Sarah Howard Credit: John Booz

In March, the School Board bowed to pressure from parents and students and renewed the charter for the Academy of Communications and Technology in impoverished West Garfield Park, after threatening to shut it down because of low test scores. Principal Sarah Howard talked with Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte about the experience and the school’s plan for raising achievement.

The board wants charters to outperform neighborhood schools. Is that fair?

It’s part of the deal—autonomy in exchange for student performance.

Is there a particular philosophy you have at ACT?

There are three things that quickly come to mind. One of them is size. We’re intentionally small. I can say hello to every kid by name. The kids know the teachers beyond the ones they see in the class and they are constantly pushed to do their best.

Second, we tell students, ‘You’re going to have to work hard and be persistent, and when you don’t do it right the first time you’re going to have to do it again.’ We have a completion-based grading system, so you only get points for things you complete successfully and you have to accumulate a certain number of points in a year in each class. It holds [students] accountable in a way the traditional grading system doesn’t.

What is the third thing you do differently?

Support teachers. That includes significant planning time, money for staff development and supplies that doesn’t come out of your own pocket, a business card. It’s all kinds of little things that say, ‘I think you’re a professional.’

What can other charters learn from your experience?

Every school needs to make time to develop strong relationships with their kids and parents and the community they serve. And we undervalue the sense of safety that parents are looking for. Safety is a huge first step and you cannot successfully educate kids if you don’t first have that.

What have you been working on to get kids to where they need to be academically?

One is teacher development and accountability. Teachers create an annual plan that defines the goals they want to focus on. We plan our staff development around the goals they set, and we push people to establish goals based on what the kids need. We have peer review and observation, and a common planning time every Wednesday, spent on classroom practice. We’ve also been doing curriculum mapping, assessing our students and what it is that they need to do well. Our mistake in the past was we had very high expectations because we wanted them to do what they needed to do to be college-eligible.

Do you think that’s unrealistic?

We didn’t have a clear bridge built. We were throwing them into the deep end of the pool and hoping they would swim. With curriculum mapping, we look at the scope and sequence [of courses] in each subject area and make sure it creates a bridge, starts students where they are and moves them towards college.

Will you eventually be able to take students who come in at 6th-grade level and have them ready for college?

We’re already doing that, but it’s got to be realistic. It might be that they’re going to [a two-year college]. With one exception, all of the kids from the last graduating class are now in school.

Anything else you would share?

We wanted to be a school that takes kids from the neighborhood, even a kid who didn’t do well at another high school, and find a way to make school work for them. We’re struggling with important issues [and] it would be good for us to talk with the district about what’s worked and what hasn’t, but the board doesn’t want to talk to us because it doesn’t see us as successful. In a couple more years our numbers will look different and maybe the conversation will be different. We’re right on the verge of greatness.

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