Science teacher Sandra Payne Credit: photo by John Booz

On this 90-degree cloudless September day, hundreds of teenagers are swarming Marshall Metropolitan High School’s mammoth orange-hued auditorium. It’s sweltering, despite an industrial-size fan that muffles the din of confusion. On the stage, a whirl of activity is underway. Guidance counselors sit at folding tables showing new students how to fill out registration forms or searching through cardboard boxes for class schedules.

Though students should be sitting behind desks meeting their teachers on this first day of school, few at Marshall have a course program in hand and virtually no one is in class.

The counselors are scrambling amid the chaos. Their instructions are quick and short, more like airport ticket agents during a bad storm than greeters on the first day of school.

Principal Juan Gardner, sharply dressed in a dark blue suit, is standing to the side, patting his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. “Something went wrong,” he says. “We are calling the area office to help.”

Freshman Tamoura Hayes—with hair done, maroon polo shirt ironed and new shoes she saved up to buy spotless—came to orientation several weeks earlier and has a schedule. When she shows up for classes on the first day, however, she is bewildered to find that she’s often the only one there.

Meanwhile, Sandra Payne, who will eventually teach Hayes in 8th-period biology, sits frustrated upstairs in an empty science lab. Along the window sills are boxes of expensive microscopes and textbooks so new that they make a cracking sound when opened.

She wrinkles her forehead and her grey eyes look as though tears are looming. “This is bad,” she says.

This was not how the school year was supposed to begin. Marshall, on Chicago’s West Side, is one of 11 high schools drafted this year for the district’s $80 million High School Transformation project, aimed at tackling and turning around decades of dismal academic performance.

These 11 high schools joined the first crop of 14 that pioneered the transformation process last year. Another 20 high schools are expected to be added by September.

The initiative targets six areas of reform, including hiring and supporting good teachers and raising expectations. So far, the main mechanism for these changes is what education wonks call instructional strategy. Translation: The focus is to drastically raise the curricular bar by making core subjects more engaging for students, providing the necessary books, equipment and other material resources—computer labs, for instance—and training teachers (there’s one coach for every 15 teachers) to use the new tools and techniques. Educators such as Barbara Radner, director of Depaul University’s Center for Urban Education, pushed for this approach, arguing that it was time for reform to reach inside classrooms and do something about what teachers were teaching and how it was being taught.

Two years ago, when the district announced it was taking on a massive overhaul of high school education, a press release called attention to a national study that found high school students drop out by and large because they are bored, an assertion Mayor Richard M. Daley made several years ago. This “silent epidemic” could be reversed, officials reasoned, if high school courses were more engaging. Students would show up, pay attention in class, learn something and maybe even go on to college.

Yet as Marshall takes its first tentative steps into the district’s most recent high school reform effort, it is confounded by a host of issues that the transformation initiative does not address and that threaten to derail it. Acknowledging these problems, officials say the next level of reform will be to tackle them. Top among these systemic problems:

* Far too many high school freshmen, the target group for first-year transformation schools, are not registered in advance, and the steady stream of incoming students undermines efforts to ramp up academic rigor. At Marshall, for instance, the freshman class grew from 85 students on Sept. 4 to 322 students on Oct. 2, the critical 20th day of school when budgets are locked.

* Once they are registered, a critical mass of students cut classes, get suspended or skip school on a regular basis. Teachers say there’s little they can do about teaching teens who do not—or cannot—show up for class; and transformation schools have little to no resources available to track down truants. (See story.)

* Teachers are having a hard time adapting the faster-paced transformation curriculum for the many students who have learning disabilities, are dealing with family instability or are simply years behind grade level in one or more core subjects—reading, math and science. (See story.)

* Schools like Marshall continue to have problems attracting and keeping good teachers, as well as keeping them motivated.

* And finally, school safety and conflict resolution are not addressed at all.

Allan Alson, who heads up the high school reform project, acknowledges that High School Transformation is no “magic bullet.” Even when the initiative was launched two years ago, officials knew only so many resources were available to them, explains Alson, who was hired to lead the project after it was designed by the district and consultants from Boston Consulting Group.

But for Marshall, it might be its last hope. For decades, Marshall—a big urban school in a poor city neighborhood—has yielded too many dropouts and too few graduates. The evolving transformation plan is, in essence, a referendum on whether traditional schools and existing resources can reckon with the powerful social ills that drag down so many of the city’s children.

For three Marshall freshmen—Frida Williams*, Tamoura Hayes and Derrick Green,* all still adjusting to life in high school—the transformation initiative is perhaps their best chance to get the one thing that could allow them to transcend the dead-end streets of East Garfield Park: a good education. As their stories unfold on the pages ahead, the promises and limitations of Marshall’s undertaking become apparent.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan knows the stakes are high, as policymakers across the country keep an eye on Chicago’s effort to raise the academic performance and future prospects of its least fortunate high school students. “Public schools that don’t educate create pockets of poverty,” Duncan told a national group of state legislators a year ago as they toured the city’s high schools.

