Mayor queries top teachers on how to teach reading

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A small delegation of Chicago winners of the Golden Apple Award, the metro area’s highest teaching prize, was ushered into Mayor Daley’s office the morning of July 25. The mayor has made a practice of meeting new Golden Apple recipients each spring, and this constituted a follow-up to concentrate on a special passion of his: reading.

Daley appeared prepared for the gathering. He had digested a reading “bill of rights” drafted by a committee of the Golden Apple Academy, the group of all past winners. The mayor took notes on a yellow pad as the hour-long meeting progressed, but he was doing more than listening. “He had some concrete ideas, and he wanted to run them past us,” relates Penny Lundquist, academy director, who also was present.

Daley mentioned his experience helping to run a monthly book club at Orr Community Academy High School in West Humboldt Park. He advocated a reading specialist for every public school. And he floated the notion of granting certificates of attendance instead of diplomas to graduates who can’t read.

Daley bemoaned the fact that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is graduating young adults who can’t read. “They are going nowhere,” Daley said, according to several in attendance. “If they can’t read, what good is any of this [reform initiatives]?”

A solution, said Daley, would be a fifth year of high school devoted exclusively to reading, writing and math.

The eight Golden Apple winners, all primary reading specialists, balked at that idea. “That didn’t meet with favor by our group,” says Lucy Klocksin, a reading resource teacher at Boone Elementary School. “We felt that wasn’t manageable. It didn’t fly. We wanted emphasis on early intervention with kids.”

However, Daley’s idea already is taking shape at School Board headquarters. Beginning next year, says Schools Chief Paul Vallas, students who are foundering at the end of sophomore year may elect to enter an “advanced academic prep center.” There will be one center in each of the system’s six regions, and each will offer a three-year tract devoted primarily to instruction in reading, math, technology and career development. Vallas says the board plans to relax graduation requirements for center students, notably by lifting the foreign language obligation.

“This is the idea I’m developing for the mayor,” says Vallas. Daley had pushed him on the point over the summer, he says: “He wants us to do something for hardcore under achievers.”

Vallas says that Daley supports the School Board’s own separate program that, beginning next fall, will allow freshmen to take their core courses over a two-year period and, as a result, spend five years instead of four in high school. “This is for kids who have difficulty grasping typical freshman material,” says Vallas. “We are going to let them move at a slower pace and spend more time on task. How else can we cut into the dropout rate?”

The current reality for struggling high schoolers is that they flunk one or more courses their first year in high school and then repeat them their second year; many drop out as soon as they reach 16. Chicago’s four-year dropout rate is 41 percent.

Called the ACE Plan (for Accelerated, Classical and Extended), the board’s five-year high school option also will allow students “with identifiable deficiencies” who earn a D in a core course to repeat it for a higher grade. Plus, it will allow students with low grades and a poor ACT score to take a extra year to get ready for college. Higher-achieving students, beginning with 7th- and 8th- graders, may move more quickly through CPS requirements and graduate in three years.

“But the mayor wanted us to go further,” says Vallas, pointing to the advanced academic prep centers as the result. Vallas guesses the board will circulate a request for proposals to start the centers in the late fall. “Some of these centers will be existing high schools, but we want the City Colleges and even private institutions to consider this,” says the CEO.

Nuts about reading

Daley’s imprint on the schools reflects a deep-seated love of reading, a trait not commonly associated with the 57-year-old, syntax-challenged mayor. Yet those in Daley’s circle describe him as nuts on the subject. “I hear about reading three times a day,” says Phillip Jackson, a former chief of staff to Vallas who became Daley’s in-house education chief after a brief, controversial stint as head of the Chicago Housing Authority. “Whether he’s speaking in front of construction workers or engineers, he’s going to say the same thing—we must get the children reading.”

“The mayor realizes that reading is the Rosetta Stone of education,” agrees Vallas. “It’s the key.”

Daley himself is an aficionado of history, biographies of leaders and mysteries. “There are books all over his office,” relates Mary Dempsey, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. “He reads two or three books at a time, and he’s always asking what you’re reading.”

He forages for ideas, say associates, and he often passes on recommendations. Recently Daley handed Dempsey a copy of “Great Minds of History,” a collection of essays by U.S. historians Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough and others, saying “You’ll love this,” and she did. Ambrose spoke at the Harold Washington Library in September. Daley, a fan of Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” on the Lewis and Clark expedition, was unable to make the talk, but he eagerly attended a dinner with the author afterwards at a downtown hotel.

Lately, the mayor has shared his ardor with students at Orr, one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools. In the spring of 1998, when Daley first served as principal for a day at Orr, he hosted National Honor Society members at his City Hall office. He asked junior Catrina Peoples what she was reading. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” replied Catrina. “That’s my favorite book,” responded the mayor. He next asked what he could do for students at Orr, and Catrina suggested a book club.

