As part of its ongoing coverage of probation, Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams solicited the opinions and observations of several parents and teachers. An edited transcript follows. In the next Opinions article, Catalyst staffer Jason Grotto recaps a discussion he had with four students from three high schools that are on probation.
It was humiliating. There you are in the newspaper being pointed out. It was so public, and there are so many factors that can affect a child’s scores that put a school on probation.
Probation has caused mass confusion at our school. We were placed on probation in September, but the team didn’t come to the school until the first week in November. In the meantime, we were told not to do anything, so we put everything on hold. Later, when we were asked if we had an external partner, we said we didn’t because we didn’t know we were supposed to look for one. We thought the board was going to assign one.
When the team finally came, we were told they would meet with us at 8:15 a.m., but they didn’t show up until later. That sent a negative message. Then we were told we’d get the results of the assessment in two weeks. We didn’t get the report until the second week in December. And then there were mistakes in the assessment report. For example, one item said we needed a uniform reading series, but we have one. The team didn’t recognize it. They thought we had a literature-based program. I think these mistakes were made based on a lack of knowledge. I also don’t think [Chief Executive Officer Paul] Vallas had enough people to assess 109 schools.
We have 40 classrooms and over 100 people here. The visits were only three to five minutes. How much can you learn in that amount of time? By comparison, when our external partner, NCREL (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory), came to visit, they spent 45 minutes to an hour in each classroom and later apologized because they didn’t spend more time with us. And they gave us immediate feedback and a chance to talk about what they had found.
So how have we been dealing with all this? First, the school has pulled together and is working together. Second, the principal is pointing out weaknesses, and teachers have been real honest and have asked for assistance in specific areas. Probation has made people face their weaknesses.
We are looking also at where we have holes and are filling them in. We had computers, but they weren’t incorporated into the lessons. We’ve beefed up our attendance. When kids are not here, we call. I pull out my cell phone right in the classroom and call that child’s house. We are working on more time on task with the kids by getting them out of the halls and into their classrooms on time.
I think Vallas had a right to put schools on probation, because some good will come out of it, but I think he was disorganized in doing it. It’s like probation started out as a sound bite and then turned into a plan.
Parent LSC member
When our assessment team came out, it made a lot of mistakes. For example, the report said we didn’t work with our business manager. This is not true. The school did work with him, and I personally talked to him several times at great lengths and even got to know him pretty well.
Also we had a parent stipend program that we had budgeted for $70,000, $30 a day, that [Accountability Officer] Pat Harvey said was too exorbitant and told us to reduce. But we had 17 parents that we could hold accountable and expect certain things from.
These parents would help us with discipline and visit homes of absent children. We also have kids in lst through 3rd grade who are very weak in reading, and these parents, once they were trained by teachers, took them out in the hallways and worked with them. And we need this. For instance in 1995, we had 63 3rd-graders and only three of them were at or above grade level.
And safetywise, this school is in Englewood. When there is shooting outside, who was outside for our children? These parents. Not one staff member is outside.
We also asked all our parents in the program to read a book a month, act in a professional manner and have a high school diploma.
We had some of our parents who were part of this program that later became teacher aides, and a couple even went to school and became teachers.
But Harvey told us she didn’t like parent stipend programs, period. And this is the nature of reform? So we have lost five of 17 parents we had in the school. Ten thousand dollars was taken from the parent stipend program for teachers to go on a retreat, but many teachers did not sign up to go.
I think our school should be on probation because we needed the help. I just didn’t like the way they [the board] gangbustered the thing.
Juarez High School
It took quite a while for teachers to see what the assessment report said because our school’s administration feels the report should be shared with us in parts, not as a whole. It was not until the local school council insisted that we see the whole thing, that we saw it. And I agree with what was found on the report. The assessment team was very good and talked with everyone here.
Since probation, though, there has been a lot of commotion. First, Northeastern Illinois University is our external partner. One week, a core group of teachers met with the university and came up with some strategies to use; then by word of mouth, not in any formal setting, teachers were to tell other teachers. Then in week two, we were told by our administration to incorporate these ideas into our lesson plans. Well, teachers were not prepared. When lesson plans were handed in, some were given back to teachers because [the strategies] were not in their plans.
Also, when teachers go to workshops, they share the information during a lunch-time forum, which is an informal chat during lunch. But we have an extended school day and staggered lunch periods so not everybody is at these forums. Maybe a third go, but still we are supposed to incorporate these strategies into our lesson plans. And there are other times when we do meet as a group and the information can be shared then; that’s not how it is being done.
Also, probation seems to have changed the administration’s attitude toward the faculty. The attitude is, I can fire anybody, and if we are reconstituted, then we’ll be able to get rid of a lot of you teachers. There is no partnership. It’s top-down here. We have many capable teachers here, but the feeling is we don’t know “jack.” The kids are not doing well because of us.
