Despite fresh start, a long way to go

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During every four-minute passing period at Austin High School, the rousing finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” resounds through the hallways. Three minutes and 30 seconds into the period, a stern voice-over warns students that they’re about out of time. And when they are indeed out of time, the voice lets everyone know.

Student opinion about the musical motivator runs the gamut—from “irritating” (Marcus Harris-Lofton, 18) to “real cheerful” (Michelle Cadena, 17). But the staff is unanimous. “That did it,” says special education teacher Shirley Moses, pointing to an empty hallway.

“That’s the only thing that actually works, that ‘1812,’ ” concurs English teacher Carol Leverentz. “It really gets you moving.”

The music and the process behind it are among the signs that Austin, the first high school to be put on remediation, has progressed beyond “reform from hell.” (See Catalyst, November 1995.) After a tumultuous 18 months of remediation, the Far West Side high school wears a new face.

The turnaround came in the wake of three generous gifts from Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas: (1) A new interim principal who quickly gained the confidence of the faculty—some have called the arrival of Arthur Slater “a miracle”; (2) $98,000 to bring in the School Achievement Structure program developed by Barbara Sizemore, dean of the School of Education at DePaul University; and (3) a seat on the fast track for capital improvements.

By February, Austin’s dingy auditorium had been repainted, its long-shuttered auto shop had been reopened, and new lockers had been installed. On every floor, hallways sport banners with motivational statements like “Our Scores Will Rise.” And the first floor is a showcase for African-inspired banners crafted by Austin’s own art students. Meanwhile, the roof and masonry, both structurally unsound, are being repaired.

“I mean, it’s remarkable, the change,” says Rev. Lewis Flowers, a longtime community activist and member of the Austin Local School Council. “The children’s attitude is changing because they see the improvements.”

Michelle Cadena agrees. “The environment is better because of the remodeling. It doesn’t look all dull and dead like it used to.”

Teaching the test

The School Achievement Structure program (SAS) is aimed at much more complex problems: improving curriculum, instruction, assessment, student placement and school decision making, all with an eye to raising test scores. (See Catalyst, December 1995.) With the help of an SAS coordinator—at Austin, it’s Abraham Smith, retired director of student services at Hirsch High School—a faculty leadership team decides how to implement SAS’s 10 “routines,” or guidelines, for school improvement. For example, it was the leadership team that came up with Austin’s unique approach to getting kids to class on time.

The team also has spurred a number of actions to make test-taking a priority, including the designation of a testing coordinator and the offer of a free breakfast and snacks for every student who showed up to take the state IGAP and national TAP achievement tests last spring.

Teachers also are teaching students how to take the tests.

“They’ve actually been teaching the sophomores and juniors how to take the IGAP and the TAP test,” Marinda Brown told i]Catalyst, before she graduated last spring. “They’re teaching out of the [preparation] books—they do simulated tests and the timing.”

Julius Holmes, who took both tests last spring, said the coaching made a difference for him. “This year I understand the IGAP more clearly than in previous years because of the preparation. This time, it’s much easier than just giving me a book and saying, ‘Do it.’ “

Teachers, too, see improvement. “Just from looking at the writing samples while proctoring, you could see a difference,” reports guidance counselor Katherine Hainey. “In years past, students would write two or three sentences. This year it was great to see multiple pages. That could only have happened through classroom teachers.”

But not all teachers are happy with the new emphasis on testing. “I think it’s crap, but the board cares about it, so I’ll make it important,” says English teacher Reed Sechan. “I know Austin’s existence depends on it.” Sechan plans to do test-prep work, including both the mechanics of test-taking and making inferences and predictions, one day a week with seniors and two days a week with sophomores—all year long.

“They should throw out the TAP and just go with the IGAP,” he adds. “At least it provides comparison across the state.”

Last school year, Austin’s students as a whole scored higher on the IGAP, a battery of tests developed by the state, but lower on the TAP, a commercially produced, nationally standardized test. On both, they remained woefully below national, state and city averages.

Teaching skills

While teachers retain much control over how they teach, each department is expected to identify essential skills and concepts. (In English and math, the required skills reflect those measured by the IGAP and TAP tests.) Teachers must develop lessons focusing on the essential skills and track student progress by checking off skill mastery on a wall chart.

On day two of the school year, every class CATALYST observed handed out skills charts for students to keep track of their own progress.

One reason teachers have bought into SAS at Austin is that Smith and Slater have won their trust. “There was a lot of teacher blaming [before],” says Carol Leverentz. “[Slater] is very supportive of teachers, of students. SAS is like that, too—there’s no finger-pointing.”

When Smith first arrived at Austin, he introduced himself to every staff member. “Mr. Smith is here, and he is all over,” observes teacher Shirley Moses. “He is visible, he is active, he is nonstop.”

