A principal’s risk: ‘This year, everyone’s doing it my way’

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The new school year has brought sweeping changes at Pablo Casals Elementary School in Humboldt Park. All of them show the influence of the school system’s new managers.

All children now wear uniforms, a practice favored by the School Reform Board. The average class size is smaller, the result of a redistribution of federal funds at both the city and school levels. And reading instruction has been overhauled to reflect the board’s back-to-basics approach and emphasis on standardized tests.

Boosting scores on reading and writing exams is the No. 1 goal in Casals’ school improvement plan. Goals 2 and 3 are creating teacher training and parent programs that contribute to goal No. 1.

Under the new plan:

Every day, all students in kindergarten through 2nd grade get an hour of Direct Instruction (DI), a scripted, phonics-based reading program that the school system’s new chiefs are pushing. (See Catalyst, September 1996.)

All teachers in grades 6 through 8 must use basal readers at least some of the time. In the past, upper-grade teachers have had their pick of materials.

The first hour of every day, every classroom has a reading lesson. This was Casals’ response to Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ request that schools lengthen the school day to give students more time on core subjects. Lengthening the day would have eaten up enormous amounts of the school’s discretionary money, so it opted instead to put reading in prime time.

Some teachers have carved out additional time for reading aloud to their students, for a “reading buddies” program that pairs older students with younger students, and for 15 to 20 minutes of Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), recreational reading for both teachers and students. Also, a computerized Accelerated Reading Program lets some students earn extra credit for outside reading.

“I think our reading plan is fantastic,” says Principal Paul Mazurek. “Every year I’m excited, but I don’t think I’ve been as excited as I am this year—ever.”

“I’m kind of putting myself on the line with this,” he says of the new program. “In the past, I might have said, ‘We think Direct Instruction is a good idea,’ and maybe eight out of 10 teachers would have done it. The rest would have said, ‘No, I’d rather do something else.’ But this year, everyone’s doing it my way. Who does that song? Frank Sinatra?”

Mazurek is quick to point out, though, that “his way” doesn’t mean his alone. For instance, the idea of adopting Direct Instruction came from a rookie 2nd-grade teacher. And Mazurek amended the original draft of the reading plan after some teachers complained that it seemed to require that only basal readers would be used.

Teacher Denyse Ffrench isn’t enthusiastic about some parts of the new plan, but she applauds Mazurek for making expectations clear. “John is a great leader,” she says. “He keeps things organized and keeps people on their toes. … Even if you don’t always agree with the methods, it’s good to know what’s expected of you.”

JUL 1 “It’s guaranteed—all of them are going to be reading.”

Casals teacher Norma Quintana is looking forward to trying Direct Instruction in her 2nd-grade class. “From what they told us at the training, it’s guaranteed—all of them are going to be reading. I’m like, ‘Great!’ ” she says, as she gets her room ready for the new school year. (For Casals and other schools on a year-round schedule, tomorrow is the first day of school.)

“This is just a new way of teaching phonics, and I like it,” she adds. “I’m surprised how much I like it.”

Meanwhile, Casals’ hallways and stairwells already have been outfitted with dozens of banners trumpeting the school’s uniform policy: white tops and blue bottoms for all students, starting tomorrow, no exceptions. The banners accentuate the positive. “Look Out! It’s the Uniform Kids!” “White and blue … Looks good on YOU!” “Uniforms United!”

Last winter, School Reform Board President Gery Chico called on all local school councils to consider requiring uniforms, and the board itself followed up with a resolution to that effect. Casals Principal John Mazurek didn’t favor uniforms, but when he brought Chico’s suggestion before the council, members quickly embraced it. 287 schools already had uniform policies, a trend that began with the creation of local school councils in 1989; another 30 adopted them in response to the Reform Board’s action last spring, and board officials say they expect more will follow.

