Clemente High School Principal Marcey Sorensen meets with staff about the school’s Safe Passage program. Improving school culture and climate is a key focus in her effort to improve Clemente. [Photo byJoe Gallo] Credit: Photo by Joe Gallo

On the first day of school at Clemente High, about 120 more students show up than expected. It’s an early victory and a good start to the year for second-year principal Marcey Sorensen.

“We hope word is getting out that it’s a good place to be,” she says. More students have returned from last year, as well.

Reporters swarm inside and outside, as do members of the football team—all waiting for their chance to meet CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who is there for a live radio broadcast and bell-ringing to kick off the year. Volunteers from the national service organization City Year let out loud cheers every time someone walks in the door.

The first day has typical bumps—students left unattended in a homeroom because of a no-show teacher, and the perpetually dysfunctional escalators that stop when too many students ride on them. “We’ve had construction on our escalators for two years now,” Sorensen notes.

Despite these distractions, she keeps her finger on the school’s pulse, ducking into dozens of classrooms to watch teachers at work and introducing herself to students—selling them on her agenda of principal as part-friend, part-mentor, part-parent.

“We will be all up in your business,” Sorensen announces to each class. “I want to know what your grades are, what your attendance is, who you’re dating,” as well as their academic and social-emotional struggles.

To freshmen, Sorensen stresses the unpleasant consequences if they don’t buckle down this year. “You will be constantly playing catch-up. Fifty-four percent of my seniors [last year] were missing credits. There were kids going to night school, every night of the week, and Saturday school.”

Sorensen is one of a new breed of principals to come from one of the district’s preferred training programs. Under a three-year, $10 million initiative, CPS is banking on these programs to turn out “change-agent” leaders who can transform failing schools.

With Sorensen only in her second year, it’s too early to tell what will happen at Clemente. So far, the school’s climate is better, with discipline infractions down steeply since last year. ACT scores and scores on the Prairie State exam fell, but other indicators that are key to improvement down the road are up: The freshman on-track rate is up, to nearly 93 percent from 59 percent at the end of the previous year. The dropout rate is down, and attendance jumped nearly 10 percentage points to almost 79 percent.

Sorensen “really knows what good instruction and good teachers look like,” says Peter Martinez, the director of principal coaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Sorensen has been a doctoral student in the Urban Education Leadership program since 2007. “She concentrates on building strong personal and professional relationships based on very high expectations. What enables her to relate is her great sense of humor.”

In the auditorium, Brizard awkwardly bops around to the increasingly loud hip-hop music from the radio DJs. As Sorensen heads in, she tells students to sit down. She hugs one, a student she knows well. “How are you doing, Dianna?” she asks. “Horrible,” the girl replies. “I had to come to school.”

With a characteristic mixture of sympathy and challenge, Sorensen sighs. “Oh, Dianna, you’re such a drama queen,” she says affectionately. “You had to come to school…Dios mio.”

On the wall of her office hangs evidence of Sorensen’s tough-cookie attitude mixed with humor. It’s a cartoon caricature of her, with a speech bubble saying, “Want Prom?”

“It’s a joke,” Sorensen explains. She asks students if they want to have a prom dance at all when they “get very opinionated about where it should be, and what it should be like.”

At an orientation for 9th- and 11th-graders before school began, Sorensen knew it was her chance to tell parents and students exactly how high the stakes will be at Clemente this year. She sent the message loud and clear. 

“How many parents in this crowd want their students to sit on their couch two or four years from now?” she asks, smiling. Parents chuckle. “It is our job to take your children on a 4-year educational journey, so at the end of it they have college options and choices.”

Freshmen were put on notice about the challenge awaiting them. “We are going to push you to the very edge of what you are capable of, give you a hug, and then push you some more,” Sorensen says. Juniors get a pep talk about the importance of the ACT. Members of the school’s care team of social-emotional and counseling specialists introduce themselves, and Sorensen explains how the group will help students through teenage angst as well as the life challenges that they and their families face. 

Troublemakers get a warning from her.  “If I was in your business last year, I am going to be in your business again this year—Kaylanee, for real!”

Sorensen came to Clemente from another troubled high school across town, Tilden, where she was interim principal for a year. Prior to that, she was principal at New Millennium School of Health, the highest-performing of four small schools on the Bowen Campus (it later expanded to take in all of Bowen’s students when the other three schools were closed). Sorensen’s career began at Leif Ericson Scholastic Academy, where she taught 7th- and 8th-grade social science for a year. Then she moved to Chicago Vocational Career Academy, where she worked for nearly 10 years as a teacher and curriculum coordinator before becoming a social science coach.

At Tilden, Sorensen’s first goal was to improve the school’s climate and social-emotional programs and institute supports for struggling students. With only a year’s time, she acknowledges that academics didn’t improve. The year after Sorensen left, CPS decided to turn around Tilden, and this year the school got a new principal and new staff.

Michelle Porter, a history teacher at Tilden who kept her job through the turnaround, recalls Sorensen as “very student-centered.” Attendance incentives were offered, and after-school tutoring became mandatory for struggling students. Teachers were required to attend new grade-level team meetings, in addition to the existing academic department meetings, to give them more opportunity to talk about how students were doing.

