‘Scandal’ school sees reform ideas copied

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It’s the end of day three of the new school year at Clemente High School in West Town. Hundreds of smiling, chattering teenagers, all in plain white T-shirts and dark pants or skirts, swarm to the down escalators in their nine-story school. On the first floor, Acting Principal Eduardo Negron and a host of career service staff form a line from the foot of the escalator, out the exit doors and along the sidewalk to Division Streetwaiting to send the advancing throng on its way.

The sidewalk to Division had been a trouble spot, Negron explains. Outsiders used to wait there at the end of the day to eye the massive, slow-moving crowd. On occasion, they would trail students out to Division and beat them up. “So we got all the career service people to come out here, clear the area, and keep the kids moving when they come out,” he says, adding, “The only way a kid is going to come here is if they feel safe.”

A young man not wearing the school’s new uniform sticks out like a sore thumb as he tries to buck the flow in the exit pathway. Two male staff members walk him back to Division Street without incident. Meanwhile, Negron shakes hands with departing students, pausing for brief conversations with some.

When the School Reform Board ordered every local school council to consider adopting uniforms, Clemente’s LSC quickly said “yes.” Its members genuinely like the idea, which has broad support in the community, but they also are anxious to please an administration that put their school on both academic remediation and financial supervision and was expected to put it on academic probation as well.

Ironically, that very administration has adopted a number of the programs that Clemente initiated under school reform, some of which, thanks to a front-page article in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Public School’s ‘Pathetic’ Use of Poverty Funds,” made Clemente synonymous with scandal. For example:

Employing parents. In 1994, Clemente began hiring dozens of parents as tutors, hall monitors and office help. Now the administration of Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas is developing programs to hire parents as custodians, attendance aides and parent trainers and mentors, while guarding against what Vallas calls “local patronage.” (The Sun-Times had called Clemente a “hiring hall.”)

Schools within schools. In 1991, Clemente adopted a “house” system that gives each class a home base on one floor and a set of counselors, administrators and teachers that stays with it until graduation. Now the central administration is readying a high school restructuring plan that will do much the same.

Alternative schools. In 1993, Clemente created a satellite program for at-risk students in cooperation with two non-profit educational organizations. Clemente was forced to abandon the satellites in 1995 after central office raised questions about liability. This year, the new Reform Board is spending $12 million on alternative schools for dropouts and disruptive students; most of the money is going to outside non-profits.

“We still haven’t got an answer” on the question of insurance while students are taught at an off-campus site, says Assistant Principal Enrique Romero, who taught at a satellite. “I don’t know if they’re arguing, researching, stalling obviously I think all three.”

In January, the board awarded an alternative school contract to Pedro Albizu Campos Alternative High School, housed at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which was one of Clemente’s satellite sites.

Besides the satellites, Clemente has dropped two other programs that got it in trouble: sending groups of students to Puerto Rico and Mexico, and a legal clinic that offered workshops on immigration and parents’ rights in the educational system, as well as information and referrals for parents and students with legal problems. School Board auditors considered these activities an inappropriate use of state Chapter 1 funds, though the law gives schools wide discretion to spend the money for “educationally beneficial expenditures.”

Of the surviving programs, employing parents has been the most successful.

“I looked at [the program] with great skepticism in the beginning, and it turned out to be great,” says Patricia Boland, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate. “I can’t say enough good things about our parents. They’re getting next to nothing, 20 bucks a day. Their mere presence is wonderful. If you need to send a kid to the office, there’s somebody there [to escort him].”

“Sometimes parents know other parents, and if they’re working here, they may tell your parent and you’ll get in trouble,” observes sophomore Israel Miranda, whose mother and stepfather both work at the school.

$100,000 for parents

This year, the school has budgeted $100,000 in state Chapter 1 funds to hire 64 parents. And Clemente’s remediation partner, the DePaul University Center for Urban Education, includes them in its work.