In room 202, Paula Lucas sets up her new kindergarten, unpacking some brand-new easels, paints, dolls and books. Last school year—which at year-round Casals means last week—Lucas ran a federally funded computer lab for disadvantaged students. But that computer lab is gone this year, and the dollars are going into reduced class sizes instead.

The switch was prompted by a change in federal regulations that made it easier to use Title I funds schoolwide, and a reduction in Title I money Casals and other Chicago schools got this year. With fewer dollars and more flexibility, Casals decided to rethink its Title I program rather than simply whittle away at the old one. As a result, average class size is now about 26, rather than 35; Lucas’ old computer lab is a 4th-grade classroom, and several other classrooms have new computers.

JUL 2 The storm that wasn’t.

Expecting dozens of violations of the school’s new uniform policy, Casals office staff brace themselves. They anticipate having to call parents, hold kids in the office until someone brings a uniform, send some kids home and, if need be, lend a few uniform pieces.

But only 16 of the 527 kids now in session show up without uniforms; within an hour, they’re all back in class. “My gosh, it worked!” says Principal Mazurek.

JUL 11 Farewell to a privatized co-worker.

Prekindergarten teacher Chris Harte is on vacation, but she stops by the school to say goodbye to a friend. Eddie Irizarri, a janitor, got his two-weeks notice in late June; tomorrow will be his last day at Casals.

The Reform Board is firing the 900 workers with Irizarri’s job title, substitute custodian, and farming the work out to private contractors. But Irizarri is a substitute in name only; he’s been working full time at Casals for over three years.

To become an official full-time worker, he would have to take a qualifying test; but the test hasn’t been administered for four years. Of the 900 “subs” who are being cut, about 500 are full-timers who, like Irizarri, never got a chance at a permanent job, according to Jarvis Williams, head of Local 46 of the Service Employees International Union.

Irizarri himself has mixed feelings about the board’s decision. There are lots of problem janitors who should be axed, he says, but they won’t necessarily be the ones hit this time. “He’s doing the right thing, but he’s doing it the wrong way,” Irizarri says of CEO Vallas.

By the principal’s account and his own, Irizarri is the most conscientious of Casals’ maintenance staff. The school’s engineer is chronically absent, and Irizarri often does the engineer’s job as well as his own.

Irizarri lives across the street from the school and has sent his kids there; two now are in high school, and one is still at Casals. He’s lived in the neighborhood 30 years. After school, he goes over to nearby Humboldt Park and coaches baseball, trying to give local kids an alternative to gangs.

Irizarri has been invited to apply for a job with the private company that will take over building maintenance at Casals, but the pay will be lower. “I don’t want to go with that privatization,” he says. “I’m making almost $12 an hour, and that’ll be $7.50.” (However, the private companies will provide benefits, including health insurance, which Irizarri does not get from the board.)

“But I’d like to stay with the building. I love working with the kids,” he says. As far as volunteering at the park, he says, “I always will. My dream is to have a pro ballplayer come in to the park and say, ‘This is the guy who taught me to play baseball.’ “

AUG 16 The principal takes a dunking.

Counselor Myrna Plotkin is one of several Casals staffers sitting in front of the school selling tickets for today’s school picnic: $2 for dinner; $1 for five chances at games like the ring toss; and 75 cents for a chance to dunk Principal John Mazurek into a tank of water—a popular attraction. Plotkin savors the chance to see families outside the formal school setting. “It’s nice,” she says. “The families see you eating and dripping, and they see us as just people, you know?”

Eddie Irizarri is here, but now he works for LBR, the private company that has taken over Casals’ janitorial work. Irizarri is too busy to talk, but his supervisor from LBR, Dan Vargas, takes a moment to tell his own story. Vargas was in charge of a massive weekend cleanup blitz that kicked off private custodial services at Casals in late July. “I was here 34 hours in two days,” Vargas recalls. “They were happy. The principal was real happy. Now I’m in charge of four privatized schools, and I supervise at nine non-privatized schools.” Casals’ entire janitorial staff now works for LBR.

AUG 22 Kids like worksheets— “it’s weird.”

