Getting kids to do what they can do

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Think outside the box.

Mayor Richard M. Daley issued this challenge to educators a few weeks ago. Be creative, he told them, come up with new ideas to boost high school test scores. To get things started, he offered an idea of his own: Add a fifth year to high school to give low-scoring students more time to catch up. Picking up the mayor’s lead, Schools CEO Paul Vallas started talking about requiring all students to take double periods of reading and math. But thinking outside the box means brainstorming and testing new ideas, not imposing them on schools from government offices on Clark Street.

Sometimes the most effective ideas come from the grassroots. Take Manley High, for instance, a high-poverty school in a tough West Side neighborhood. Six years ago, students there were more likely to be arrested than to go to college. In 1997, the school launched the Umoja Student Development Corp., an innovative program created by a North Side community activist to boost student motivation through public service. During the first year, Umoja students bought and renovated a single-family house, then sold it to an elderly woman in need of an affordable home. Today the program is thriving.

Two-thirds of Manley’s 600 students participate. Attendance is up; freshmen course failure is down. And seniors are four times more likely to go to college than they were three years ago.

Manley teachers are also finding novel ways to motivate their students. History teacher John Deligiannis uses humor to connect with his students.

“Some teachers say, ‘Students don’t have to like you to learn from you,'” Deligiannis explains. “I really don’t think that’s true. If a student hates you they definitely won’t learn from you.”

But as Associate Editor Liz Duffrin reports, motivation is a two-way street. Teachers insist students can—but won’t—do the work, so they give up. Students maintain that teachers don’t care, so they stop trying. Truth be told, there may be some indifference on both sides. That’s what happens when students and teachers misread each other. Indeed, Duffrin’s stories illustrate a lack of clear communication between students and teachers, who in some cases, even lack the knowledge about how to motivate adolescents.

Both those problems can be fixed. For one, teachers need more time to get to know their students. Researchers offer a number of ideas, such as block scheduling and four-year advisory programs. The School Board has touted those ideas, but Chicago’s high schools, like big, urban high schools everywhere, have proven to be exceedingly resistant to meaningful change.

The board could stand to learn more about how to motivate high schools, positively as well as negatively. It could encourage high schools—like South Shore—where a serious dialog is taking place. There, civic and community leaders banded together and asked the board to intervene and allow them to turn around the school. But the board’s heavy-handed version of intervention nearly undermined the group’s groundwork, as Contributing Editor Jody Temkin reports in this month’s Intervention Chronicles.

But until the board ascends the motivation learning curve, it can at least ratchet up its program to create more small schools, both within the regular system and as charters. Such schools bring together like-minded educators, who will have a head start on working well with students. And students would benefit from smaller learning communities that allow for closer personal relationships with teachers.

If the board creates enough small high schools to show parents and other teachers the good that can happen inside them, it might persuade standard schools to rethink what they do.