And this power breakfast that they [the board] fed the kids before the IGAP tests—honey donuts and sugared cereal? Why didn’t they give them a protein and a carbohydrate? No one asked mothers about it. We had to make signs and plaster them all over the place to advertise this breakfast. And our kids were also given coffee. They don’t get coffee any other time.
Still probation has been a wake-up call, and I’ve been telling my kids, “Do you want people to think that this Latino community is dumb? Well you know you aren’t, so let’s show them that you aren’t.”
Parent LSC member
My kids have only been at the school for 21/2 years, and I have only been an local school council member since December ’96, but I have seen some positive changes since probation. I think being placed on probation was a fair assessment. Our kids’ reading and math scores are really low.
Last spring, we got a new principal, so by the time we were placed on probation in September, she was all for doing things to help bring up scores. For instance, we started an extended-day program in February. For two days a week, students stay after school for an hour to be tutored in math and reading.
Also I see a lot more parent involvement this year, and I think it’s because our principal has been pushing it more. She has worked to open up the school so that parents feel invited and welcome. The school sends home newsletters to let parents know what’s happening at the school and now offers workshops and courses like a recent one on CPR training. I have heard people complain about probation, but I think it will help us get to where we need to be.
Parent LSC member
I was appalled because we hadn’t placed ourselves on probation. We have to be honest: What we were doing was not working.
We needed something; however, I was concerned about the way the board did it. It should have been different. It should have been in-house instead of being broadcast to the media first.
But instead of talking to folks, Vallas decided to hold a press conference. Kinks had not been worked out. In fact, it is still being developed as we speak. The whole process has been politicized.
Still we have been focusing on four areas. First, we have a tardy problem, and are looking into an after-school detention program. Second, we are losing our honor students to magnet schools so we plan to do a lot more student recognition by offering a gifted program for students after school and recognizing students quarterly instead of at the end of the year.
Third, we are working on getting more parents involved and have started sending out a comprehensive parent newsletter and are drafting a parent contract that will pledge parent involvement with their children.
Fourth, we are tightening our uniform policy by modifying it. Students can earn days free from wearing their uniforms if they consistently wear their uniforms. Our student council came up with that idea.
We’ve also created committees like an School Improvement Plan committee, professional development committee and budget committee that are open to both teachers and parents.
To talk about the level of involvement, we have had a quorum at local school council meetings since October, and seven teachers came to the last council meeting, which we had never had before.
Under probation, councils will be removed, and I think they can do something about it before it gets to that, by educating themselves and getting the proper training.
Lower West Side
We were really surprised about being placed on probation. We had just gotten recognition from the state because our IGAP scores were better last year. Then the ITBS test results came out and we were 2 percent below the [cutoff].
This is a good school and a nice place to be, but 77 percent of our kids have limited English proficiency. For example, we have three 3rd grade classrooms and only 17 or 18 children can be tested. You can’t expect kids who don’t speak English and haven’t taken tests in English to do well. I think the administration needs to take another look at this.
Being on probation has been very stressful. For instance, our assessment report was very general. We as teachers wanted to know the specifics of our classrooms. For instance, “Was it me when you said blank? Was it someone else?” This is one of the things that people were really upset about. Our team never returned, so we couldn’t ask what they meant by certain statements. For instance, one item said that the school had a sterile environment. Well, that could be good. It could mean that the school was clean, or it could be bad. We don’t know.
And we haven’t gotten immediate feedback from our external partner, the University of Illinois Center for Literary. They came to observe, and we haven’t been told what they found, either, so we continue to do what we’ve been doing.
The perception out there is, you’re not good teachers because you’re on probation. Teachers are tired of working hard and being perceived in a negative way.
So what have we done since we’ve been on probation? We’ve always had after-school programs, but we now have our 3rd- through 6th-graders stay after school for one hour from Monday through Thursday to study reading, math, science and social studies. This year, we also have a Saturday class for our 6th-graders for 40 minutes to an hour.
In addition, our principal tells us what’s going on, and anything we hear, we tell him.
And although we had a leadership team, now we meet regularly. In terms of being told to do specific things, teachers have been told to have lesson plans done on time. On occasion, a lesson plan may have been turned in a day late, but not now.
You’re constantly told, you’re on probation; and it’s so unfair for your school to be judged on a one-day assessment and by one test. You know, if you are in business, they look at production over a year, not just a day. The administration should have looked at how many kids made a year’s growth over the year as well as other criteria like attendance, the school climate, cleanliness and all subject areas, not just reading. If they had included math, we wouldn’t have been on probation, because our kids do well in math.
The other thing that bothers me is when we get off probation, the external partner will get the credit, not us.