The book club debuted the next fall. Now composed of two dozen students, the club meets monthly at 2:30 on Tuesday afternoons in a social room at Orr, or else in Daley’s office. “There are no requirements on grades or discipline,” says Hosanna Mahaley, a Daley education assistant who helps oversee the sessions. “We don’t give tests, and kids can participate even if they haven’t finished the book.”

The selections have included classics (“Agnes Gray” by Anne Bronte), Oprah book club entries (“A Lesson before Dying”), best-sellers (“Tuesday with Morrie”), mysteries (Margaret Truman’s “Murder in the White House”) and science fiction (Octavia Butler’s “The Patternmaster.”). There’s been no history so far, since it’s hard to find titles good for teenagers, says Karen Kiernan-Burke, the Orr English teacher who coordinates the club.

There’s always a snack—cookies and punch or pizza. Daley, who attends about half the time, is intent on the book club gatherings being private, and he closets them from the press. “The sessions are pretty free-form,” says Kiernan-Burke. “The mayor takes pains to make the kids feel comfortable, and he knows many of their names. He’s at ease and down to earth.” Indeed, Daley opens up, talking freely about his childhood, his father and his feelings, and he asks the students what they’d do if they were mayor.

There are perquisites. Animal lover Daley gives students a yearly subscription to National Geographic and to Book, a Chicago-based magazine that has detailed Daley’s reading enthusiasm. Everyone’s gotten book marks. Through Daley, the students have met novelists Stephen King and Scott Turow and have taken field trips, including to Edna’s restaurant on the Near West Side and to the CTA bus barn adjoining the school. Daley takes a personal interest in the teens. “He likes to make sure they have summer jobs, and he asks me if they need help with college,” says Mahaley.

As with his peers, Daley passes on books he’s liked. In 1999, just before the book club members broke for the summer, each received a copy of “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Euland. The obscure how-to book, written by a Minnesota writing teacher, and first published in 1938, had been Daley vacation reading. (The book’s most notable passage: “Everybody is talented, original and has something to say.”)

The club appears to have emboldened the students. “They’ve become more comfortable speaking to a person of authority,” says Kiernan-Burke. “They come fully prepared to talk about the books they have read. They feel like they have to step up.”

Senior Brooke Ray, a participant last year, says she is unintimidated by Daley (“He’s just another person”) and particularly enjoyed the book “Our America,” a view of Chicago’s underbelly by Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman, two public housing youngsters who made a much-touted documentary for National Public Radio. When the club met Turow at a City Hall Christmas party after reading “One L,” his memoir of Harvard Law School, Brooke comfortably asked Daley and the writer about their friendship. It dates from their joint work on the Greylord investigation of judicial corruption in the 1980s, when Daley was Cook County state’s attorney and Turow served as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Of Daley, Ray remarks, “A lot of people can tell you how important it is to read, but it’s his example that counts. Actions speak louder than words.”

Catrina Peoples, whose suggestion started it all, lauds Daley for involving himself at Orr, one of five high schools the Board of Education put on intervention this July; Orr has a new principal and supervisory team leader to evaluate (and potentially fire) staff and bring about a renaissance. “Our school gets so much negative publicity, the fact that he wanted to do this at Orr made a difference to me,” says Peoples. ” It shows that not all kids there are bad.”

When Peoples graduated in June 1999, Daley gave the commencement address. As she was lining up beforehand the mayor called out, “Hi, Catrina,” and he hugged the girl after he presented her with her diploma. “It was a great feeling,” says Peoples, now a sophomore at Beloit College in Wisconsin focusing on biology and women’s studies.

Daley was unavailable for an interview with CATALYST, but Mary Dempsey reports, “He loves the book club. He’s encouraged us to work with other high schools in setting them up, and they’re being developed in virtually every high school.” The after-school clubs, funded under Mayor Daley’s name with a $100,000 grant from Verizon Wireless, won an award for excellence this year from the American Library Association.

Overall, Dempsey feels delight–and pressure–from Daley about getting the city reading. “You know how the mayor sends notes about everything? For four years, he has made me aware of every literary festival he’s seen advertised—in New York, Barcelona, South America, all over the world. When the notes reached critical mass, I knew we had to do something.”

That point came in the spring, when Dempsey and her staff got busy organizing Chicago Book Week, a festival scheduled for Oct. 9-15 featuring author talks, book signings and workshops at libraries and bookstores. The Carl Sandburg Literary Award will be bestowed on David McCullough at an Oct. 12 dinner.

This past summer, the Orr book club took on realtor Dempsey Travis’ autobiography. The first assignment this year will likely be Stephen King’s “The Green Mile.” Mahaley says the mayor has on his desk “Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” a thick, 1998 report by the National Research Council that the Golden Apple delegation gave him on their way out in July. In September Daley vowed to Mahaley that, yes, he’s plowing through it.