Escaping intervention undercuts urgency at troubled high school

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Two summers ago, Benito Juarez High School—the pride of the Pilsen community—narrowly escaped being placed on intervention.

There was no shortage of reasons for the School Board to intervene. Juarez had been on probation for five years. A series of principals had come and gone in short order, one amid allegations of grade tampering. Union grievances and shouting matches at LSC meetings were more common than not. Community groups say they were shut out.

By all accounts, Juarez had become a cheerless place—a school alienated from the community and central office. But there was a catch.

Test scores were on the rise. By spring 2000, reading scores on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) had finally crept above the 20 percent cutoff for coming off probation.

Unable to justify Juarez’s inclusion on a list of the system’s six lowest-scoring schools, the board changed course. Instead, it designated Juarez a community academy, a classification that allows schools to redesign curriculum and to require some teachers to reapply, with the principal making the final decision.

Interim Principal Leonard Dominguez, who had been installed months before, calmed the waters as best he could, creating a raft of new academic and after-school programs to attract neighborhood students, and hiring roughly 20 new teachers to replace those who left.

But Dominguez admits he paid little attention to literacy and dropout issues. In fact, student failure and dropout rates remain high, and last spring, TAP reading scores plummeted 40 percent.

Meanwhile, Dominguez stepped aside as planned last winter, and the board appointed as interim longtime Assistant Principal Natividad Loredo.

Making headway in the academic arena will be a challenge. Tensions between those aiming to transform Juarez into a showpiece and those trying to get the school off probation have sapped the immediacy to raise student performance.

Still, by the time classes began this fall, teachers and administrators were cooperating more freely, and student discipline was much improved. A spirit of optimism had settled in at Juarez, says LSC veteran Joseph Guzman.

“This is the first year in so many years that everyone had a chance to take a deep breath and go about their work, without the fear of losing their job,” says Guzman, a Juarez graduate. Now, he says, it’s time to see concrete academic improvement. “Right now, I feel that it’s make-up time.”

Wednesday, Sept. 26

Community academy

In a spacious first-floor office, a dapper Len Dominguez is organizing his large collection of business cards in his new office. Before coming to Juarez , he was chief of policy for five years under former CEO Paul Vallas, and before that, deputy major for education under Mayor Daley.

Since handing over the reins last winter, Dominguez has remained at Juarez to run the Pilsen cluster, an effort to coordinate academic programs between Juarez and 10 feeder elementary schools. He is also responsible for recruiting high-performing 8th-graders who might otherwise leave the neighborhood for high school.

Though he is no longer involved in day-to-day decisions, Dominguez feels ownership over Juarez. “I am Loredo’s boss,” he says. “What happens at Juarez still has my name on it, as far as downtown is concerned.”

Dominguez continues to have a hand in hiring and curriculum. (“I run interference for Loredo,” he says.) He is frequently seen escorting visitors around the school or meeting informally with Loredo. He wants Loredo to adopt a new literacy initiative and to require all seniors to apply for college.

When he was interim principal, Dominguez got credit for averting intervention and diffusing the divisive climate at Juarez. “Len came in to settle the dust,” says UIC external partner Steven Tozer, who recalls the mistrust and low morale that greeted Dominguez when he arrived. “[He was] the perfect guy for the job.”

By many accounts, Dominguez did a lot of dirty work similar to principals at intervention schools—from evaluating nearly every teacher to reprogramming course sequences. He hired new young teachers, four of them from Teach for America, to replace departing faculty. He also bolstered college prep programs and set out to recruit more high-scoring students.

“The intervention that I did was coming in and upgrading the curriculum and calming the waters—taking the politics out of the school,” Dominguez says.

Dominguez’s strategy to keep Juarez off intervention was to persuade the board and the LSC to make Juarez a community academy. This little-known designation—still used at roughly 35 elementary and high schools—was supposed to provide the school with extra money, to add as many as five staff positions, to allow new attractive academic programs to be created and to give Dominguez some authority to fire staff.

Community academies were created in 1980 as part of the federal desegregation consent decree. Nearly equivalent to a magnet school without an admissions test, community academies serve primarily neighborhood students.

“The idea was to provide programs and initiatives that would attract the local students to the local school,” says Wilfredo Ortiz, who oversees CPS high school development.

