In early April, students, parents and staff from three schools held a vigil in front of School Board President David Vitale’s house to protest plans to turn around the schools. Later that month, all the turnarounds were approved. [Photo by Marc Monaghan] Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

In the summer before a turnaround, schools that have been left to languish for years experience an adrenaline rush of frenetic energy. 

The hand-picked teachers, the new principal and even the security guards gather in the school library every day for five weeks of intensive training and team-building. They take walks in the community to get a complete, on-the-ground view of the isolated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods where their soon-to-be students live—the boarded-up houses, vacant lots and street memorials to shooting victims that too often appear with the advent of summer. 

For many of the mostly white and middle-class new teachers, it is eye-opening and sobering. 

They stop and talk to the children and try to strike up conversations with their parents. Yet the adults are often wary of the newcomers. Many of the displaced, mostly black teachers taught generations of the community’s children and knew the neighborhood and its challenges. The message the new teachers strive to convey to residents is that, “We are here and we are committed.”

Inside, the school gets a facelift. The walls get a fresh coat of paint, cracked windows and tiles are replaced and the floors are given an extra buffing. 

But the district’s biggest investment, $300,000 per school, is in the teachers. 

“They make it sound wonderful, like we have a chance to give children who really need it a chance at a good education,” says one teacher, who spent the summer of 2013 in a school in Humboldt Park. 

“We believed in the values, we believed in what we were doing,” says Janice Patterson, a 20-year veteran who was teaching at a therapeutic day school before she landed a job at Morton Elementary in East Garfield Park.

But at many of the turnarounds, the optimism almost immediately begins to unravel. Nowhere is this more evident than with the revolving door the turnaround sets in motion with teachers. 

The practice of “turning around” schools began when then-CEO Arne Duncan decided that some schools were so bad that they needed to be blown up and given a fresh start. Under Renaissance 2010, Duncan handed the management of most turnaround schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership—the first time that CPS ceded control of a school to a private, albeit non-profit, entity. AUSL was founded in 2001 as an alternative teacher training program. AUSL would feed its newly minted teachers into the turnarounds.

The creation of turnarounds accelerated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who brought two former AUSL leaders into the CPS administration: Tim Cawley, now chief administrative officer, and School Board President David Vitale. Emanuel’s hand-picked school board has approved 23 new turnarounds, more than doubling the number in place when he took office.

Turnarounds and other drastic actions became a central focus of Duncan’s administration at the U.S. Department of Education. But nationally, they have not caught on. Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge/information management and dissemination of the Education Commission of the States, says that handing out layoff notices to a slew of teachers is not an easy thing to do. Often, not enough good teachers are available to replace those who have left.

“It is unbelievably hard work,” she says. “It is a tough slog.” 

A 2012 Center for Education Policy survey found that in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan, hiring replacements for principals and staff was a major problem. Other schools were perceived to have better working conditions or reputations, and too few good candidates existed. 

Instead of turnarounds, districts are relying on less-drastic action such as transformation, in which outside partners are brought in to help schools improve.

CPS officials insist that the effort in Chicago has been successful because test scores have improved at a somewhat quicker rate in most turnarounds. 

Yet more than 61 percent of turnarounds are still on the lowest rung of the CPS performance rating scale and nearly 80 percent are in the  bottom 25 percent of schools on state tests. 

In addition, a large number of the hand-picked teachers, who spent weeks getting to know each other and becoming a team, leave within a few years. 

In all but one of the 17 schools turned around between the 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 school years, half or more of teachers are gone by the third year of the turnaround, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of Illinois State Teacher Service Records and CPS employee rosters. In fact, turnaround attrition is much higher than in other low-achieving schools similar to turnarounds, as well as CPS as a whole.

The trend has continued since then. In the 10 schools that were turned around last school year, a third of their staff left by the start of this school year. Only 7 percent of CPS schools experience so much teacher loss in one year. 

Lindsey Siemens, a teacher at Bradwell Elementary in South Shore, says that so many turnaround teachers have quit or moved to other jobs that students have become hyper-sensitive to loss. Of the 35 new teachers who came to Bradwell in 2010, only eight remain. “If a teacher is absent for a few days because they are sick, the students start to wonder if they are ever coming back,” Siemens says. 

The turnover is more devastating because the schools are in high-poverty neighborhoods, where children often have adults come and go quickly from their lives. “They experience so much loss that it is important for us to develop relationships with them,” Siemens says.

Despite lackluster academic results at Bradwell, Siemens still believes that the turnaround process can work—but only if the school has a stable staff for three to five years. 

The teacher churn at turnarounds gets to the heart of the debate about retention and school improvement. 

For his part, AUSL Managing Director of Elementary Schools Jarvis Sanford says he is not worried. “It has never been our model that staff stay for three to five years,” he says. “We want to put the effective teachers in front of students. It does not have to be the same teacher.”

