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.
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It's also controversial. Teacher unions and those on the left worry about replacing most of a school's staff. Many on the right see it as a waste of taxpayer money for something that won't work anyway.Skip to next paragraph
But advocates argue that there's no choice without giving up on the futures of a large chunk of the nation's students. And they claim that done right, turnarounds have a far better chance of succeeding than the record would indicate.
"It hasn't been done in this kind of thoughtful, comprehensive way in the past," says Mr. Duncan. "It's some of the hardest, most difficult work there is, but it's absolutely critical that we engage in this work. If we don't, we perpetuate failures."
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Phillips Academy occupies an impressive building, with an ornate facade and marble columns, in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. It also has a substantial pedigree. Named after abolitionist Wendell Phillips, it became the first predominantly black high school in Chicago, in the 1920s, and boasts an alumni roster of notable African-Americans: among them, singers Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, as well as poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
It once produced a skilled group of basketball players who formed the nucleus of what would later become the Harlem Globetrotters.
But for the past few decades, Phillips Academy has been more known in Chicago for something else: failure. Last year, the school was the second-worst performing high school in Illinois. Less than 5 percent of its students met state academic standards. It had an 49 percent dropout rate. Fights regularly broke out after school in the neighborhood, and parents did whatever they could to keep their children out of Phillips Academy.
So in mid 2010 the Chicago Public Schools, working with a local nonprofit group, the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), got approval for federal funds to make Phillips a turnaround project. The Department of Education (ED) agreed to give the school roughly $5 million in grants over the next five years.
Under the DOE's School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, districts seeking federal money to revive a school must choose from four options: school closure (while ensuring that former students attend a better school nearby); restart, in which a school is usually taken over by a charter operator; "turnaround," in which the principal and at least half the staff is replaced; and "transformation," in which the principal is replaced and a number of major reforms implemented. Technically, Phillips is using the restart model.
For AUSL, the school represented a new challenge. The group had been turning around failing schools in Chicago for the past five years, some with striking success. Howe School of Excellence (a K-8 school), for instance, raised the percentage of students meeting state standards from 43 percent to 67 percent in just two years.
But most of AUSL's projects are elementary schools. Phillips was a high school, and, by all accounts, high schools are the toughest to change. Kids come in already many years behind in learning. Behaviors are entrenched. The schools are large, and communication is often lacking among teachers across subject areas and grades.