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How to fix America's worst schools

One school in Chicago shows the promise and pitfalls of a federal effort to turn around the nation's bottom-tier schools.

By Staff writer, Photos by Melanie Stetson FreemanStaff photographer / March 26, 2011

Chicago's Phillips Academy sophomores read during class in their school uniforms, which are color-coded by grade. This is the cover story for the March 21 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman photo/John Kehe staff illustration

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Chicago

About 10 juniors and seniors sit in Joyce Randolph's history class at Wendell Phillips Academy, a predominantly black high school on Chicago's south side, wrestling with a question they have focused on for weeks. Just how revolutionary was the American Revolution?

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Ms. Randolph, an animated teacher who doesn't brook lethargy in her class, pushes the students to elaborate.

"Give it to me in your own words," she exhorts. At this point, she isn't looking for answers as much as wanting to make sure they understand what she's asking.

"How can we write an essay if we don't understand the question?"

Finally she gets a response from one young man: "Did the Revolution bring about significant change?"

"Awesome!" says Ms. Randolph, as she points to another student. "Curtis, what does 'significant' mean?"

She's met with a blank stare. Silence.

IN PICTURES: Turnaround schools

It's one of the dilemmas for many of the new teachers at Phillips, brought in a year ago to try to turn around this chronically failing high school. They are determined to do higher-level work with their students but often run up against basic vocabulary and reading-comprehension challenges. At the beginning of the year, 27 percent of the freshmen at Phillips read at a third grade level or lower.

What's going on in the classrooms of this inner-city high school is part of one of the toughest – and most important – experiments in American education today.

Across the country, a new movement is taking root, backed by the Obama administration, that is trying bold and controversial new methods – a kind of shock therapy – to fix the nation's worst schools. These are the bottom 5 percent, the roughly 5,000 public schools that chronically underperform and that, in many cases, society has given up on.

They are the schools that produce the worst test scores, suffer the worst dropout rates, yield some of the worst violence in the hallways.

Turning them around could help save successive generations of kids who quit and often end up jobless, mired in poverty, or worse. It could also dramatically improve the nation's educational performance.

Experts say that fixing even a fraction of these schools would lift the nation's test scores and education rankings, since the bottom-tier schools so depress overall performance.

Yet achieving this won't be easy. These schools have resisted the best intentions and ideas of educational gurus for decades. Now comes a new effort, led by President Obama's reform-minded secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who vows to turn around 1,000 of the schools over the next five years.

He's putting $4 billion of federal money into the quest, and the methods his department is backing aren't incremental. They range from revamping a school from scratch, with virtually all new teachers, to installing a new principal who will carry out major reforms.

It's an ambitious goal – and a risky one. The record on dramatically improving the worst-performing schools in the country that, like Phillips, seem mired in failure is dismal: One recent study put the success rate at about 1 percent.

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