Leadership for high schools that work

Print More

There’s a lot to make you angry in this issue on high schools dropping more truants from their rolls: School Board policies that tell schools, “Push ’em out.” Teachers who figure troubled teenagers should simply sink or swim. Schools that refuse to give truants another chance even when they and their parents beg. Schools chief Paul Vallas himself gets angry as he talks about teachers who have challenged his plan for student advisory classes. “We provide a script, we provide an outline. One period a week, and you would have thought in some schools that I was Herod killing all the first born. Give me a break, one period a week.” Even before those words hit print, I can hear teachers exploding: “You treat us like robots.”

Maybe everyone should pile into the University of Illinois Pavilion and yell for a half hour to get the anger out of their systems. On the way out, they might see a few faint glimmers of hope for high schools: A truancy outreach program that employs parents, who, more than any truant officer, walk with respect and knowledge in their communities. Help for teen moms to stay in school and raise children who will be ready for school. An administration that is auditing attendance books to get honest numbers and that now plans to factor dropout rates into its decisions on school probation. It should not have taken a jump in the dropout rate to get the administration to pay attention to schools’ record keeping, but the practice is a welcome one that should become routine. Funny numbers breed cynicism, sacrifice children and can lead everyone down the wrong path.

As salutary as these developments are, though, they won’t go very far toward providing all children with the education they deserve—and the city needs—without an overhaul of high schools themselves. Most high schools are too big and impersonal to hook and hang onto teenagers for the tough work of learning. Class cutting is rampant, and fully half of all freshmen fail at least one course, according to the most recent data available. “In high schools,” says Vallas, “no matter how good the principal, there are so many institutional problems that the schools need a radical change.”

Vallas and the School Board have some good ideas about how high schools should operate. But they need a class or two in how to get there. They’ve offered a plan for high school redesign. However, for schools and teachers to change in any significant way, they’ve got to be challenged and supported in coming up with their own ideas and setting their own goals. In the lingo of the day, no buy-in, no gain. Certainly, the board and administration have an important role to play. Already, they’ve made clear that the status quo is unacceptable. But they also can help faculties learn from schools in Chicago and elsewhere that are making progress. They can step up incentives for creating smaller schools so teachers have a fighting chance at reordering their professional lives. They can continually re-examine their own policies to see if they promote school environments that, in the words of truancy prevention director Ron Beavers, are “attractive enough so that students want to be there.” For their second “term,” the administration and board can refocus their energies to coax out the best in high school teachers, local school councils and communities. Focusing on the worst will not move the system forward.

Catalyst ON THE AIR Our discussion of high schools and dropouts will continue on the June 13 edition of “City Voices,” which is broadcast at 6 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. on WNUA-FM, 95.5. At press time, we’re still lining up guests-. One confirmed participant is CATALYST Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher, whose dogged reporting cast a bright new light on this vexing issue.