Sorensen also emphasized accountability. Not everyone was comfortable with the transparency of weekly reports, staff meetings and spreadsheets of data that revealed publicly “if things had been turned in,” Porter says. Plus, Sorensen didn’t sugar-coat anything when she spoke.

“Sometimes she did not have a filter,” Porter says. “She was very abrupt, and in her conversations very frank, and in her speech. Some teachers were not used to that. Marcey was Marcey, all the time.”

At Clemente, Sorensen has the support of the local school council as well as the promise of investment from the district: Clemente is slated to become an International Baccalaureate school, a change that will bring staff development and training over several years from the well-regarded program based in Geneva, Switzerland.

But Sorensen’s hiring has sparked controversy. In her first year, she rated 13 teachers as unsatisfactory. Of those, she fired nine through the E-3 process, which requires that principals provide some remediation before a firing.

Another 22 teachers lost their jobs over the summer due to declining enrollment. And since the school had lost positions, Sorensen wanted teachers who could teach more than one subject, so she redefined the jobs of the entire social science department: Everyone would now have to hold at least two certifications. Those who didn’t were out.

Amid a contentious season of union contract negotiations, the layoffs unleashed a storm.  Some of the laid-off teachers showed up at Board of Education meetings to complain and filed union grievances. The situation is particularly touchy because of union anger over layoffs, across the district, of veteran teachers, often through similar re-defining of positions.

At a summer local school council meeting, Sorensen thanks members for their support during the controversy and says that parents and community groups have told her they were contacted by outsiders in an effort to get them to “denounce” her.

“Every community organization that has contacted me has said, ‘We have your back,’” Sorensen notes. “I want to say thank you, publicly, to the parents.”

Judy Vazquez, chair of the local school council, tells Sorensen that parents are behind her. “We appreciate being part of the loop,” Vazquez says. “The upgrading [of the teaching force] is to benefit the kids and the community.”

Sorensen says she always knew she would be an educator. Her mother and aunt were teachers. But, perhaps because she had her own ideas about how classes should be run, she wasn’t a model student.

“I would sit in high school classes and tell teachers, ‘This is dumb. This isn’t working,’” Sorensen says. Some teachers thought she had a behavior disorder.

Sorensen grew up in middle-class suburban Park Ridge and Morton Grove, worlds away from the area around Clemente. The school is located in West Town, a community that is now rapidly gentrifying; most students come from neighboring Humboldt Park, a predominantly Latino, lower-income neighborhood.

As the child of a single mom, Sorensen says she “saw the disparity between the haves and the have-nots pretty early.” She viewed education as an equalizer, a way to help students “get in the game, so that they’re not disenfranchised anymore,” she says.

After high school, Sorensen had to start out at a community college, something that Vazquez says helps her relate to the obstacles that Clemente students face. “We were looking for someone who understood the kids and the community, someone who knew how hard it was for kids to get that 2.5 GPA, someone who was passionate about educating all the kids, including the special ed kids,” Vazquez says. “As parents, I think we hit the Lotto.”

Many of the changes Sorensen has made—such as the prospective IB program, an initiative of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—were requested first by the Humboldt Park Community Advisory Council. The neighborhood-based advisory councils were part of a school-improvement process that began several years ago under former CEO Ron Huberman, but the councils’ ideas were largely ignored by the new administration.

Sorensen says that at the council’s suggestion, she has also launched dual-enrollment courses, a legal clinic, and programs to get students to enroll at Northeastern Ilinois University, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Columbia College.

Vazquez sees other tangible evidence of improvement: Teachers who “weren’t there for the right reasons” are gone, the school is being run better and students are getting the help they need, such as testing for special education and bringing in parents for conferences when needed.

“Those are the little things that weren’t being done before,” Vazquez says.

Sorensen is more circumspect about the school’s progress. “We still struggle with teacher capacity and willingess on some levels, but it is much reduced this year,” she says.

Julio Urrutia, deputy director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, says that, unlike the former principal, Sorensen has gotten community groups to feel invested in what’s happening at the school. “This is a community that is very well-organized, in terms of [groups] that provide different services. Marcey has been able to tap that in some effective ways,” Urrutia says. “[Principals] are a gate-keeper, so they can let you in or keep you out.”

One example: As part of a Cultural Center program that helped students apply to college, Sorensen had Clemente’s counselors follow up individually with students who were supposed to be headed to college; 26 students had been accepted at Northeastern Illinois University, but none had registered.

Home visits and phone calls got 22 students to commit to bus trips and a six-session “boot camp” at the university, where they will get additional instructions on how to register. If any of them don’t show up, “we’ll go back out to their houses and do some more stalking,” Sorensen says.

Sorensen won over community groups not only by welcoming them into the building, but also by making social-emotional learning a priority, starting anger management and trauma groups as well as peace circles. That focus first took root at Tilden, where, Sorensen recalls, “the kids were like sponges. They were thirsty for attention, for guidance, care, and structure.”

At Clemente, social-emotional learning intersects with another focus of Sorensen’s: reliance on data.

