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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Nor can schools be fixed by simply plugging in some magic formula. What works in one location doesn't necessarily translate to another. Experts say people are the key to success and that includes more than good administrators and teachers: It also means organizational support from the district or an outside group like AUSL.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Turnaround schools
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Yet the benefits of doing it right can be huge. "I don't think there's any more powerful story for the potential of education change than school turnarounds," says Mr. Cohen.
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Last fall at Phillips, Little was struggling with how to deal with a junior named Dimples. For the first two months, he estimates, she might have been in school four days. She'd come, curse at everyone, get sent home for a 10-day suspension, and then repeat the process all over again.
In November, he noticed she'd been in school for two straight weeks and called her in to talk, wondering what had happened. Dimples said she was starting a petition because she didn't like the way the school was being run under the new rules.
"Great!" he told her, finding her plan infinitely more productive than the earlier behavior. A few days later, when he asked how the petition was going, Dimples said she had thrown it away. After being in school for a few weeks, she decided she liked it. She hasn't been suspended since. She has participated in extracurricular activities for the first time and is now one of the school's best bowlers.
For Little, Dimples illustrates the struggles, but also the signs of success. "All it took was to get her engaged," he says. "She lost all that instructional time during the first two months of school, but now we've got her rolling, and she's running."
Phillips is about six months into its first year as a turnaround school – too soon to pronounce it a success or failure. But at least some signs are encouraging. In a variety of classes, students all appear attentive and engaged, no matter how much they may struggle with the lesson material. Few disruptions break out in the hallways between classes.
Attendance is up 15 percentage points from last year (though at 69 percent, it could certainly improve more). Students – drawn in by the freshmen, who now have to take part in after-school activities like band or sports for their physical education credit – are starting to participate again. The band played in three city parades this year, and Phillips fielded a debate team for the first time in a decade.
The results of the big annual tests and ACTs, which take place this month, won't be known for some time. But students seem to be learning. They took an exam at the beginning of the year and then again four months later, at Christmas, and, according to Little, had made nine months' progress.
The principal's tough new grading system, in which anything below 75 is an F, points to improvements, too. After the first five weeks, teachers had handed out a failing grade to all but 31 of the 650 students in the school. By the 20-week mark, 196 were without an F.
"We've affected a third of our population," says Little. "The goal is to get to two-thirds by the end of the year."
If the indefatigable Little and the teachers at Phillips can succeed, especially with a high school, they'll be defying academic gravity. Even the most optimistic turnaround advocates suggest that if all goes well with this latest federal initiative, a fraction of the schools might actually achieve their goal.
"It's the right mission for the country, both educationally and morally," says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, who believes a 30 percent success rate would be a remarkable achievement. "But we need to temper our exuberance."
IN PICTURES: Turnaround schools