Some of the turnover is a byproduct of AUSL’s design, as successful principals are moved to new turnarounds and take their good teachers. Sanford notes that the lauded Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina have successfully used this approach. In other instances, good teachers are encouraged to become coaches or are promoted to leadership roles. 

Some teachers who don’t go to other turnarounds still stay in CPS, so Chicago students are benefiting from AUSL’s training, Sanford says. Catalyst’s analysis shows that about half of the teachers who leave turnaround schools do not take jobs in any CPS school.

Yet Sanford says that the results speak for themselves: Not only do many of the AUSL turnaround schools do a better job than district-run schools in improving academics, they also have higher attendance. The fact that students still come to school shows they are not negatively affected by teacher turnover, he says. 

Turnarounds that are not doing well are anomalies, he maintains.

Even so, most experts agree that schools benefit from faculty stability. In the 2009 report “Why Teachers Leave,” the Consortium on Chicago School Research begins with the premise that some turnover is to be expected, but high attrition is problematic. “It can produce a range of organizational problems at schools, such as discontinuity in professional development, shortages in key subjects and loss of teacher leadership,” according to the report.

Michael Hansen, senior researcher for the American Institutes of Research, says there has been surprisingly little research about whether changing the majority of a teaching staff truly sparks improvement. “The strategies that are being prescribed under Arne Duncan are under-researched,” Hansen says.

One study showed that turnarounds in California improved more than schools subjected to other, less drastic action. But Hansen notes that the schools were also given extra resources to help meet students’ social and emotional needs and those extras might be a more significant factor. “There are many moving parts going into it,” he says.

Hansen attempted to isolate the impact of human capital by analyzing rapidly improving schools in Florida and California. He found that new teachers and veteran teachers were equally responsible for the positive changes. “There is not a clear-cut story on who is improving what,” he says.

High attrition after a turnaround is a potential red flag. “It is possible you may cause more harm than help,” he says. 

And though the management of AUSL might not think retention within a school is important, some of its administrators do. Morton Principal Peggie Burnett says that she is doing her best to hang onto the staff she inherited last year when she took over Morton, the highest-performing AUSL turnaround, in East Garfield Park.

“I love my teachers,” she says. “It is good for the community to keep the same teachers and also I make an investment in my teachers. We are a team and I don’t want to lose the team.”

Morton Elementary School’s initial turnaround in the 2008-2009 school year was fraught with trouble. Between the first and second year, half the staff left and test scores dropped. 

The first problem, according to Janice Patterson, was a poor relationship between the new principal and the school’s families. “She seemed afraid of the parents and students,” Patterson recalls. “She didn’t talk to them or look at them.”

Patterson says the new principal, who was white, wasn’t culturally sensitive to the surrounding black neighborhood. The school did little to celebrate or acknowledge new President Barack Obama’s historic victory, though he was a black man from Chicago and could have served as an example to students. 

That principal was forced out after the first year because the AUSL leadership was frustrated with the lack of progress. (Only two principals who launched turnarounds are still at the helm of their schools—which means that so far, none have lasted five years, the length of time experts say is necessary to provide stability at a failing school.) 

Chadra Lang, who went to Morton for the first turnaround, says she felt that AUSL micromanaged the school, making it difficult for the school’s leaders to do their job.

Patterson also felt there was little emphasis on teaching. Instead, there was a lot of focus on how the room looked. “It was more about the bulletin board than the lesson plan,” she says. 

Leaders seemed obsessed with discipline, too. For example, having the halls completely silent at all times was a priority and a teacher was reprimanded if he or she couldn’t get students to be quiet. “Here these kids come to a school where they don’t see one damn familiar face, and there are all new rules,” she says. “It is like they woke up in another country.”

Former AUSL teachers interviewed by Catalyst voice the same complaints. AUSL’s stated approach is to work on the culture and climate of a school first. At Bradwell, doing that meant hiring nine security guards, up from just four the year before. Herzl in 2012 went from two to eight security guards.

The emphasis on discipline was discouraging to some teachers, who had a difficult time getting their students to buy into the strict rules. (AUSL turnaround schools have extraordinarily high suspension rates, according to CPS data.) 

Principals are required to enforce a 36-point checklist that includes, among other things, curtains and lamps, motivational sayings posted on the walls and college readiness standards placed visibly in the school. Teachers acknowledge that some of these requirements improve the school’s climate, but they feel AUSL sometimes seems to focus on appearances rather than instructional quality. 

The teacher who left the Humboldt Park turnaround says that the school had visitors as often as two or three times a week, even though it had just become a turnaround and teachers were still trying to figure things out. 

Before the visitors arrived, the principal was hyper-vigilant with the checklist and about student’s behavior. At those times, students who acted out were more likely to get suspended, the former Humboldt Park teacher recalls.

“I would put on a show whenever people would come into the room,” she says. “It is not an authentic learning environment. Everything is for show.”

Chadra Lang, who is now teaching at Ray Elementary in Hyde Park, says she didn’t mind fixing up the school and felt that it sent a message to the students that teachers care about their education.