To their surprise, teachers Julie Engel and Denyse Ffrench are finding that the students in their 6th-grade “inclusion” class (which mixes special ed kids with other students) seem to enjoy reading from textbooks and filling out worksheets.

Last year, their classroom was totally “student-centered”: no textbooks in reading, math or social studies, and no commercial workbooks. Engel and Ffrench carefully put together their own materials, like a unit on economics in which students made personal budgets. The kids “received” an income of $450 a week for going to school—getting docked for being late or absent—and had to pay for some given expenses, including rent, utilities and food.

“The best part was when we paid out … and asked them, ‘So, do you feel rich, now that you’ve got $450?’ ” Ffrench recalls. “They said, ‘No, I’m flat broke! I have to pay the rent, and my insurance, and …’ They had really gotten it.”

This year, Ffrench and Engel are under orders to use textbooks in all the major subjects. “A lot of the kids really like it,” says Engel. “It’s weird.”

“They love to just sit and read out of the social studies book,” she says. “It’s weird. … Maybe it gives them a sense of security. It’s predictable.”

“There was the day we gave them a worksheet to do,” Ffrench recalls. “That was my first clue. They were all totally focused and quiet. Completely. It made me think that maybe you can go too far in the other direction—that maybe they don’t need to be working in groups, directing their own work, absolutely all the time.”

Both Ffrench and Engel acknowledge that following a set curriculum has advantages for them, too. “It’s a lot more organized, a lot more structured,” says Ffrench. “It’s taken a lot of the work off of us. If the organization is already there, it’s easier for them and for us.”

But the teachers don’t simply march their kids through the books. When Engel leads today’s math lesson, for example, textbooks don’t come out until the last third of the hour. First, students play a math “game” in small groups, then they make some entries in their math dictionaries, and then Engel reviews yesterday’s lesson by working a few problems on the board, deliberately making mistakes for her students to correct.

Another new wrinkle in their teaching this year—again, at the school administration’s suggestion—is to pattern teaching on the IGAP, says Engel. Thus, in addition to the stories children nurture over a period of weeks, they also write weekly in-class essays, based on the IGAP writing test format.

AUG 23 DI: So far so good.

In a staff meeting this morning, some teachers break into applause when Principal Mazurek reads them a draft of a letter he’ll send to parents next week. The letter warns that parents whose children are chronically truant will risk a $500 fine and/or cuts in public aid.

Mazurek himself doesn’t have the power to fine parents or to cut their aid checks, he explains later. But under Illinois law, it’s long been a misdemeanor to contribute to the truancy of a child—hence the possibility of a fine. The threat to welfare checks comes from a state law enacted last year: Parents who receive public aid can be referred to a social service agency for counseling if their children are truant; if the truancy continues, the agency can withhold part of the family’s public aid money. Casals is trying to join the program.

In Chicago, 109 schools have signed with social service agencies. As of mid-September, over 400 parents of truants have been referred, and none have lost public aid money.

After the meeting, it’s time for Direct Instruction in the primary grades. The lessons are completely scripted, so they vary from one teacher to the next only by tone of voice and pacing. Paula Lucas employs a playful, sing-song cadence: “Say the whole thing about what we are doing,” is her refrain. In another kindergarten classroom, Chris Richter keeps her students attentive by making a game out of the the simple actions the students are directed to take. “I’m gonna getcha,” she says, with a wink. “Everybody touch your … chair.”

Richter is impressed with DI so far. “It’s amazing what they’ve picked up,” she says. “This is week three for me, and they’re speaking in complete sentences. I’ve tried a lot of programs, and none of them have really worked, but we’ll see.”

Richter’s room is filled with leftovers from Casals’ old federal Title I program, which funded Richter’s classes until this year. Scattered about are a small copier, a TV set, two up-to-date computers, several of the older computers that were in Lucas’ lab last year and a poster-making machine, which Richter calls “the last hurrah” from the old program. Casals bought it only a few months ago.

