‘Intervention’ talks softly, carries big stick

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Schools with especially low test scores are being scrutinized by central office under a new law that puts the principals, teachers and local school council members at those schools in jeopardy of losing their jobs. However, principals interviewed by CATALYST say they’re happy to get the attention.

Under the new law, a four-year pilot program gives the School Reform Board of Trustees power to intervene at “chronically underperforming schools.” That means the Chief Executive Officer can select a new principal for a school (for no longer than two years), fire the old staff, and allow the new principal to hire an entirely new staff. New local school council elections also can be ordered.

In October, the Office of Accountability sent four “intervention” teams out to look at 149 schools that have failed to meet state achievement expectations in each of the last three years.

“We saw the visit as a positive thing,” says Noble Pearce, principal at Crispus Attucks Elementary School in the Douglas community. “If someone can offer us a solution or a formula that will help our children, we’ll use it.”

Pearce says the team—representatives from the offices of accountability, professional development, instructional support, budget and special education—spent the whole day at the school. For half the day, the group pored over the school improvement plan, the budget, schedules and organizational charts. The other half was spent in the classroom, watching teachers teach, and talking to teachers, children and parents.

“They wanted to see our disaster plan, our duty schedule, a list of our external partnerships. When they talked to parents, they made sure they talked to the parent of a child in special education, too. They were very thorough,” says Pearce.

“I believe our team looked at us as individuals and will be partners in helping us find solutions,” echoes Irene DaMota, principal of Whittier Elementary on the Lower West Side. Eighty percent of Whittier students arrive not speaking English, she says, and the neighborhood has a high transiency rate.

“My children are being measured by the same instruments that are being used to measure the children on the lakefront—children of teachers or lawyers who are literate before they come to school,” she adds. “I know my staff and I have been been working like crazy with our children.”

Betty Greer, principal at Hartigan School in Douglas, says her school visit also was very positive. “Our team was very supportive. They didn’t come in our school being critical. They made it clear they were there to assist us.”

And assist Greer is what they did. “I told them how I planned to move this school forward, but that I needed resources to do it, and they agreed.”

Greer says she wants to analyze test scores so that she can see where her children are falling short. “I told them I needed an expert from research and evaluation to help us create the stats we want to look at. They said ‘OK, we’ll put you in touch with someone.’ After this visit, I feel more comfortable now about what we are trying to do.”

The intervention teams are being guided by “Pathways to Achievement,” a document that aims to focus school planning in five areas that a body of research says are vital for a successful educational program.

“The purpose of our visits was to get to know the schools,” says intervention chief Phillip Hansen, formerly principal of Clissold School. “We wanted to know what they had tried, what they thought worked for them, and what resources they thought they need. Later we’ll put together a report on what we found to be their strengths and weaknesses and make some recommendations.”

In addition to giving schools recommendations, the Office of Accountability plans to pair schools with colleges and other organizations that can assist them in specific areas. A request for proposal went out in early October; as Catalyst went to press, 30 proposals had been submitted.

The 149 schools include 44 of the city’s 64 high schools and 105 of some 550 elementary and middle schools. To help these schools improve, Chicago is expecting to receive almost $2 million through Project Jumpstart, a state initiative that seeks to improve achievement in schools that have had especially low IGAP scores for several years. Statewide, there are 163 Jumpstart schools.