However, Lang, too, didn’t like the fact that the AUSL administration often stopped in with visitors. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells,” she says. 

Concerns extended to other areas. One special education case manager, who asked not to be identified, says she was frustrated because special-needs children didn’t have the aides called for in their Individual Education Plans. When she tried to call the central office’s special education staff, administrators considered it a negative, as though she was trying to expose the school’s problems.

She says some special education aides were used to help around the office or go get lunch for administrators. In one case, a special education teacher was placed in a regular eighth-grade class because the eighth-grade teacher left mid-year, leaving the special education classroom with no teacher.

“I just didn’t feel like we were doing right by kids,” she says. The case manager now works at a North Side school, where she says she is encouraged to ask central office for help with getting special services. 

Concerns about children with special needs were raised as CPS considered this year’s turnarounds. However, Sanford insists that complaints are individual issues and not endemic to the network. 

With the checklist, the constant visitors and ever-present pressure to raise test scores, the teachers who seemed to fare the worst were the new ones, who made up a substantial percentage of AUSL faculty. Forty percent of the 719 teachers who were initially hired for the first 17 turnarounds had less than three years of experience. (State teacher service records are only available through the 2011-2012 school year, so Catalyst was unable to determine the experience level of teachers at the 15 schools that became turnarounds the next two years.) 

In comparison, about 9 percent of CPS teachers are in their first or second year of teaching. 

Among the teachers who left turnarounds, 59 percent have less than five years of experience.

Since she is a counselor, the case manager at the North Side school says other teachers often came to her for help. “They were mentally and physically getting sick,” she says. “They were crying and having panic attacks.”

While more veteran teachers, like Lang, were given some latitude, new teachers were given a scripted curriculum and told what to teach when.

“They literally had everything blocked off into 15-minute lessons,” says the teacher who left the Humboldt Park turnaround. AUSL often switched curricula and teachers had to change course at every whim. “It was very hard,” she says. 

Her class posted academic gains, she says, because she deviated from the script and would “sneak” to go over areas in which students struggled. 

She was also put off by the idea that teachers were expected to work long hours without additional pay. Other former first-year teachers complained that they also were expected to call parents during what should have been their lesson preparation periods, for instance.

Turnaround principals must hire a certain number of former AUSL residents. One former turnaround teacher says residents are rated: red, yellow or green. The principal then gets to pick a certain number of teachers with each rating. 

That teacher says he ran into problems because he got placed in a school with a principal with whom he did not get along. “If she had interviewed me, we would have known it was not a good fit,” he says.

Dustin Voss, one of the few teachers still left from the first year of Fenger High’s turnaround, says these schools are among the hardest to work in and that teachers need a certain disposition to survive.

Fenger’s turnaround was managed by CPS. Voss notes that he went through a lengthy process to land his job, including several interviews and teaching a sample lesson. 

“The first group of teachers was smart and talented, but young and inexperienced,” he recalls. Voss had just one year behind him, at South Shore High, but was one of the veterans. “A lot of them were not quite ready for the kind of experience that they had at Fenger,” Voss says. 

Almost immediately, teachers began leaving. “Some in the first year, some the second year,” Voss says. They left and they left. What really hurt was when the instructional leaders left.”

Many went to jobs at better schools where the work was less stressful, he says. Other factors contributed to the exodus. Fenger began losing money when fewer and fewer students enrolled, and a federal grant for the turnaround ran out—making it apparent that layoffs were coming.

This year, 30-some teachers and other employees were laid off. “Class sizes got bigger, security staff was lost, the one social worker was let go,” Voss says. “It is hard to say whether the turnaround was a good thing. It is difficult to parse out the benefit of the money and the value of recruiting a whole new staff.” 

Veterans who were forced out by turnarounds hear about the constant churn at their old schools and question whether it was really necessary to fire them. 

At Marshall High, only 20 of the 68 turnaround teachers are still on the job. One teacher, Raminder Dua, was part of the displaced teacher pool for a while and eventually landed a position at Kelvyn Park High. 

Dua believes outsiders do not understand how difficult it is to teach in high-poverty schools like Marshall, in East Garfield Park. But she was committed to Marshall, had been there for seven years and had no plans to leave. 

She points out that the teachers who left Marshall mostly got jobs at other similar schools. 

“The students are the same, the building is the same, and the results are the same,” she says. 

Arthur Baumgartner, another former Marshall teacher, says the problem with turnarounds is that everyone is let go. “You throw the baby out with the bath water,” he says. “In my opinion, they do not want teachers like my wife, who taught for 35 years at the same school and retired from there.”

Baumgartner was not just any Marshall teacher: He was Captain Commando, dressing up for sports events as the school’s mascot. Now, from what he hears from teachers still there, a lot of time is spent poring over data—so much so that teachers feel that the school operates on an Excel sheet. 

With an overemphasis on data and compliance instead of creativity in instruction and building a community among teachers, young teachers probably get fed up, don’t feel supported, and leave. 

Says Baumgartner: “They think, ‘Why did I go to college for four years?’” 

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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