Amid dismal first year results, CPS plans for year two

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Despite dismal test scores and an exodus of teachers at intervention schools last year, School Board’s get-tough experiment to improve failing high schools is slated to continue next fall.

As Catalyst goes to press, CPS plans to keep intervention teams in place at the five intervention high schools next fall, says Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney. However, she admits that incoming board president Michael Scott and the system’s new chief executive officer will likely have their own vision for the program—including possibly ending it.

Next year’s budget includes $750,000 to fund 10 central office positions in the Office of Intervention.

Intervention Officer JoAnn Roberts, who often clashed with local school administrators this year, will continue to oversee the effort, says Buckney. The intervention teams, which consist of a leader and four core subject specialists, will remain on staff at intervention schools next year.

Principals, however, will no longer be required to complete five evaluations for every teacher on staff, she adds.

At a meeting later this month, the board is expected to review intervention data, including test scores that for the most part, continued to drop. Reading scores dropped at three of the five intervention schools. Math scores dropped at four, with the fifth posting a gain of only a tenth of a percentage point.

Buckney says it was no surprise that during a year of generally declining high school test scores, intervention schools declined, too.

Other factors contributed to the poor showing at intervention schools, Buckney explains. For instance, intervention teams did not have enough time to make substantive changes to teaching and curriculum in the classroom. “Nothing has been accomplished,” she admits, adding that the program should fare better next year.

At a recent press conference, outgoing CEO Paul Vallas told reporters that intervention will need more time to show results. “You’re going to need to give it two or three years,” he says. Vallas declined to comment further on intervention.

By March, only seven tenured teachers—out of some 180 at five intervention schools—had received unsatisfactory ratings and were subject to dismissal. (See CATALYST, April 2001.) However, by the end of the academic year, none had been fired, and Buckney could not say whether any would be.

Since intervention was imposed last July, about 85 teachers have left the intervention schools.

Some of the veteran teachers who left may have done so because they were unwilling to accept new principals and other changes, Buckney says. On the other hand, changes during the second year of intervention are likely to go more smoothly with staff and principals already in place, she adds.

The upside

Nonetheless, CPS officials declare the first year of intervention a success. Attendance rates are up at all five schools, with DuSable High making the biggest gain from 74 percent to 83 percent.

Overall, the policy created stronger school leaders and brought critical infrastructure improvements, such as new textbooks and updated computer technology, to each school, says Buckney. “The goals for [intervention] have been to raise the level of these schools. All we’ve done is to stabilize these schools.”

Roberts claims credit for physical repairs made to all five facilities, such as new windows and floors, and installing Internet connections, including a wireless system at Collins. “It’s just insurmountable the work that needs to be done in these schools,” she says.

Another intervention staffer says the policy brought parents, teachers and community partners together to plot the schools’ strategic plans. Intervention schools were each required to write a mission statement and draft a three- to five-year plan. Since January, groups of 18 or so have been meeting weekly at each school to devise the plans, says Maureen Cleary, intervention plan manager. Plans are due by the end of the month.

Principal Larry Thomas says intervention helped a handful of South Shore High School’s newest teachers to learn how to handle their classrooms and organize lesson plans. Also, the frequent classroom observation that intervention required of principals helped him get to know his staff better. Still, small benefits were canceled out by the harsh tone set by intervention, which turned off a number of good teachers who left the school, he concludes.

The downside

As the last days of school approached, the uncertainty over the future of intervention was taking a toll on some teachers, says DuSable team leader Gladys Jones. Her team is just beginning to make inroads, she adds. “It would be painful if the intervention team were pulled.”

One critic contends that intervention is yet another example of a hastily planned and poorly implemented sanction policy imposed by the board. Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, recalls the board’s attempt to shake up seven poorly-performing high schools in 1997 with reconstitution— a policy that yielded few positive results. “How many times do we have to see this movie before we see it doesn’t work?” he asks.

Under reconstitution, the board had the power replace teachers on the basis of brief interviews and a number were reassigned to other schools. By comparison, intervention is a more stringent accountability measure, allowing the board to replace principals, disband LSCs and dismiss teachers and other staff who received negative evaluations but failed to improve before the end of the year.

Buckney says teachers could realize benefits from the evaluation once they “got past the idea that they were being picked on.” However, one teacher found the evaluations both unfair and unhelpful.

A 20-year veteran in the classroom, she says she had never received less than an excellent performance review from previous principals. But the first time the intervention principal visited her classroom, a number of students, who did not have a permanent teacher, had just been reassigned to her class. The class did not go well and she received her first negative evaluation. The next time the principal sat in, students were working in groups and the room was noisy. “It wasn’t my best class,” she admits. “But it was a decent class.”

Nonetheless, she was written up. The principal’s recommendations were vague and “too subjective,” she says. Still, she moved ahead with two suggestions: Relocating her desk and redecorating a bulletin board. She was later taken off notice. “[The principal] thinks he did this wonderful job of turning me around but I haven’t changed my teaching,” she says.

Further decline at Collins

Of all the intervention schools, Collins fared the worst. TAP scores in reading dropped from 11 percent to 5 percent; in math, from 27 percent to 12 percent. “We were very disappointed with the scores,” says Principal Diane Dyer-Dawson. “They were not what we expected.” The low scores will make it tough to recruit students and teachers next year, she adds.

Dyer-Dawson says she had set internal goals for the TAP, but she also went along with Roberts’ goal of 75 percent in reading and 78 percent in math. All the intervention schools had set similarly lofty goals.

Intervention was a “work-in-progress,” she says, which sometimes kept teachers guessing. The scrutiny and voluminous paperwork added to the tensions, she says. “This is such an intense process, I’m not just talking about just for bad teachers, but for good teachers.”

Parent John Reynolds says one year of intervention at Collins High was enough. Reynolds, who resigned last fall as Collins local school council president, says this school year was “chaotic” for his two 9th grade sons.” He plans to transfer both his sons to North Lawndale College Prep, a charter school. Teacher departures led to many problems, he says. Many classes had revolving-door substitute teachers and students were left frustrated, he adds. And athletic teams failed to attract players after popular coach-teachers left.

Meanwhile, the LSC ceased to operate after several members resigned. Reynolds admits that his resignation fed the councils demise, but he says morale and hope evaporated as the year went on. The final straw came with reports from his sons. “They were complaining to me that they didn’t feel challenged,” he says. “That’s kind of strange coming from kids.”