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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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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Turnaround schools
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To oversee the school, AUSL brought in one of its most successful school-turnaround administrators, Terrance Little, as principal. A cool-headed manager who banters easily with staff and students, Mr. Little certainly knew the challenge he would be facing: He grew up on the gritty streets of Chicago and attended a poor high school himself that was shut down. To this day, he lives in the same neighborhood as most of his students.
"I thought I was an intelligent kid until I got to college," says Little, recalling what it was like to be challenged academically for the first time.
His approach in the hallways and from behind his desk is decidedly no-nonsense. Though not physically imposing, he is not the sort of person students question. At Phillips, Little's word is law.
As part of the transition to the new school, Chicago school officials dismissed all the Phillips teachers. Little hired back only two of the original faculty, both ROTC instructors. He also mandated the wearing of uniforms – navy blue pants for both boys and girls, and shirts color-coded by grade.
On top of that, he instituted a dress code – no shirt, for instance, could be untucked. Students had to wear visible ID tags, and carry clear backpacks so security guards could see what was inside them.
Little altered the schedule to keep freshmen at school an extra hour each day, and instituted a tougher grading scale. He enforced a zero-tolerance policy on discipline. He removed iron gates in the stairwells that he thought made the school feel like a prison. "If students come back, and it looks like it did when they left, then right there you've started off on the wrong foot," says Mr. Little.
His by-the-book approach was perhaps not surprising, given what Little saw when he visited Phillips last year. He describes it as a "zoo." Students were spending more time in hallways than in classrooms, and when they were in class, chaos reigned.
"There was food fighting in the cafeterias, and kids were always fighting in the hallways," recalls Eric Darko, a soft-spoken senior from Ghana, as he builds a complex tower after school for a Science Olympiad. "It was horrible bad. We didn't learn anything." This year, he says, things are better. "The teachers are always on time and on track."
AUSL puts its teachers through a yearlong residency program or offers other specialized training. As a result, all the teachers at Phillips have signed on to a certain curriculum and follow common practices in the classroom. A note on the wall or chalkboard of every class lists the agenda and objectives for the day.
"Do now" items get students busy as soon as they enter the room. Students get an "exit slip" on the way out, in which they are queried about how well they understood the material. The idea is to make sure students know some things will be the same, no matter what class they're in.
"The 'Do Nows,' the agendas, the exit slips – it's all a great format," says Pete Retsos, a sophomore history teacher who left a job at one of Chicago's most prestigious private schools to work at Phillips. He also likes the school's approach to discipline, in which teachers simply send students who break the rules to the dean. It frees up teachers to just teach. "In a conventional [Chicago public] school, the teacher has to deal with a lot of behavior problems," says Mr. Retsos. "Students rule the classroom in a lot of Chicago schools."