Porter says that, unlike some other principals, Sorensen is comfortable with new ways of thinking and recognizes that “education has become more data-driven. The data should be used not only to make the teaching better, but also the experiences of the students.”

Clemente now has a custom-designed database, called Students Performance Tracking System, where teachers report attendance, low grades, such as D’s and F’s on assignments, and disciplinary issues, as well as strategies being tried to resolve the problems. Even brief interventions are to be entered in the system so administrators and teachers get “real-time” data about how students are doing—so they can intervene—and what is working—so they keep doing what is successful). The school is working on making sure peace circles and restorative justice interventions get logged in the system.

“You have all been trained. You will all be leading circles,” Assistant Principal Tina Menendez told school administrators. “The difference this year is, you do a circle, you have to put it in SPTS—even if it’s a conference between two [students].”

Administrators, teachers and the care team follow-up with students to resolve whatever might be causing problems. “Equity is not every kid getting the same thing,” says Sorensen, who credits the UIC program with teaching the importance of individualized support for students. “It’s every kid getting what they need.”

Teachers and administrators are “first-responders” when students show signs of being in trouble, Sorensen tells staff members gathered to review data in early July.  “You may not know how to handle it, but you should get that kid services or support through a referral.”

That idea represents a “paradigm shift,” she acknowledges later—one that some people are struggling to accept as part of their job.

At another summer session, a team of administrators and counselors go over disciplinary data that show the rate of low-level offenses has decreased by 65 percent. But offenses at Level 4 through 6—which generally call for suspensions—have increased by 10 percent.

Staff members discuss what worked and what didn’t with the new system, and note that the increase in less-serious fights points to a need for more conflict resolution sessions.

The team also notices that students who are coming back from a suspension are not getting help to re-acclimate to school. One team member suggests having someone on duty during 1st period every day to help kids transition back into the school setting.

The data suggest that teachers are recognizing their role as “first responders,” with the care team getting referrals for nearly 300 students. Of those, 83 were screened and sent to anger management or trauma coping groups, and 85 percent of teachers said the support helped improve students’ behavior. 

But, on the other hand, the data show that a third of staff members got no feedback on a specific referral they made, and some clinicians didn’t have time or willingness to screen students.

Sorensen sees a red flag in the fact that students who were in a trauma group had better attendance and behavior, but showed no improvement in grades. “How are we giving out grades?” she says. “Is it possible a student is coming to class and just not learning?”

To her, the possibility should be unthinkable.

“Kids should grow in terms of academic achievement if they are present and displaying a willingess to learn,” Sorensen says. It’s a philosophy that doesn’t always sit well with teachers, who have to deal with students who don’t turn in homework and frequently seem not to care.

But, Sorensen explains, “If there is no willingess on a students’ part, then we have to begin to dig in on the why—not just allow them to continue to experience failure.”

Finding teachers who buy in to her philosophy has been Sorensen’s greatest struggle. In late July, she says that she will be sprinting all the way to the start of the year to accomplish this.

“We have quite a few positions to fill. We have interviewed quite a few people, and we are not finding quality candidates,” she says. “This is what is keeping me up at night.”  Since she’s a UIC graduate student, Sorensen at one point contacted university professors to ask if they could send any high-quality candidates her way.

In interviews with prospective teachers, Sorensen, her assistant principals, and department chairs share the responsibility of rating them and the practice lessons they teach summer school students.  But many of the teachers had little or no experience, and those with experience often did not fully develop their teaching skills. As a result, the quality of candidates is thin. Even UIC couldn’t help with candidates, she notes.

“There is a huge disconnect between teacher education programs and what teaching looks like on the ground,” she says. One week, Sorensen and her panel interview prospective science teachers and give many candidates bad reviews.

By the start of the school year, Sorensen had put dozens of hours into finding exactly the right teachers—people who are on board with her ideas—who are willing to push each other to do better, have high expectations, and make sure students get whatever it is that they need—and are also able to teach engaging lessons and have content knowledge down pat. Just under half of the teachers she hired were veterans, including teachers who lost their jobs because of turnarounds and other teachers from a mix of high schools across the city.

Sorensen, who believes in investing in teacher development, plans to use federal School Improvement Grant money to pay teachers extra to stay after school for lesson planning and training.

Sorensen wants to develop an atmosphere where faculty members are up-front about teaching practice. “That is the thing that revolutionizes and changes schools, when adults can sit and talk about practice and have it not be personal,” Sorensen says.

Doing so will be a massive change for Clemente because, Sorensen says, teachers had not gotten substantive feedback on their performance for years. “There was so much change that had to happen, from every corner, from every nook and cranny of this building,” Sorensen says. One example: When she first arrived at Clemente, more than 400 students were not on track to graduate. Some students were 21 and no longer entitled to be enrolled in a public high school, but had only three credits.

Asking teachers about the situation, Sorensen says, “felt to some people like I was blaming them. The information itself made people uncomfortable.”

Sorensen is up-front about her own personal challenges, including the need to have clear expectations, give staff the support needed to meet those expectations, and work harder to develop trust.

“Because if there is no trust, people can’t have the honest dialogue to improve.”

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