Dominguez used the school’s new status to bring in new math and language programs—laying the academic groundwork for an International Baccalaureate program. Juarez is now one of 10 math, science and technology academies. A new Mandarin Chinese program augments revamped French and Spanish offerings. This year, Juarez has eight AP courses—including the only AP Spanish literature course in the city—compared to three last year.

“The curriculum idea was really quite strong,” says the UIC’s Steve Tozer. Instead of tracking, “every Juarez student would go through a college prep curriculum if they wanted,” he adds.

Dominguez also oversaw the return of extracurricular activities for students and after-school programs for parents. The Eagles—Juarez’s football team—and the science fair are back, and a debate team and an improvisational comedy club have been created. Parents can take computer classes, work out in the school’s gym and swimming pool and get support to take the GED.

However, not everyone remembers the Dominguez era fondly.

Some teachers and LSC members question whether the community academy model—never fully implemented—was really worth it. The designation lost whatever operational significance it may have had once intervention was averted, and millions of dollars promised to the school for resources and programs have never shown up, they say.

Many teachers and administrators at Juarez laugh, roll their eyes or struggle when the topic of community academies comes up. “Community academy—what does that mean?” one teachers asks. “I should know the answer to this,” says another.

Even more disappointing to some faculty and LSC members was the precipitous drop in TAP reading scores. After rising steadily to a 1999-2000 peak of 22 percent at or above grade level, scores plummeted last spring to 13 percent.

Some blame the drop on a leadership vacuum created by Dominguez, whose schedule often kept him out of the school, who paid little attention to literacy and dropout issues and who stepped out of day-to-day operations mid-year. “It was more of a holding pattern last year than it should have been,” says Robert Deckinga, new head of intervention at CPS. “We should have been more aggressive at seeing what was happening in the classroom.”

Dominguez accepts some responsibility for the decline, saying that he paid more attention to the Prairie State and ACT tests, which increased slightly, than he did to probation or TAP scores. “We had an external partner [and] lots of literacy stuff already in place,” he says. “I left it to those folks. I didn’t get involved.”

Last year, Dominguez says he sent Loredo alone to probation meetings with the school’s probation manager and central office staff, and eventually “suspended” the meetings altogether

Monday, Oct. 1

Energy boost for teachers

Juarez senior Anaid Caballero is ready to give up and drop her elective debate class. The new class is full of intimidating terminology and unfamiliar procedures. “I’m not getting it,” she says. “I’m going to fail.”

But Ariela Freedman, a new teacher hired last year, puts things into perspective. “You’re not going to fail,” Freedman says. “You missed three days last week.”

Freedman, who teaches debate and drama classes, hasbuilt up a comfortable, friendly relationship with Anaid and many other students. Anaid has struggled academically in the past, and Freedman is intent on persuading her to stick it out. “Stop whining,” she tells Anaid. “It’s not gym class. You love me, and you love this class.”

“She’s scared, but she’s fine,” says Freeman after Anaid has left the room. “These are the greatest kids I’ve ever met. People don’t give them credit for how smart they are.”

Freedman is one of 20 new teachers at Juarez, and one of four affiliated with Teach for America, a national program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban schools. Last year, she organized a successful comedy team that beat out New Trier in a competition last spring. Later this month, television comedy actress Joan Cusack teaches Freedman’s students for a day.

Juarez’s cadre of new teachers has taken on a number of key assignments, including chemistry, world history, and writing skills courses. They have also introduced new courses and activities—such as drama and debate—that engage and motivate student learning.

New chemistry teacher Sheri Delp revived Juarez’s science fair last year, weaves science fiction literature into her lessons and coaches volleyball. George Asimou, who has taught world history, writing skills and debate, gave up most of his classroom duties to take over the yearbook and to help run a baseball club.

The new crop of teachers has boosted faculty morale, say many veteran teachers. “These new faces bring new enthusiasm,” says Al Moy, whose social studies department has two new young teachers. “They bring energy, and surprising maturity.”

As evidence that Juarez has become a school where teachers want to teach, many staffers mention that 19 of last year’s 20 new teachers came back this year. “This is a school that the faculty believes is going somewhere,” says Tozer.

Still, the new teachers are catching some of the blame for falling test scores. “They are not as familiar with testing procedures,” notes Moy, echoing a comment expressed by others at Juarez that the teachers who left had been better at—or at least more willing to do—test preparation.