In his work with teachers who aren’t performing well, Smith strives to offer help without bruising egos. For example, in one class last spring, only three of 10 students present contributed to the discussion. The teacher focused his attention more on the chalkboard than on his students, most of whom looked out the window or conversed quietly with one another.

After class Smith explained his strategy. “He’s what we call a focus teacher. I’ll go back and sit down with him later to discuss my observations.” Since then, Smith has provided “in-depth inservice for him, getting him to work on active teaching.” By mutual agreement, the teacher moved to a department more suited to his educational background and interests.

This fall, Smith achieved a major goal: getting common planning time for teachers in the school’s new freshman academy. He also hopes to set up workshops where individual teachers present sample lessons and receive feedback from their colleagues. But Smith doesn’t expect collaboration to come easily. “It’s going to be a slow process,” he says of building cooperation in the math department. “But I’ve been pushing because I’m a math person.”

Slater, previously assistant principal of Hyde Park Career Academy, is not shy about visiting classrooms either. Last year, he says, he spent 40 percent of his time observing teachers and walking the halls to meet students. He says he intends to increase the percentage this school year—SAS recommends 50 percent. “I like to see interaction between teacher and student,” he says. “Anybody can go in and write ‘Read Chapter One’ on the board, but I want to see you actually teaching the students.”

Observations by i]Catalyst, suggest the school has a long way to go. Teachers in most classrooms visited used either lecture and discussion or round-robin reading to present material.

Says Rev. Flowers: “Now that we have the building in shape, the minds still have to be developed. The children have to see we are for real.”

Interviewed in the lunchroom, one senior drew a blank when asked to name any really good teachers she had had at Austin. Instead, she raved about a math teacher in the Upward Bound program she attended over the summer.

However, some Austin teachers clearly are trying to break the mold. In the first week of school, science teacher Essex Alexander, recently arrived from a middle school, informed his students they would be making model solar cars.

Veteran Reed Sechan sets the stage for his classes by standing in the hallway before they begin and greeting the students as they file in. During class, he divides them into small groups for an activity—on day two it was a guessing game to prompt thoughts about inferences. He also arranges for students to attend plays at Victory Gardens Theater, which has led to jobs or scholarships for some. And he makes seniors apply to at least three colleges.

“I hope to be a friend to my students, because it’s easier for a friend to teach a friend,” Sechan explains. “I don’t let them roll all over me, but I want them to enjoy this class and enjoy me. I want them to want to walk into this classroom.”

Strides have been made in security and discipline, especially compared to the havoc of last September, when Slater’s predecessor failed to fill security posts. Metal detectors were installed, more security guards were hired, and some guards were replaced. The attendance rate improved, rising from 64 percent in October 1995 to 68 percent in June 1996.

However, security remains a concern of students and community residents. “The security is improved to a certain extent but not totally,” student Michelle Cadena said last spring. A security guard standing by the lunch line seemed to agree. Asked her opinion, the guard declined comment, saying only, “Watch and see.”

Within the hour, i]Catalyst, observed a group of four young men wearing coats—a prohibited practice—walk through the hallway alongside the glassed-in cafeteria. They flashed what appeared to be gang signs to a group of boys inside the cafeteria, who discreetly made the same gestures back. The young men kept going, heading toward an exit. A security guard stood nearby but was talking with other students and did not see the exchange.

Since then, however, the school has installed a security camera system. Hallway traffic is down from what it was last March, and guards appear to be covering more stations.

Meanwhile, Slater has brought order to the administration of the school. He routinely works in the building until 7 or 8 p.m.—he says it took a couple months just to clear out the backlog of paperwork that his predecessor left.

“We’re spending all our money this year,” he noted proudly last March, leafing through a catalogue for art room furniture. According to CPS Budget Director Chris Hoagland, only about $60,000 in state Chapter 1 money will roll over at Austin from last year—”not too bad,” she says. That contrasts sharply with the situation in spring 1995, when $900,000 in discretionary money had yet to be spent.

Too good to stay?

“If Slater says he’ll do it, he does it,” says administrative assistant Franklin Hinz. “He’s been very liberal in saying, ‘If you come in [weekends] I’ll get you paid.’ We’ve never had people say, ‘Well, you gotta come in on Saturday. I’ll try to get you paid, and not at eight dollars an hour, at your real salary.’ “

Connie Rice, case manager and special education teacher, describes the principal as “very experienced” and “excellent at delegating. He has a different method of working with teachers at an individual level. He makes people feel like they are part of the administration.”

Carol Leverentz admits thinking, “He’s too good—he’ll never stay.”

In fact, Slater has applied for the permanent post, which could not be filled until a local school council was elected in April.

“The climate has changed,” says Slater. “Teachers have the necessary supplies to teach the kids. The kids feel now that there is a school. I have faith that this school will succeed.”