Peirce Elementary Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

When Janice Rosales was appointed to take over Peirce Elementary, she became the school’s fourth principal in three years—and at 34, the youngest. By the time she left 17 years later, the school had made a steady climb out of the academic basement with better discipline, new staff and a restructured school day.

Her hand-picked successor, Paula Rossino, continues to build on the foundation laid during Rosales’ tenure. Now, Peirce has begun to draw more middle-class parents from the surrounding Edgewater neighborhood, although the school remains high-poverty.

Parent Kara Hetz says she and her husband sent their oldest daughter to a private preschool in Evanston and almost moved when it came time to send her to kindergarten. “We couldn’t afford private school and we had heard so many negative things about Chicago Public Schools that we didn’t even consider it.”

Then a friend urged her to look at Peirce. Hetz took a tour and was so impressed that she and her husband decided to give it a try. “Immediately we were hooked,” says Hetz. “The teachers are well-prepared and highly educated, and the school is run in a very organized way,” she adds. “We’ve been happy ever since.” Hetz’s two daughters are now 1st- and 3rd-graders at Peirce.

The rise of Peirce shows how a young leader with little administrative experience but plenty of energy and the right background and leadership skills can take a troubled school to new heights. It is also an example of how to keep the school moving forward after a strong leader moves on.

Rosales’ successor, Paula Rossino, “highly respects her staff, and I see that the respect is mutual,” says Camille Chase, a consultant with DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, which is working with Peirce to fine-tune its curriculum and instruction. “Her respect and sharing with teachers makes them want to be there.”

First inklings of success

Rosales says she felt confident and welcomed when she arrived at Peirce in 1985, picked by the subdistrict office from a pool of three candidates recommended by a parent advisory council. She spoke fluent Spanish and had worked as a bilingual coordinator, an advantage at Peirce, which was drawing more children of Mexican immigrants.

Some previous principals were unable to work with the increasingly low-income, minority enrollment, and the school climate suffered as a result, says Leroy Malone, then a teacher at Peirce. “We had chaos—kids talking back to adults, leaving the building without permission, smoking in school.”

Rosales, however, had a knack for talking with parents, even difficult ones, Malone says. “She was a good listener. She always let parents know that she cared about their children.” To build rapport, Rosales quickly started parent workshops on how to help kids with homework. She also began professional development on teaching second-language learners.

The school began making progress, and in 1990, Rosales was offered a contract by the new local school council. Nancy Sullivan, the LSC’s first chair, says Rosales “brought a spirit to the school that was fresh, optimistic and innovative.”

Discipline, for teaching’s sake

Rosales and Malone, whom she appointed assistant principal, decided to take discipline more firmly in hand with a program called Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline. They liked its central tenet, Rosales says: “Nothing stops the teacher from teaching. Everybody learns because the teacher can teach.”

Assertive Discipline relies on consistent, schoolwide rules such as “Follow directions” and “Raise your hand before speaking or leaving your seat.” Consequences range from a “time out” in a corner to a phone call to parents or a trip to the assistant principal’s office. Children get rewards for good behavior.

Within several years, teachers say the climate improved dramatically and test scores began rising. “When you don’t have to spend all that time on discipline, you can spend it on academics,” says 7th-grade math and science teacher Vivian Leventis.

Follow-through is the key to discipline, Rosales says. “It takes great effort to be consistent with 1,000 kids and to interact with the parents. It’s time-consuming, but well worth the effort.”

A better staff, a longer day

In 1993, Peirce chose to take part in a district initiative that allowed schools to choose a “specialty,” rename themselves and require all the staff to reapply for their positions. Peirce became the Peirce School of International Studies, including a different country in its curriculum each semester.

With children from Chinese, Vietnamese, Assyrian, Korean, African-American, Hispanic and other backgrounds, the move was a good fit for Peirce, Rosales says. A committee of parents and administrators interviewed every teacher and chose not to rehire about five.

Those who remained were of like minds, says 3rd-grade teacher Shelly Handschuh. “We liked our jobs [and] we looked for ways to do our jobs better,” she says. Teachers held monthly book groups at each other’s homes, building cohesiveness that strengthened their working relationships, Handschuh says.

In 1997, Rosales and her faculty agreed that a windfall of about $400,000 in additional poverty funds would be best spent on a longer school day. Teachers approved a waiver to the union contract that extended the day an extra hour, which was devoted to reading and math. (Peirce got the additional money after the district revised its formula for distributing poverty funds.)

“That was a real turnaround moment,” Rosales says. Test scores skyrocketed. Within two years, reading scores had increased by 16 percentage points and math by 20 percentage points. Budget cuts later forced Peirce to scale back the initiative.

Passing the torch

In 2002, Rosales hired a second assistant principal to give her more time to work on the school’s curriculum.

She, Malone and the LSC interviewed a number of candidates and settled on Paula Rossino, an assistant principal from Jordan Elementary in Rogers Park. Malone remembers being impressed with how Rossino responded to questions about resolving disputes with parents and students. “In my opinion, that’s most important. If you can’t do that, you can’t lead.”

Rosales also liked Rossino’s background as an instructional leader. She had served as Jordan’s curriculum coordinator and, prior to that, was a veteran 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher.

But unexpectedly, Rosales was offered a job as an area instructional officer and jumped at the chance for a new challenge. Rosales offered the position of acting principal to Malone, who declined it. (Malone has since retired.)

That left Rossino, who says she was “absolutely surprised. It was nothing that was ever in my plan.” But she accepted, and was later offered a contract by the LSC.

A new phase

Malone’s support helped smooth the transition, as did regular phone contact with Rosales throughout that first year, says Rossino, who focused initially on observing teachers. “She didn’t come in and all of a sudden try to change everything,” says 3rd-grade teacher Judy McGuire.

“People needed to get to know me and what I was like,” says Rossino. Analyzing test scores, she noted areas of weakness and offered to coach individual teachers on strategies such as tailoring instruction to meet different learning levels.

“I am still a teacher at heart,” says Rossino.

While principal changes often spark teacher turnover, that didn’t happen at Peirce. In her four-year tenure, Rossino says she his hired an average of only two to three new teachers each year, mostly to replace retirees or teachers on maternity leave.

The school now boasts seven teachers with certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (out of a staff of more than 50). Three serve on a committee that plans professional development for the school. They also shepherd other aspiring candidates through the arduous certification process.

Suzanne Schaefer, who earned her board certification two years ago, says that the school’s abundance of certified teachers was the main factor that attracted her to the school.

“It’s a more intellectual environment for teachers than some other schools,” she explains. “There are a lot of teachers here who are constantly in school, trying to better themselves as educators. And you can have dialogues about it.” Schaefer says she also found a supportive administration, involved parents and structured time for collaboration.

School improvement takes that kind of schoolwide effort, she adds. “If the whole school isn’t on board, it doesn’t happen.”

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