Wednesday, Oct. 3

Discipline crackdown

At first, seventh-period lunch seems calm. Most of the 500 or so students in the three-story atrium space called the ‘patio’ have already gotten their food and have sat down to eat. Lunchroom monitors stand idly by.

Then two upperclassmen square off to fight. A crowd forms quickly, yelling in excitement. As the adults swoop in to break it up and hustle the two out of the cafeteria, someone throws a single, half-full carton of milk across the room.

The food fight that follows lasts no more than a minute, but by the time it is over trays, french fries and half-eaten apples are scattered about, and milk is splattered everywhere.

This is the first food fight of the year—one of just two during the first quarter—at a school where they had become commonplace in previous years. This time, discipline is swift. The cafeteria is cleared, the students who fought are arrested and taken away in handcuffs by police, food fight instigators are suspended and—to make sure that students know food fights are no longer tolerated, says Assistant Principal Ferdinand Wipachit—seventh-period lunch gets peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of the week.

The crackdown on student discipline has had other positive results. Hallways are nearly empty during classes and are more calm and orderly even when students are changing classes.

Students and teachers alike credit a new schedule for stemming the tide of disciplinary infractions. Under the new schedule—similar schedules adopted by Tilden and Hubbard to address student discipline—each of the three lunch periods are limited to 21 minutes; in the past lunch lasted 42 minutes. At the end of each lunch period, students are sent to class and the cafeteria is cleared—much like a movie theater—before the next lunch period starts.

In the past, students often stayed in the patio to hang with friends in the next lunch period, cutting classes for most of the day. This year, says Wipachit, “where are they going to go?”

The school day was restructured so classes would begin at 7:45 a.m. and end at 2:05 p.m. for everyone. (Previously the schedule was staggered.) The early wrap-up allows time for students to go to after-school tutoring, participate in extracurricular activities or travel to work. Students who are not participating in after-school activities are cleared from the building.

The schedule also carves out time for Loredo to meet with department heads and to attend biweekly faculty meetings and weekly departmental meetings.

Juarez has beefed up building security, too. The facility is opened daily at 6 a.m., early enough for every student to pass through a metal detector. Nine uniformed security guards and two police officers—equipped with Secret Service-style earpieces—are on duty.

Guards and faculty are more vigilant about attendance, school uniforms and ID tags. This year, violators face immediate after-school detention for minor infractions. The number of detentions and suspensions is up sharply over last year.

School atmosphere is much improved, say teachers, students and administrators. Graffiti is less of a problem. Attendance is averaging close to 90 percent for October, compared to 82 percent last year. During the first 11 weeks of school, four students were arrested compared to 26 last fall, reports Wipachit.

“It’s like day and night,” he says.

Friday, Oct. 12

Reading, writing and reading

Second-year teacher Javier Deleon walks around a hot classroom, coaching 30 students through a writing assignment to describe a turning point in their lives. Some are writing, others are chatting quietly in Spanish. “Start off in the middle of the action,” he advises them. ” ‘I didn’t know why the guy was taking a swing at me, but I knew I had to duck.’ ”

This is Writing Skills, a homegrown literacy and writing course Juarez created four years ago rather than implement double periods of English. Taught by a small but zealous band of teachers from various departments, the course sets high expectations and is designed to engage students. Students are not grouped by ability.

“This is not more of the same,” says curriculum coordinator Rich Gelb, who helped design the course and now teaches it. Gelb credits the course for the rise in Juarez’s ACT writing scores. Overall, Juarez now ranks 19th among all CPS high schools.

The need for an intense reading and writing intervention at Juarez is clear. Most students come from low-income families where English is not spoken at home. They often struggle to read and write fluidly.

When TAP scores were released last spring, “I wanted to throw up,” says Liz Winfield, a teacher who sits on the LSC and teaches writing skills and TV production.

Over the summer, the writing team met to discuss how to improve the class. “We’ve worked like dogs to tweak the course,” Winfield says. “We took a hard look at [the class]—we’re trying not to be one of those schools that covers old problems with new Band-Aids.”

A diagnostic exam given to incoming students this fall revealed that the course was too advanced. Scores showed that the average freshman was reading at the 7th-grade level. “We were taken by surprise,” says Winfield. “We were shooting for way up here, but they were coming in a lot lower than we thought.”

