New small school at Orr High tests limits of autonomy

Print More

In late July, students and teachers from a small, military high school bivouacked at a Lutheran camp just outside Rockford.

Teachers spent much of their time planning curriculum for the Junior ROTC and community service school, while students learned team-building and problem-solving skills. But on the last day, both groups got together to hash out basics: A school name, a mascot, colors and uniforms.

The group quickly agreed on the mascot, a phoenix, which inspired the school name, Phoenix Academy, and school colors of red and silver. But uniforms became a point of contention, and students, who originally favored wearing uniforms every day, began to balk as the daily dress code took shape. (Junior ROTC cadets wear full-dress uniforms once a week.)

Rising senior Melvin Miranda persuaded his colleagues that uniforms would distinguish Phoenix Academy students from others at Orr High School, where Phoenix is housed. His argument was succinct: “Let Orr do their thing and let us do our thing.”

Since it was created in April, Phoenix has struggled to set itself apart. One of five new, small high schools created under the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, Phoenix is part of the first phase of a citywide effort to subdivide large, poorly performing high schools such as Orr into smaller, potentially more successful units.

Each small school is intended to function autonomously, with its own principal or lead teacher, staff and students. Ideally, small school educators will set their own course. Most of the new schools got off to a good start when they selected leaders last spring. (See story.)

But months of wrangling among Orr’s teachers, administrators and local school council wound up in a stalemate, and Chicago Public Schools officials had to step in to settle the dispute.

Joy-Constance Stratton, previously an assistant principal at an all-boys Catholic high school, was named principal of Phoenix on July 1, and by mid-August, Orr Principal Leon Hudnall was replaced.

“We didn’t want to get into selecting the principal— that’s for schools to do,” says Pat Ford, director of the Redesign Initiative. “But this particular school had some issues.”

Early flashpoint

Choosing a principal for Orr’s first small school was a flashpoint from the start.

Last December, the Virginia-based George C. Marshall Foundation approached Hudnall and other Orr staffers with an idea: Convert Orr’s Junior ROTC program into an independent small school focused on leadership, character development and community service.

Orr bought the idea and together they pitched it to the Redesign Initiative, a coalition of local funders who, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, donated $18.2 million to support a project to break up troubled high schools into smaller, more personal learning communities. The new Junior ROTC school would begin that process at Orr.

The initial proposal called for a principal, rather than a lead teacher, to run the small school, but it gave Hudnall the final say over principal selection.

That caveat was a sticking point for funders and CPS officials who were charged with approving small school proposals, says Jeanne Nowaczewski, who oversees small schools for CPS. “There would have to be a more inclusive process which gave weight to the teachers involved.”

A more inclusive process was created and implemented once the proposal was approved in April. A search committee comprised of Hudnall, Assistant Principal Mose Vines, two teachers and a Junior ROTC instructor was formed. But it quickly became apparent that this process merely paid lip service to teacher input.

“The positions weren’t advertised—it was just through word of mouth,” says Orr Assistant Principal Hilda Moore, who applied for the job.

Candidates were narrowed down to two finalists: Moore and Katherine Harris, a principal-in-training in the first class of New Leaders for New Schools, an alternative certification program for principals.

Phoenix teachers backed Harris; Orr administrators favored Moore. Questions were raised about Harris’s principal credentials, which were pending but not yet in hand. “The model we chose was to have a principal,” says Hudnall. “It was agreed upon that the candidate should have a type 75 [state certificate].”

At this point, Orr’s local school council demanded a say in the proceedings. “We were concerned that the council was being left out because we were on intervention,” says teacher representative Richard Watson. “We should have had at least an advisory role in the process.”

Round two

Although the committee voted, it rescinded the ballot and reopened the search. In May, the search committee was reconvened, and this time it included LSC members and other community residents.

Harris remained a candidate but soon accepted an offer to develop a high school for Ariel Community Academy. Moore withdrew her application. “I didn’t want any controversy,” she says. “I don’t think I really wanted it.”

The new committee winnowed the field to three candidates: Stratton, Dunbar High Assistant Principal Solomon Humphries and a third prospect.

Each spoke at a candidate forum and fielded questions from Orr administrators, LSC members and prospective small school teachers. Afterward, LSC members and Orr administrators backed Humphries. Teachers, however, wanted another chance to interact with the candidates, and a second meeting was scheduled.

Meanwhile, a backlash was building. LSC teacher rep Watson says he feared the Marshall Foundation, through its representative, Michael Farley, was trying to control the process. “My thing was not anti-teacher,” Watson says. “I didn’t want Mr. Farley picking the principal based on his program.”

Small school teachers say Farley was in their corner. “The rumor was Mike Farley was going to take over and it was going to be his school,” says Phoenix Academy teacher Rita Greene. “We got that rumor straightened out.”

After a second meeting with the candidates, the teachers favored Stratton.

At this point, central office had to intervene to resolve the impasse. Nowaczewski and Edward Klunk, deputy high school development officer, talked with both sides. “We made many investigations,” says Nowaczewski. “It was our determination that the real choice of the staff of this school was Joy Stratton.”

“The teachers have made their choice,” sniffed Hudnall shortly before he abruptly returned to Morse Elementary as principal.

Hudnall was assigned to Orr when it was placed on intervention two years ago. He and Larry Thomas, the intervention principal at South Shore High School, both returned to their old schools over the summer, following tensions over the autonomy of small schools in their buildings.

Hudnall and Thomas were good at the kind of leadership needed at intervention schools, says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education. “Now the world has changed,” he explains. “Most principals expect to run their show. Under the [Redesign Initiative], it’s a more distributed leadership model.”

“Making decision by consensus requires negotiation,” Ford says. “That’s ultimately what happened, but in the future, we’d like schools to have the tools to work that out, if possible.”

Such struggles over autonomy are to be expected as high schools change entrenched mindsets, Ford explains. “This is new,” she says. “We’re all going through it for the first time. Breaking old habits is not an easy thing.”

New habits

So far, Phoenix teachers say they are satisfied with their choice for principal. Stratton, who was responsible for curriculum development at Marist High in Mount Greenwood, earned her principal credentials in Massachusetts and studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

At camp this summer, teachers learned that their input counts in charting a course for Phoenix, says Greene. “You actually felt part of a team that was going to get the job done,” she says. “An opportunity opened up for our voices to be heard. Our principal wouldn’t do anything without us.”

Along with students who participated in the two-week retreat, Phoenix educators began creating new customs. They ate meals together, family style at round tables. Helpers set the tables, brought seconds and cleared dishes. It was a custom both students and staff plan to replicate for the rest of the academic year in the school cafeteria.

“That was ideal,” says Greene. “We’re trying to get a more close-knit community. The kids really wanted to bring that back into school.”