In every classroom at Kellman Elementary, posters emblazoned with two questions serve as a constant reminder of the school’s mission: “Are Kellman students learning? How do we know?”

Kellman, which sits at the southern edge of East Garfield Park but draws many of its 300 students from North Lawndale, has been repeatedly recognized for outstanding academic achievement. A majority of students perform at or above grade level on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, and the school has a waiting list because of its stellar reputation in the community.

Principal Brenda Browder has a succinct explanation for the school’s performance: “Everything here is done purposefully.”

Some of Kellman’s success undoubtedly stems from its small size and the fact that most students enter from the state pre-kindergarten program, which gives them a leg up in terms of school readiness. And while Kellman is not a selective magnet school, families must apply, and the school does have some control over admission.

Even so, Kellman students come from the same economic and social circumstances as their peers in nearby schools. To reach them, Browder and her mentor, former Principal Rollie Jones (now area instructional officer), have worked to create a school where the focus is on high-quality instruction. The school is open 11 months of the year, and teachers push students to read at grade level (and beyond), write frequently and engage in classroom discussions and independent research.

To improve instruction at other schools in North Lawndale, Jones is using some of the same strategies she brought to Kellman:

Learning through observation

At Kellman, Jones spent a year taking stock before rocking the boat. “The first year, there were no sweeping changes because I had to get in there and see what was going on with the least interruptions possible,” she says. Even after taking over, she kept watch, but in a non-threatening way. “I was in and out of classrooms all day long. I wanted teachers to feel comfortable and show them that when I come into the room, this is just part of what I do,” she says. “I pick up ideas, and I see what teachers are doing. I share them with other staff members.”

As an area instructional officer, she not only conducts walk-throughs, but also encourages principals to visit each other’s schools. “We’re having the principal from school A go with the area team to school B to do a walkthrough,” she says. “They’re going to take something back with them.”

Professional development

At Kellman, Jones kept the weekly half-day that founders had set aside for professional development.

In Area 8, principals gather monthly, and one principal, often with staff, makes a presentation on an instructional strategy that has worked at his or her school. In January, Browder and two Kellman teachers demonstrated ways to teach students how to answer extended-response questions on the Illinois Standards Achievement test. These usually require higher-level skills, like in-depth analysis of a reading passage or a step-by-step solution to a math problem.

Professional standards

Browder says Jones expected a great deal of her teachers and students, but made that clear in a trusting, friendly way. “She respected your professionalism. When she turned something over to you, she trusted you to do it,” Browder says.

Now, Jones recognizes the challenge of setting high professional standards on a larger scale. “We’re working on expectations, raising the bar on that. I know what we have to work with,” she says. “People have all kinds of excuses why our children are not moving. The principal has to raise the bar on what to expect out of the teachers. It starts from the top down.”

Jones has demonstrated a willingness to take drastic steps when needed. One principal at a consistently low-performing school in her area, Bethune Elementary, was removed from his post at the beginning of the year.

Supporting staff

Kellman staff praise Jones’ willingness to support teachers by getting materials, providing training or just offering encouragement. Parent volunteers credit Jones with encouraging them to pursue careers in education and go back to school.

Across North Lawndale, Jones is working to reduce teacher turnover and improve classroom management. “The discipline problems often come about because you have new teachers,” she notes. This year, she has worked to give every new teacher in Area 8 a personal mentor and brought 11 schools a Texas-based program to improve classroom management.

Principal Jacqueline Baker of Pope Elementary, who was notified in December that her school was being put back on probation, praises Jones for “working with me as opposed to working against me.”

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