.

At least half of CPS schools pay for a security guard, he says. “We have some schools buying security and rightfully complaining they haven’t been able to use that discretionary money for teachers. The real issue is we want to be equitable—give a base amount of dollars from the board, and then the rest is up to [the individual schools].”

All six 1st-grade classrooms at Monroe, including the bilingual classes, use the Reading Recovery program to teach struggling new readers. Some classes have a full-time Reading Recovery teacher in the room with a regular teacher. Others have two Reading Recovery teachers who team-teach the class.

That’s what Alexis Forsythe and Carrie Busse do in room 505. Each morning, Forsythe works with three students individually for 30 minutes each while Busse teaches language arts to the rest of the class. In the afternoon, they switch: Busse teaches Reading Recovery one-on-one while Forsythe takes over the class.

While Busse gives a spelling test and discusses punctuation with the class, a boy in Forsythe’s Reading Recovery session reads aloud from a book. Each page contains a couple of big words. Forsythe tells him how to use pictures to figure out their meaning. After the reading exercise, the boy uses plastic letters to spell out words on the table.

“So if you’re reading about the ocean and a word begins with ‘sh,’ you talk about what that word could be. Could it be ‘shark?'” says Forsythe, who has taught Reading Recovery for two years. “It’s a pretty structured lesson. You go through the same steps for each lesson and work with little books to bring them up [to different levels].

“I absolutely have found it be effective, and I’ve also found it’s helped me teach reading in general. It would be nice to get even more students into the program, but that’s impossible because it takes so long. [One-on-one sessions last 30 minutes.] But for the kids who are using it, it’s helping.”

APR 3 Reading for fun, prizes.

As soon as 5th-grader Patricio Meraz gets to class this morning, he heads for the computer at the back of the room to take two short quizzes on the books he has read over the weekend. If he passes the test, Meraz will get points that he can later trade in for a prize.

Monroe has used the Accelerated Reading program since 1994. Points are based on the book’s reading level. Besides individual prizes, points can be used to get an invitation to a school dance or a chance to see Menconi make a spectacle of himself. One year, he wore his pajamas and kissed a monkey. This year, Menconi will allow a magician to saw him in half if students top their year-end goal of 20,000 points.

The students seem motivated. By the end of March, they had already chalked up 19,000 points.

The program costs Monroe $4,000 to $6,000 a year for books and computer discs for testing. Several thousand more is spent on prizes.

Teachers say it’s worth the money. “It’s the most fabulous reading program I’ve ever encountered,” says Sandra Wadington. “The kids want to earn those points. They’ll ask me how many points it’s worth before they read a certain book. Anything that gets them motivated to read is great.”

Meraz passes both of his quizzes, pushing him over 50 points. “Now, I’ll get a T-shirt,” he says. Meraz is not sure exactly how many books he has read, but he admits the program encourages him to read more. “Sometimes when I’m at home, if I have nothing to do, I’ll just read.”

Menconi has set up similar rewards program to reinforce regular attendance and good behavior. Students with perfect attendance are eligible for a drawing on Wednesday. Three winners will receive new bicycles. In April, raffle winners will get Easter baskets. Monroe’s attendance rate is 94 percent, slightly above the city average for elementary schools. “We think it can get better,” says Benitez. “We’d like to be 97 percent. We keep trying.”

Students collect gold coupons for good behavior, such as walking quietly in the hall or helping another student. Classrooms with the most gold coupons at the end of each month win prizes or treats, and the students get gold ribbons. At the end of the year, Monroe throws a party for the class with the most coupons.

“It’s a rewards system that works very well,” says Assistant Principal Mary Kazarian. “When I came here five years ago, we had some severe discipline problems with fire alarms going off and stink bombs in waste baskets. It’s better now. The students understand the expectations, and they like getting the rewards.”

APR 6 Test prep is No. 1 priority.

The LSC meets in the library at 8 a.m. to declare winners in yesterday’s elections. Parent Sandra Granados is one of three LSC members who were re-elected. Nine parents ran for the six parent rep spots. “I was surprised at the number of people running,” says Granados. “There seems to be more parent interest here than at some other schools.”

Voter turnout, however, was underwhelming. The first-place parent rep got 50 votes. Granados won with a total of 20 votes.

Parent involvement was one of Menconi’s major initiatives when he began working at Monroe. He teamed up with nearby principals and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association to start a parent-mentor program, which brings parents into the schools to tutor the children and take parenting classes themselves.

After the LSC meeting, Menconi returns to his office to host a quality circle with with 3rd-grade teachers. The group reviews a list of struggling 3rd- graders—many are at-risk for retention—and discusses the extra support being provided by PALS remedial reading teachers. Several of the teachers are critical of the board’s Test Preparation 2000 booklets. “They’re very confusing, and the information is presented poorly,” says teacher Clarinda Harris-Luckett.

“If you don’t like them,” says Menconi, “then don’t use them.” But find other materials, he adds. “We have to focus on test-taking skills—reading and math this month. Get them used to retrieving information in the text and looking for key words in questions. This has to be our focus this month.”

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