Now, the school plans to charge teachers for the computer-generated posters: $2 a foot for laminated banners, $1 for non-laminated.

Teachers get only $50 a year from the board to buy supplies. Richter contrasts that with the lavish budgets of her federally funded program. “[We] were very spoiled,” she acknowledges. “You can see why other teachers might be jealous.”

When Richter first came to Casals, she got $40,000 to open a new kindergarten. “You know how hard it is to spend $40,000 on pencils, crayons, little things like that?” she asks. “I bought computers, TVs, the works.”

At the time, Richter was newly arrived from Chicago’s Catholic school system—she had come for the better pay. “All my tricks went out the window,” Richter recalls. Kids in public schools are more unruly, she says, “but they need love.” And that makes the work satisfying. “They need love in the Catholic schools too,” Richter adds, “but they don’t hug you.”

“Now I know what the real world is like,” she says. “My ex-principal, her eyes would pop wide open after one day here.”

SEP 3 Teaching from basals means less reading.

Denyse Ffrench is going over the “words of the week” with her 6th-graders. Drawn from math, reading, science and social studies lessons, they include “bar graph,” “trait,” “martyr” and “pandemonium.”

The last two words are “literal” and “inferential”—concepts they will need to know when they take standardized tests next spring, she explains. “There are questions in the Iowa that won’t be literal,” she says. “You won’t be able to just look at the reading and find the answer; you’ll have to take the information that the author gave you and figure it out for yourself.”

Standardized tests have become ever-present in the class that Ffrench co-teaches with Julie Engel. “We talk about it constantly,” says Engel. “It’s always, ‘On the Iowa this,’ and ‘On the IGAP that.’ We’re kind of nervous, because we’re being held accountable now. There’s a lot of pressure on us. Our scores go in the newspaper, and if our students don’t pass the tests, they can get held back.”

After the vocabulary lesson, Ffrench coaches students through a review for tomorrow’s test on the novel they’ve been reading for the last month. Then, the day after tomorrow, it will be good-bye to novels for several months. Ffrench and Engel will grit their teeth and start teaching with recently arrived basal readers.

These particular basals offer pieces of real books, but Engel still isn’t sold. “They call it a literature-based textbook. That means that they’ve got one chapter out of a novel, and to me, that’s like, ugh. I know the books they’re coming out of, and they’re great novels. But maybe they’ll read the chapter and want to read the book. That’s what I hope.”

For students, basals mean less required reading than before. According to the curriculum for 6th grade, students will only read one eight- to 10-page chapter from the basal reader each week. When Ffrench and Engel teach novels, they typically assign that much reading as homework every night.

For herself, Ffrench sees more work ahead, not less. She intends to create IGAP-style and Iowa-style questions for each reading. “Basically, it’s teaching to the test. I’ll try to get in as much critical-thinking stuff as I can, but that’s not really tested on the Iowa. And that’s what we structured our whole classroom around last year.”

But she’s suspending judgment. “Is this really testing reading, or is it testing test-taking? I’m curious to find out myself,” she says. This isn’t the kind of teaching she learned in college, but “not everything you learn in college works with absolutely every type of child. So maybe this will work.”

SEP 5 Stars yesterday, dorks today.

For 7th-grade teacher Chris Beukema, the switch to a heavily IGAP/Iowa-oriented curriculum is a little disconcerting. She and co-teacher Tony Gruba had been held up as model teachers for the student-centered, “inclusion” classroom they co-taught. “Last year, we were like the king and queen of the school,” she says, “and this year, we’re like …”

“Two dorks,” Gruba chimes in.

“Yeah, this year, it’s like, ‘Oh, don’t do that! That’s what we’re trying to get away from!’ I understand the point [of using basals and teaching toward the tests] and why they want it,” she says. “I know I could teach the same skills by using novels, but maybe using the novels doesn’t get the scores up.”