In response, some writing skills teachers are breaking up large projects into smaller assignments. “I had a handful of students who couldn’t [write] a complete sentence,” says Deleon. Now he teaches a bit of grammar before an essay-writing assignment.

In addition to writing skills, Juarez has a variety of literacy-oriented programs, including word of the day, sustained silent reading and timed reading. These are supposed to be implemented school wide.

But that has been a challenge. Some teachers view literacy as a problem for the English department. Others say teaching literacy conflicts with teaching mandated course content. In the absence of strong leadership from Dominguez or Loredo, some faculty say literacy is more a pet project than a priority.

“We’re trying to infuse our lesson plans with literacy to help the kids read and write well,” says Moy. “But it’s incredibly hard.”

“Departments get assessed on CASE [exams], not TAP scores,” explains social studies teacher Asimou. Teaching literacy “steals the joy from reading,” he says. “That’s why kids hate Writing Skills. It’s their hardest subject.”

Wednesday, Oct. 17

Untested leader

It’s late afternoon and it’s slow going at a local school council meeting in Juarez’ library. This is the second time the council has met this fall. They cover topics ranging from filling open LSC positions to creating new programs to selecting a principal next spring.

Interim Loredo translates a presentation on principal selection for about 30 parents in attendance. He explains the process the council will undertake next spring to select a permanent principal. First, the council will review his job performance, says Loredo, then it will select a permanent principal and award a contract. He tells the council they have the right to consider other candidates and replace him, if they so choose.

Such frank talk would be uncomfortable for some. Loredo would have been the LSC’s choice last year if they had been allowed to offer a contract, says LSC member Winfield.

But Loredo—who has worked at Juarez for over eight years—is unfazed. “That’s not a problem,” he says, invoking one of his favorite phrases. He is known as a steady and likeable leader whose door—and ear—is always open to teachers.

“Loredo is open to anything and anybody who can help,” says UIC external partner Steve Tozer.

So far, the faculty supports Loredo. They give him credit for lightening their weekly paperwork, and they favor his efforts to restructure the school day, tighten student discipline policy and bring in a new student support program—the Latino Education Alliance.

Says LSC chair Catherine Cahue, “He knows the kids. They all feel comfortable speaking with him. I’d like to see him get the contract.”

Loredo is aware that such sentiments may be challenged in the coming months as he presses teachers to make the instructional changes needed to raise test scores. “We’ve done the things that go around the outside of school improvement,” he says. “Now we’ve got to follow through on the core things, like reading and math scores. All this other stuff is good but it doesn’t mean a thing if those scores don’t go up.”

Loredo’s sense of urgency is unclear and his abilities as an instructional leader are largely untested. He often appears more comfortable talking about operational issues, keeping his walkie-talkie turned on during meetings and focusing on schedules and programming instead of curriculum.

“I know what the problems are,” says Loredo. “And I try not to repeat mistakes.”

For instructional issues, Loredo relies heavily on curriculum coordinator Gelb, and had delegated much of the work to improve instruction and student achievement to Gelb, the school’s external partner—UIC, department heads, and teachers.

“I don’t know that Loredo has much education theory,” says French teacher Shannon Robinson, “but he trusts that we do.”

Wednesday, Oct. 31

Saving kids who fail

An upperclassman squirms in his chair as he tries to explain away three F’s and two D’s. “I’m lazy,” he tells counselor Sol Solis. “It’s just the homework that is the problem.”

But Solis, who’s looking at a copy of the student’s academic record, doesn’t let him off that easy. “Be honest, and this will go faster,” she says. “We’re not going to take [these grades] lightly.”

A combination of praise and pressure gets the student to admit that he’s been hanging out with his buddies after school and has not tried Juarez’s after-school tutoring.

Solis pushes him to say how he will improve his grades, and then offers to set up a meeting with a Marine recruiter. The student agrees to go to tutoring. By the end of the session, he asks about a night course to make up for a class he flunked last year.

“Nothing here is unsalvageable,” she says.

Welcome to Latino Education Alliance (LEA), a pilot program, funded through the Governor’s office, that at Juarez serves as both a safety net for failing students and a college counseling service. Over the past couple years, 60 percent of all 9th graders and 55 percent of sophomores have failed one or more first-quarter classes.