Failure to compute

The challenge of high school reform was starkly evident at Marshall during the hours after the first bell of the school year sounded at 8:51 a.m., and in the weeks to come. During that time, school officials scrambled to register and schedule classes for a constant flow of new freshmen and upperclassmen. Besides sheer volume, much of the confusion was caused by the district’s bumpy rollout of a new computer system designed to better track student information and academic progress.

Central office officials reportedly admitted that, to save money, they skimped on the purchase of computer memory, which turned out to be inadequate for the heavy load of activity on the first day of school. The result: frozen computer screens and other glitches that delayed registration and scheduling for hours for some students and days for others.

The computer failure exposed a long-standing, but quietly kept fact about neighborhood high schools, many of them schools of last resort in a city where families can apply to any public high school. Most freshmen at these schools don’t register until the first day of school and many don’t show up until weeks—even months—later. Frida showed up at end of week 2; Derrick came in to register the following week.

This quiet creep in high school enrollment is masked by how the district reports first-day attendance rates, which are based only on the number of pre-registered students. District officials are aware that hundreds of students who graduated 8th grade in June have not registered anywhere by the first day; yet these teens are not factored into reported attendance. They are not counted at all.

Following this formula, Marshall’s first-day attendance rate schoolwide was 94 percent. Had the 300-plus freshmen latecomers been counted, that rate would have been more in the neighborhood of 20 percent.

One 9th-grade girl, who was a week late, says she tried unsuccessfully to get into another high school. When that didn’t work out, she came to Marshall.

Almost two months later, just days after Thanksgiving, a woman shows up in Marshall’s main office with her daughter and newborn grandchild. For the second time, she was trying to sign the girl up for classes. She says that at her first attempt in mid-November, she was told to meet with Principal Gardner, who insists on talking with parents whose children come in more than five weeks late. However, Gardner was stuck in meetings all day. This time, she has brought along the reason for the delay—the pink-clad infant who is wriggling beside her in a carrier.

Countering the X factor

The district’s enrollment data captures some of this phenomenon, though not at the same clip as school-level information. During the first week alone, more than 30 percent of the total student body of 1,300 enrolled. By Dec. 12, another 261 dribbled in.

In contrast, at selective schools, where students take entrance exams and are admitted and pre-registered four months in advance, few students enroll once classes begin. At Lane Tech, for instance, only seven of the school’s 4,000 students signed up this year after Sept. 4.

Alson, who was previously superintendent of Evanston Township High School, says he was surprised by this phenomenon and pushed the district to get students enrolled in high school before summer break. Such a policy change would ensure high schools have the necessary information to track down students who fail to show up, and it would also address pitfalls in staff budgeting.

Currently, CPS assigns teachers to schools based on projections of how many students will eventually enroll. If the projections are off—even slightly—and schools get more students than the district estimated (like Marshall did this year), it can take months for schools to persuade the district to add or reinstate teaching positions.

Early registration would not entirely eliminate late enrollments for schools like Marshall, which must admit anyone who lives within its attendance boundaries. But it would slow the influx to a trickle, says Alson.
“We have brought it to Arne and he knows we have to do something about it,” Alson says.

Right now, the district is exploring the idea of a computerized system that will streamline the high school application process and assign 8th-grade students to high schools in the spring so they can get registered for high school courses before graduating elementary school. The district has talked with officials from Boston and New York, cities that faced similar problems and recently changed the way they assign students to schools.

Under the new system, students still will be able to apply citywide to specialty programs and magnet high schools, but unless they opt out, they will automatically be assigned to their neighborhood high school.

Officials expect the new system to be ready for use in two years, when this year’s 6th-graders reach 8th grade.

In the meantime, CPS officials are putting some programs in place to try to ease the transition from elementary school to high school, such as letting 8th-graders spend a day in their prospective high schools. Duncan also is working on a program that would have some freshmen start school two weeks earlier than upper classmen.

Ready or not, go

Beyond late enrollment, other factors are key to getting the most out of the high school transformation process, Alson says. In the first-year group of 14 high schools, those that made the most academic progress were led by principals who were adept at implementing change, had a strong team of teachers and had a solid handle on student discipline.

In some ways, Marshall seems poised to get the full benefit of transformation, and in other ways, it has some distance to travel. Marshall has strong leaders with Gardner and mentor principal Keith Foley, who hails from Lane Tech, a selective enrollment high school. Marshall’s faculty is relatively stable, but some teachers question their colleagues’ belief in students’ ability to succeed in school.

This is Gardner’s second year as principal and faculty are still sizing him up. And while the school has become a bit calmer under his administration, order is still an issue.

When Gardner was approached to join the second group of transformation high schools, he feared Marshall wasn’t ready. Despite the additional resources on the table, he saw some drawbacks.

He wondered whether district officials really understood what they were up against in trying to change Marshall and he weighed whether Marshall could give up a couple of security guards to pay for its share of the reform tab, which is $350 per student.

Most transformation high schools tap their discretionary funding, which is distributed to schools based on poverty rates. As sophomores, juniors and then seniors are added to the program, the costs will rise, at least in the short term. The idea is that they eventually will decline as the curriculum and teaching methods become infused in the school.