Beukema finds herself in a sometimes losing battle with cynicism. “I understand now that funding and money and politics are what it’s all about,” she says. “I finally got it. And it makes it easier to come to work in the morning. Now I know: I’m not here to make them feel good about themselves. I’m not here to help them enjoy learning. I’m here to raise their test scores.

“I mean, I’m not going to stop encouraging my students to be good people. That’s part of me, it’s what I bring.” She pauses for melodramatic effect and widens her eyes: “But my life depends on the Iowa!”

“Kids get rewarded for being good test-takers, not critical thinkers,” she says. “I don’t think that’s best for kids. It would be OK if the Iowa was a good profile of where you are academically. But all it measures is how good a test-taker you were and how well you did on that day. We had kids in our room last year whose scores dropped by a year and a half. How can you lose a year and a half of learning? It’s impossible.”

Principal Mazurek says he knows that some teachers are unhappy with the new focus on test scores and back-to-basics methods. He respects other approaches, he says, but the important thing this year is to get everybody pulling in the same direction. And that direction comes from above. “Everything that Bill Clinton has asked for, that Mayor Daley has asked for, that Paul Vallas asked for, we’ve done,” says Mazurek.

Even if teachers don’t like everything about the plan, he says, they’re executing it, which means that it will be possible to evaluate its effectiveness. “If what we’ve done here works, you should be able to take it and replicate it anywhere in the city,” he says. “And if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will. We’ve taken a well-researched, well-thought-out program; we’ve provided adequate funding; and we’ve supported it by staff development.”

Mazurek made an important concession to his staff, too: He will support the new program for at least two years, which means breaking his habit of pulling in every new program that appeals to him.

He’s already started to hold up his end of the bargain, he says proudly. “A week or so ago, a guy came to the school, and he wanted to teach architecture as a way of teaching math and history, and—this is the first time I’ve ever done it—I politely referred him to another school. It was a good idea, but we had so many of them.”

“It’s true,” agrees Casals curriculum chief Barbara Cautchon. Before, she says, “Anybody would come in and say, ‘Hey, I got something.’ And we’d see a note in our mailbox: Can you fit this in? We tended to be stretched too thin. The programs were good by themselves, but it disrupted your flow.”

This morning, Mazurek continues, he sent an arts group back to re-tool a proposal to teach geometry through art. “I said, ‘If you can offer me a program that teaches language arts through art, I’ll be a lot more interested.’ Now, they want a copy of our curriculum, so that they can fit their programs to our plans, and not vice-versa.”

SEP 6 New policies rub some parents the wrong way.

About 20 parents have come to this year’s first meeting of the Community Corps. Run by staff from DePaul University, the program teaches parents some academic skill-building exercises they can do at home with their kids. Members of the group also use their new skills volunteering in classrooms.

They have a special guest today: Principal Mazurek, who has come to clear up some misunderstandings. Some parents are asking why they’re being told not to come into classrooms between 9 and 10. Doesn’t the school want parents around?

Mazurek says that, yes, they are wanted in the school but that the first hour is reserved for special reading programs like Direct Instruction. He doesn’t want classes interrupted during that time. He offers to show individual parents what’s going on, if they want to sit quietly and observe one day. And if they want to find a way to help during that hour, even better.

After the meeting, PTA President Sylvia Perez airs a few complaints. For one, she didn’t like Mazurek’s recent letter warning parents that they could face fines or a loss of public aid if their children are truant. “That’s like a threat to us,” she says.

Later that morning, 4th-grade teacher Jennifer Redus looks over her students’ poor scores on today’s social studies test. “I’m going to have to teach latitude and longitude again,” she says. “They’re going to be repeated in later grades, and it’s going to be on the standardized tests in the spring.

“If I had my druthers, I’d spend the time on things that are important for life. Is this a life-skill that everybody’s going to need—compared to reading a map scale? That’s a pretty complex skill, and it’s something they’ll have to do over and over again.” She’ll teach both, but the standardized-test focus requires her to give first priority to longitude because it’s on the test.

