Carver Military Academy Credit: Photo by John Booz

Chicago’s sweeping effort to overhaul failing high schools is rolling out slower than planned, the result of cautious district officials turning away interested schools they don’t believe are ready.

The High School Transformation project is also costly, and Chicago Public Schools has not yet determined how it will pay for the long-term program after a $21 million grant runs out in 2010.

This year, 11 high schools will join 14 others that are already participating in the instructional component of the transformation process, which is aimed at improving everything from classroom instruction to principal leadership to 7th-grade math at elementary feeder schools. Originally, CPS had planned to sign up 50 high schools over three years, but meeting that target is unlikely at the current pace.

“We decided that the right way to move forward early in the game was not to be wedded to a number, but rather to quality,” says Angus Mairs, who is in charge of instructional strategy for high school transformation.

A handful of district high schools that applied to participate in year two did not meet the top criteria for the project: strong, consistent leadership and teacher buy-in. At one school, for example, a principal was retiring and district officials decided not to invest until they knew who would be named the successor, Mairs says.

Officials have reason to be careful about which schools are accepted for the project. Eight of the high schools in this second batch are among the lowest-performing in the city. The other three are small, new high schools that are housed in facilities where failing high schools have been closed down.

Tough for freshmen

Meanwhile, teachers at the first group of high schools in the project note that it has been difficult for freshmen, many of whom are not prepared to do 9th-grade work, to adapt to the new, more rigorous curriculum.

For instance, one of the new math curricula (transformation schools get to choose from two), AgileMind, is based primarily on word problems based in the real world. Students who are used to doing equations and formula-based math problems are having trouble getting used to the new format, says Carolyn Baskin, a math teacher at Carver Military Academy in Riverdale on the far South Side.

And Baskin says if she takes a step back to help students, she won’t have enough time to cover all of the material students need to know for tests, which were developed by the same publishers that created the curricula. Baskin adds that the tests are to be given every few weeks, and says she sometimes feels as though her students are “tested to death.” But with data-driven instruction the order of the day under the project, teachers and principals note that they like getting information about students’ weaknesses often.

Pacing the curriculum is among the top concerns expressed by teachers at high schools in the transformation project, says Allan Alson, who as executive director is overseeing the high school reform project. These issues have been brought to curricula publishers and those companies are trying to address them.

Working out the kinks with the new academic program is one way for high schools to begin to get a handle on other issues that need to be addressed, such as leadership, teacher effectiveness and school culture, Alson says. “It is the way we knock on the door,” he says.

Then, once transformation high schools move into years two and three, CPS will get the schools involved with the other aspects of the project: principal coaching, autonomous decision making and ensuring a smooth transition from elementary school to high school.

Pilot praises, pains

So far, Alson says high school faculty involved in the transformation project are giving the program high marks, likely because the “influx of resources is creating an aura of hope.”

In the first year, each transformation high school receives an additional $1,750 per student in services and resources, which includes the new curricula, teacher training and coaching, new textbooks, computer labs, overhead projectors and graphing calculators.

In subsequent years, the district’s contribution is expected to level out at about $1,100 per student. New schools will provide $300 per students of the extra per-pupil cost.

Some of the money for the project is being provided by a $21 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I have never had quite so many markers,” says Baskin, standing amid a sleek bank of black desktop computers.

“It is like a Christmas present,” says Principal Annette Gurley of Clark Academic Preparatory High School.

It’s too soon, however, to determine how much difference the project will make in student performance. Anecdotally, some principals note that they feel as if freshman attendance has improved and failure rates are down.

Yet test scores are the litmus test that everyone will be keeping their eyes on. In the first year, the initiative only included freshman, but those students will be part of the project each subsequent year until eventually all grades are included. The freshmen who are part of the first cohort won’t take the Prairie State Achievement Test for another two years.

Principal Jacquelyn Lemon admits that her school, Dyett Middle High in Washington Park, desperately needs a performance boost. Last year, fewer than 8 percent of juniors met standards.

Ditto for Carver Military Academy, which also reported only about 9 percent of juniors met standards last year. Principal John Thomas was hired in 2004 to get the converted military school on track. (See Catalyst, November 2004.)

Today, the high school of some 600 students is a place where on Wednesdays teenagers in full uniform stand in the hall with clipboards issuing merits and demerits. Thomas notes that this year was the first time the school was able to selectively admit students.

To continue the upward momentum, however, Thomas says improvements were needed in the classroom. He jumped at the chance last year to join the district’s High School Transformation effort. Carver teachers, however, were a bit more skeptical.

Freshman English teacher Vanessa Johnson was one of the skeptics. She was worried that the new curriculum would cramp her style, but says early on, she found ways to put her own stamp on prescribed lesson plans. Now, she prefers giving students project-based work, such as having them write magazine articles. “We haven’t used a textbook all year,” she says.

One problem with the transformation project, says Euel Bunton, principal of Phillips High School, is that it only involves reading, math and science. Other subjects, such as social studies, are left out, and teachers of those subjects are left out, too.

“When it comes to professional development, we have only scratched the surface,” he says.

Transformation for new schools, too

Principals of new high schools say joining the transformation project should give them sturdier foundations upon which to build their schools.

For Joyce Caine, who will open a sister school to the Chicago Academy High School in Dunning, the selling point was having a preset curriculum, which will allow the school’s teachers-in-training to concentrate on learning how to teach.

“Writing a curriculum is very complicated,” Caine says. “This will give them a good base.”

Bill Gerstein, who founded the School of Entrepreneurship at South Shore left to open Austin Polytech in the fall, says it made sense to buy into the transformation project since CPS is investing extra money in it. His new school would have to buy new materials anyway, and this way, the district will chip in more.

“This is one CPS initiative that seems to make sense,” Gerstein says. “I have heard nothing but good things about it.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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