Only a year and a half ago, Gardner was an assistant principal at Morgan Park High School, which has magnet programs, and eyeing the top position there. Then, he got a call from Arne Duncan asking him to accept the principal job at Marshall, where he had previously been an administrator. Intimately familiar with the school’s entrenched problems, Gardner hesitated.

It took a calling from God, Gardner says, and a promise from Duncan to hire Foley as mentor-principal.

During his first year as principal, Gardner’s priority was to get Marshall under control. For some time, his predecessors had fought unsuccessfully to make the school safe in a community overrun with gangs that ply a vigorous drug trade. Police District 11, where Marshall is based, has the city’s highest per capita murder and violent crime rates. To make matters worse, as nearby high schools Austin and Collins closed their doors, Marshall took in displaced freshmen.

Violence exploded.

The number of active gangs operating at Marshall shot up to 15 from three. Recruitment was heavy and tensions from the streets often crept inside the school.

Within months of arriving, Gardner had the worst troublemakers rounded up and ushered out, for good. An assistant principal attempted to place the castoffs in alternative schools. “Some kids just aren’t cut out for a traditional high school,” Gardner argues.

At the same time, Gardner became a true believer in the school’s hefty security force. Some 16 full-time guards, 11 more than the district-paid allotment, keep watch over the three-story, maze-like facility and its incongruent additions. Half of Marshall’s $790,000 in discretionary funds is earmarked for security guards.

(By comparison, North Side magnet Von Steuben High School makes do with the three security guards that are paid for by the district.)

When the school’s pricetag for joining the transformation project came in at over $100,000, the cost of more than one security guard, Gardner worried about Marshall losing its hard-earned peace. “I don’t think I can afford to even lose one,” he says.

Even after Duncan publicly announced in May that Marshall would join the next group of transformation high schools, Gardner confided in mid-June that he was still unsure and in negotiations with Duncan and Alson.

Duncan and Alson leaned heavily on Gardner, telling him to get in “by any means necessary.” The school’s dismal academic performance meant that the status quo was not an option, says Alson. In Marshall’s case, the time had come.

Finally, at the beginning of the summer, he agreed. For this year, Gardner was able to pay the freight by getting rid of in-school suspensions and its staff, and making a few other trims here and there. But as the transformation price tag goes up in coming years, he’s uncertain what he will cut next.

Come to school, don’t fight

Gardner is well aware that Marshall was not doing well academically, yet he proudly boasts recent bright spots. Marshall’s academic decathlon team won a spot to compete in last year’s citywide competition against students from elite schools like Whitney Young. And Marshall’s valedictorian was named a Gates Scholar and is now enrolled at Kentucky State College on a full-ride scholarship that will continue though graduate school.

At freshman orientation in June, Gardner touted these accomplishments to 14 freshmen and two mothers. “It doesn’t matter where you start off,” he told them. “Great things can happen to young people right here.”

Then, he tempered his comments with some of Marshall’s realities. He told the new students they were about to attend a turnaround school that has showed poorly in the past. Seniors who graduated in June represented only about 39 percent of those who had arrived four years earlier. Their average ACT score was 13.7 out of 36—among the lowest in the city. And fewer than 14 percent of the original freshman class went to college the next fall.

Gardner noted two looming issues that students themselves had responsibility for: showing up for class every day and working out conflicts peacefully. The warnings were implicit. If you fight, you will be suspended. If you are absent too often, you will fail.

Visions of hope

In the weeks after orientation, Gardner repeated this speech to his daughter, who was also headed into her freshman year. Only he’s quick to say that the picture for his daughter is completely unlike the one for most of his students.

Gardner lives with his wife and two children in Crete, a far south suburban town of quaint houses. The upper middle-class community is fast growing and last year opened a brand-new high school with a state-of-the-art performing center and ceiling-mounted projectors in every classroom.

“You should see it,” Gardner says. “When I think about here, I think about there, it makes me want to cry.”

Marshall is a clean school, but it’s old and in places there’s peeling paint and broken lockers. Outside is a weed-filled court with rusted poles, but no basketball hoops. There’s little grass, even in summer. Gardner says that plans for a multimillion-dollar renovation are in the works. But for almost two decades, such plans have come and gone.

It’s not just the physical environment that is different, it is also where the students come from, what they encounter at home and what they are exposed to. This summer Gardner took his family to China, while many of Marshall’s students have never left the city.

The disparities hang over Gardner and other teachers at the school. They are hopeful that High School Transformation will even the score a bit, but they are also wary.

By December, the chaos of the first weeks was forgotten. Marshall’s storied boys and girls basketball teams, as well as a group of baby-faced wrestlers, were deep in their seasons. For the first time, the chess team had earned the right to compete for the state championship and the seniors were planning a roller skating outing.

Most of the freshmen teachers seemed enthusiastic about the new curriculum and materials. Tamoura Hayes already had a reputation as a bright but silly girl. In her and many others, the teachers saw hope.

Data and Research Editor John Myers contributed.

*Editor’s note: To protect their privacy, Catalyst is not using Frida Williams’ and Derrick Green’s real names.

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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