Chicago Schools Try to Make the Grade

Administrators join forces with universities, education experts to aid troubled schools

At Clemente High School on Chicago's West Side, afternoon dismissal is a scene of bottled-up chaos: Thousands of students throng down the central escalators of the nine-story school talking and laughing. Adult monitors shout at the slow-moving crowd to leave the grounds and avoid fights.

Academically, too, Clemente has its share of turmoil.

Earlier this month, Clemente was placed on academic probation along with 108 other Chicago public schools, nearly a fifth of the city's total. At each of the schools, at least 85 percent of students scored below national norms in reading tests. At Clemente, the figure was 92 percent.

The sweeping probation mandate is the most aggressive effort to improve academic achievement in the nation's third-largest school system since Mayor Richard Daley's corporate-style school board took charge 15 months ago.

Under state law, the board's demand for higher scores is backed up by a big stick. The board can fire principals, teachers, and other staff at schools placed on probation. And it can hold new elections for the schools' local councils, which control millions of dollars in discretionary funds.

But probation also comes with a carrot: a total of $23 million in academic aid for the schools in the form of partnerships with universities and education experts. At each school, the partner's role is to design an individual plan to boost classroom learning. The plan is then overseen by a probation team composed of school staff, board-assigned managers, a school council representative, and the outside partner.

Just the beginning

Outside intervention has been in place at Clemente and a handful of other schools since early this year under orders from the board. Initial efforts have made some progress, with Illinois state test scores creeping up this year in 75 percent of the schools assigned outside partners, officials say.

But experts say radical changes in teaching methods and content are needed to significantly raise the scores.

The curriculum at Chicago high schools "got lost somewhere about 10 or 20 years ago," says Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education.

"As the student population has changed over the years, the high schools have not changed," says Phil Hansen, Chicago's director of school intervention.

Most important, today's students are more visually oriented and less skilled as readers than those of past generations, Mr. Hansen and other experts say.

The students lack a wide vocabulary and exposure to a broad variety of subjects, especially in the area of nonfiction.

"The kids can read if it's a story; they can't read if it's history. They can read sports news; they can't read science news," says Ms. Radner of DePaul, the outside partner for Clemente and several other probation schools.

For decades, ill-equipped students have entered high school thanks to a policy known as "social promotion," which graduates students from grade to grade with their age peers despite poor academic performance.

Ordinary high schools such as Clemente have trouble attracting the most highly motivated elementary students, who opt instead to attend private or magnet schools.

As a result, attendance and dropout rates (67 percent and 50 percent at Clemente) are abysmal. Often, the faces in a class change dramatically from one session to the next, Hansen says.

Teachers, meanwhile, feel increasingly frustrated by the need to teach high school students reading and other basic skills. Facing teacher shortages and high turnover, some high schools have hired instructors who are either not certified for the subject they are teaching or not certified at all.

Many teachers who do stay on use old-fashioned methods that rely too heavily on rote learning, resulting in an "overwhelming amount of time spent memorizing facts and dates," says Hansen.

At the same time, few teachers integrate analytical skills such as reading comprehension, writing, and organization with their teaching of subjects. Many simply teach one day at a time. "A lot of what the kids learn is like a whole bunch of dots, and they don't know how to connect the dots," says Radner.

Chicago's school board is encouraging schools under probation to use several approaches to tackle the problem of poor performance.

*Bridge Program. In the first step toward ending the practice of "social promotion," a new policy adopted last summer requires all eighth-grade students scoring below a cutoff level in reading or math to attend summer school. If the student fails summer school, he or she must repeat the grade. The summer "bridge" program is expected to be mandatory for low-achieving sixth- and third-graders next summer.

*Freshman Academies. High schools are creating special academies to serve incoming freshmen who need intensive training in reading and math.

Schools Within Schools. Some high schools are attempting to keep closer track of large student bodies by dividing them into smaller units. For example, Clemente, with more than 3,000 students, has adopted a "house" system. Each class is given a home base on one floor and a team of counselors, administrators, and teachers, which stays with the class until graduation.

*Business Managers. All schools placed on probation are eligible to hire business managers, who are being recruited from the ranks of retired Chicago executives. The practice is meant to free principals so that they can focus on academics.

*Curriculum Revision and Teacher Training. Outside experts are updating school curricula and training teachers to better integrate the instruction of basic skills such as reading, writing, and organizing with all subjects.

Simplifying

At Clemente, which Radner describes as "one of the most confused schools I have ever worked with," all teachers are now encouraged to follow a simple, month-by-month plan to incorporate such basic skills. In September, for example, students were asked to make outlines to develop organizing skills; find the main idea and details of a text to help develop their reading skills; and write a sentence at the end of each class about what they'd learned to foster writing skills.

"It's helpful," says Clemente sophomore Joseph Maldo, wearing the new, casual school "uniform" of a white T-shirt and jeans.

"The sentence stays in your journal and when you get stuck with your homework, you can read it."

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