Chicago looks to 'turnarounds' to lift failing schools
The unproven reform includes firing a school's entire staff.
(Page 2 of 2)
Ms. Stewart suggests a less drastic reform, already undertaken in several Chicago schools with some promising results, in which the principal is replaced, but not the teachers.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're not resistant to change," she says. "But we're resistant to this kind of upheaval where you're throwing out the baby with the bath water."
Administrators acknowledge the challenge of finding enough high-quality teachers willing to work with poor children in low-performing schools. But recruiting is easier if there's a dynamic principal who can get people to buy into a new mission for a school, they say. It's also one reason Chicago chose a nonprofit, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), to manage the turnarounds at several of the schools: the Orr High School campus, made up of three small schools, and two elementary schools that feed into them.
AUSL, which also manages the turnaround at Harvard Elementary, trains and recruits teachers for urban classrooms. Its proposal for Orr, in fact, includes setting up the new high school as a teacher training academy, where mentor teachers would be matched with those just learning.
"Effective teachers want supportive leadership, positive working conditions, adequate resources, and positive interactions with students and parents," says Donald Feinstein, AUSL's executive director. "When you embed that in a school culture and climate, you can attract more effective teachers."
That wholesale staff turnover – giving a new principal the ability to shape who's working for him or her – is the most crucial element to a turnaround's success, says Mr. Calkins of Mass Insight, but it's not the only one. Other key elements are added time for teachers to plan and collaborate, longer school days or school years, clustering turnaround schools so they can learn from one another, local authority over budget and curricula, and support for teachers and administrators from outside the school, such as the district or an outside group like AUSL.
At Harvard Elementary, Cowling had the whole school repainted, moved his office so he was more visible to the older kids, separated the seventh and eighth grades into single-gender classes, and has the teachers work together for five weeks in the summer to map out the school year and start on the same page.
He ended up rehiring just three of the school's original teachers and hired 17 AUSL-trained teachers.
"This wouldn't be possible with the same teachers," he says. "The kids would have come back with new paint, and the pedagogical insufficiencies would still be there."
Cowling, who traded a $130,000 corporate job for a $40,000 teacher's salary several years ago and who knows every child in his school by name, says his students' parents are now many of the biggest supporters of the changes at Harvard. But he acknowledges it was controversial at first.
At a hearing last week on the turnaround proposal for Orr, the district office was packed with teachers, parents, and students, many arguing against the change.
"We are not science experiments," Bianca Davis, a junior at one of the small Orr schools, told the hearing officer.
"On the television, it seemed like you slandered the teachers," added Melissa Winston, a parent, in impassioned testimony. "Society has failed these kids, not the teachers."
That plea to consider the harm to teachers carries little weight with Cowling. The real focus, he says, needs to be on students.
"I hired who I thought would be the very best for our kids," Cowling says. "We have a moral obligation. It took some drastic measures to get this building turned around the way we did."