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.
(Page 6 of 8)
In exchange, the principals would get a raise, freedom from many district rules, and the ability to bring in eight people and transfer out five others. Every principal accepted his offer.Skip to next paragraph
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One school, Sterling Elementary, reported a 14-point jump in reading scores and a 24-point increase in math scores in the first year. Still, just two of the seven original schools targeted in the initiative have seen a significant impact on student achievement.
"He's the first superintendent I've worked under who has really cared about high-poverty schools," says Nancy Guzman, Sterling's principal.
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At Phillips, the most persistent critics of the attempt to improve student learning are ... the students themselves. Many of them don't like the strict new rules – the uniforms, the dress code, the ban on gum, the restrictions on cellphone use.
"You can't be your own individual without your own clothes," complains Keyairra Lyda, wearing the powder-blue shirt that shows she's a sophomore.
"Some of this stuff is from grammar school," says Bruce Montgomery, a junior who particularly hates tucking his shirt in – right before he gets sent to the dean for being in the auditorium when he's supposed to be in class.
As far as Little is concerned, the students can complain all they want. "What they say and what they do are two different things," he says. "They can be upset, but when I see them acting differently, that's the most important part."
In the first two months of the school year, suspensions were way up, as students adjusted to a new zero-tolerance policy for such things as fighting and to the elimination of in-school suspensions (in which students were sent to a room as a disciplinary measure instead of being expelled, as they are now). But at 20 weeks into the school calendar, there were 135 suspensions, compared with 217 last year.
Students – and their parents – also complain heavily about the new grading scale, which they say is too hard. "I used to be an AP student on the honor roll, and now I've got an F," says Tyrice McClaren, who is eating an unappetizing looking chicken sandwich from the cafeteria.
But Little says when he saw students with a 3.7 GPA scoring 14 on the ACT (an abysmal score on the college entrance exam's 36-point scale), he knew that grades had little correlation with what students were learning. And while some students are vocal in their complaints, a number of others say they really do see a big difference – and are learning a lot more.
"It's too strict, but I like the education," says Ronald Kyle, a junior who's started playing the snare drum in the band. "If you don't understand, you ask the teachers a question. Last year, if you missed it, they wouldn't go over it again."
His friend Tyree Valentine, who says he was so angry initially that he wanted to transfer, agrees. "I'm learning," he says.
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Between 1997 and 2009, Markham Middle School in Los Angeles went through a series of targeted efforts designed to turn around the school, first initiated by the State of California and later through the federal No Child Left Behind Act.