Previously, Juarez only required parents to come to the school for disciplinary problems. But academic performance meetings with LEA—an acronym that means “read” in Spanish—are open to parents and teachers.

LEA is based in Juarez’s college counseling office, and offers mentoring and parent education at 10 feeder elementary schools in Pilsen. So far, the office has served roughly 80 low-performing students, mostly freshmen and seniors who were referred by classroom teachers. LEA follows up student sessions by meeting with parents, who often are not aware of how poorly their child is doing, and with teachers, to make sure there is appropriate follow up, says LEA coordinator Juan Carlos Ocon.

LEA staffers say they are already winning support from teachers, who are referring more students, and making a concrete impact on student performance.

But some teachers say LEA is unproven, and debate whether safety net programs should focus on students who are most severely at risk or those who are “teetering” but easier to reach. Some say LEA lacks a programmatic focus and they question its emphasis on college prep and getting parents to attend school events. “It’s a loose operation,” said one Juarez insider.

LEA’s student meetings sometimes fall flat. Students say they feel singled out when teachers pull them out of class to meet a LEA advisor. Even when they admit to shortcomings, students are often slow to change old bad habits. Solis’ student, for instance, fails to show up for after-school tutoring that afternoon. Still, by quarter’s end, he flunks only one class.

Friday, Nov. 2

Fewer bilingual students

Thirty students in Peter Pero’s English as a Second Language II class are in the patio, filling out worksheets that ask questions about the murals and world religion posters on the walls. It is Pero’s hope that the lesson will help students connect with Pilsen’s Mexican heritage and give them practice writing in English.

Most of these students arrived in the U.S. just 18 months ago, but Pero speaks mostly in English, translating words or instructions into Spanish as necessary.

“Take your mochilas and come with me,” he says to his lively group, then turns to address the class comedian. “Carlos, walk with me—you are particularly girl-crazy today.”

Bilingual education has shrunk considerably at Juarez, which two years ago classified 26 percent of its student body as English Language Learners. Last year, only 9.5 percent fell into that category, says Pero, who is bilingual coordinator. The faculty includes 10 ESL teachers.

In 1998, the board made it a priority for bilingual students to transition into all-English classes within three or four years. Most of Juarez’s 1,700 students are enrolled in mainstream classes and take tests in English. But snippets of Spanish can be heard in classrooms and hallways.

Some Juarez teachers blame last year’s decline in TAP scores on an increase in the number of recently transitioned bilingual students taking the exam.

Day-to-day, the task of working transitional bilingual students falls to mainstream classroom teachers, many of whom do not speak Spanish and have not been trained to teach second-language learners.

Students not yet fluent in English are reluctant to speak up in class, say several teachers. Their reticence can be a drag on class discussions and, over time, may lower teacher expectations of their performance, they say.

“Sometimes it’s like you’re talking to yourself,” says writing skills teacher Deleon.

Thursday, Nov. 15

Making the grade

Report card pickup day is different this year. At 4:00 p.m., parents continue to stream into the building—a testament to Juarez’s concerted effort to beat last year’s parent participation rate.

Close to a dozen community groups have set up tables in the patio, compared to “just two” last year, says Principal Loredo. Honors and JROTC students translate parent-teacher conferences.

Despite the reasons for celebration, Juarez remains in trouble. First-quarter grades are awash with failure—nearly two-thirds of all students carry a failing grade. More than 500 students—just over 30 percent of the student body — have three or more Fs. Only one in four freshmen have passed all their classes.

Many parents are unpleasantly surprised when they see their child’s report card. So are many teachers, administrators and LEA staffers.

In his office, Loredo looks disappointed but says he’s not going to make major changes—yet. Instead, he talks about empowering department heads to help improve instruction in the classroom, an approach advocated by external partners at UIC. Classroom observations will reinforce literacy strategies as the year goes on, says Loredo, who adds that more drastic measures could create more disruptions than benefits.

Still, it’s not clear whether such measures will be enough, says curriculum coordinator Gelb. The overwhelming number of failing students proves that Juarez’s academic improvements have yet to improve results.

“We’ve got to work on this like our lives depend on it,” says Gelb.

Alexander Russo is a Chicago-based writer. Send your comments to editorial@catalyst-chicago.org.