SEP 10 Poor attendance at LSC training.

Casals hosts an LSC training session for several neighborhood schools, but only three members of the Casals LSC, all parents, show up. (Principal Mazurek is in the Smoky Mountains this week, taking his first vacation in two years.)

Jorge Morales leads an English-language group on one side of the Casals community room, while Norberto Paredes leads a training in Spanish on the other. This is lesson No. 2 of 6: collaboration for effective management. “There has to be a relationship of trust and collaboration for real effectiveness to take place,” he says.

It seems to be an apt topic for Casals. Early in the discussion, Casals’ newly elected LSC chair, Beatrice Rodriguez, says that she’s not happy with her relationship with the Casals staff on the council. “I feel intimidated at times. I feel like they undermine my intelligence. I don’t like feeling put down because maybe I don’t have the same educational level that they do. I’m an individual just like they are, and I deserve to be treated with respect.”

With the two other Casals LSC members in the Spanish-language group, her complaint gets no discussion.

Later, Rodriguez says she ran for the council “because there were things that I didn’t like at the school. For one, we need more security. Also, I grew up in Florida, and we have excellent schools there. I was shocked by how far behind they are here.”

She gives the training a positive review. “I look forward to these classes. I’m getting to know my responsibilities and rights that I have. For instance, I didn’t know that, by law, we’re supposed to have a PPAC [professional personnel advisory committee]. I don’t know if we have one, but I’m going to find out.” (Casals does have one.)

She goes through a few pros and cons. “I love the uniforms. I don’t like year-round, because kids don’t get a summer vacation. I don’t like the fact that we have no security personnel in the school. I’ve seen guys who are known gang-bangers walking in and out of the school, and nobody stops them. And as a parent, I’ve been questioned when I come to the school.”

Later, at the end of the school day, 6th-grade teacher Barbara Phips puts in a good word for basal readers. Phips has been teaching in Casals’ West Humboldt Park neighborhood since before some of her fellow teachers were born. “If students are already reading for pleasure, novels are great,” she says. “But if reading is a chore for them, or they lack basic skills, then basals are better.”

Unlike novels, the textbook “has the skills in it that students need,” she says. Students need “survival skills” like using reference books and practicing alphabetizing. “The basals are designed to cover those basics,” says Phips. Besides, her class’s basal reader includes a whole novel, she adds.

Some Casals teachers were happy to create their own skills materials to supplement novels, but not everyone would do it, says Assistant Principal Maria Guerrero. “Some teachers develop wonderful units; they could be published,” she says. “And the teachers who are most against the basals are the ones who do a wonderful job with the novels.”

SEP 12 Scrubbing scuffmarks

Eddie Irizarri still doesn’t have time to talk—he’s vigorously erasing scuff marks from hallway floors. His boss is in the building and already has complained that Irizarri’s section isn’t clean enough.

Meanwhile, a parent volunteer ribs him for working so hard. “Some husband you’d make,” she says. “You’d drive me crazy.”

“At least the house would be clean, though,” he responds.

Irizarri is getting $7.50 an hour, but he won’t see the promised fringe benefits for another two months. LBR’s company policy is that workers don’t qualify for benefits until they’ve worked for the company for at least 90 days.

SEP 16 No LSC quorum.

Beatrice Rodriguez brings up her concerns about security at today’s local school council meeting, and comes away with good news and bad news.

The good news: Members present come up with a proposal they all like— instead of hiring full-time guards, the school can give parents small stipends to organize themselves as school monitors. As parents, they know who belongs in the school and who doesn’t, she says. “And we’re here anyway.”

The bad news: There’s no quorum—five parent members, one teacher and one community representative are absent—and no parents show up to observe. Rodriguez says later that she still feels that staff on the council don’t give her concerns enough weight. Further, parents she talks to the next day aren’t happy with the parent-monitor idea. Rodriguez advises them to show up at the next council meeting and promises to pressure school officials to publicize the meeting.