Clemente’s “house” system also is still in place, though building and scheduling constraints have prevented it from becoming a full-fledged system of minischools. The system was recommended by Luis Nieves Falcon, a consultant whose pay figured prominently in the Sun-Times article. Falcon and his wife, Aurea Rodriguez, received $218,000 over two years.

Under the system, each entering class is assigned an assistant principal, dean and counselors who follow their progress over four years. Division (homeroom) teachers also keep their students for four years, and some subject teachers keep the same students for at least two years. “We make sure that they are held accountable,” says Romero. “We don’t leave it up to hope that they make it.”

Students are feeling the effects. A one-time dropout who is now a senior reports that he returned to Clemente because his former dean kept after him. The student, who asked not to be identified, says that Carmen Rodriguez, now an assistant principal, would see him on the street and ask: “What’s going on?”

“I’ve got gang troubles,” he respondedthe student said he dropped out because of in-school fights.

“We’ll help you,” she said.

“I gave [returning] a try, and everything was a lot calmer,” he says. Now, this student and fellow seniors tell underclassmen, “We don’t need to be fighting here.”

His account echoes what students told Catalyst two years ago about the increased discipline that followed the arrival of parent employees. (See Catalyst, November 1994.)

Although the house system has only improved with time, the same cannot be said for another of Falcon’s major recommendations, creation of a multicultural curriculum that explores the roots and culture of students at the school. Most Clemente students are Puerto Rican, but African-Americans and students of Mexican and Vietnamese heritage also are enrolled.

In 1992, a group of Clemente teachers wrote a new curriculum under the guidance of consultant Aurea Rodriguez. It got mixed reviews from the faculty.

Karl Kuhn, a social studies teacher and member of the local school council, describes the process as “going beyond scores to look at how to better interest students. We took a look at our curriculumwe felt it was outdated. We geared [the new curriculum] to student interests, tried to globalize it.”

“History is not just Europe,” he says. “It’s the world.”

As a result, Kuhn’s classes now examine both Christopher Columbus’ explorations and pre-Columbian civilizations. They also look at U.S. history from the point of view of a variety of ethnic groups, not just one.

“They’re exposed to as many cultures as we can bring in,” he says. “I think the teachers feel really confident about this whole thing.”

Other teachers disagree. “Parts of it were excellent, other parts were poor” says a teacher who requested anonymity. “Not everyone participated in writing it. My personal perception is that the curriculum was not well accepted by the majority of the teachers. They felt like it was forced upon them. It’s hard to find [now]a lot of people boycotted it.”

Another teacher, who also asked not to be identified, says the curriculum “was used sporadically by a few teachers. The first year, when we were all gung ho, there weren’t enough copies printed. Later, everything had changed, people had changed. Early retirement had a big impact. It’s like the death of the shamanthe one who knows the background is gone. You can have the guide in your hands, but you won’t know why it was important.”

‘Buy-in’ a challenge

So far, the curriculum initiative that came with remediation is suffering from the same problems: Not all the teachers have bought into it, and it’s unclear how much support they are getting to change.

Last year, the Office of Accountability spent $61,750 to bring in Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, to help the school improve. (This year, the school will pick up half of an $80,000 tab for the center’s services.)

Radner describes her role as “facilitativeand expendable.” Her mission is to help teachers and departments simplify, clarify and organize their curriculum so that teachers across departments can communicate and stress common skills.

She calls traditional lesson plans “pieces of fiction” because they often do not correspond to what teachers teach. In their place, she has teachers prepare succinct charts, called calendars of learning. The calendars divide the year into five-week blocks and require teachers to chart when they will teach not only the course content but also skills across the curriculum (e.g. reading, writing, organizing). By going through this process, says Radner, teachers create “a functional curriculum as opposed to a hypothetical one.”

Radner says the calendars leave the “how” of teaching up to the teachers. “It’s simply a clarification of what they’re supposed to be doing,” she says. “It is not connected to method.”

Teacher Judith Gearon applauds the process, saying it helped teachers of U.S. history set priorities and eliminate less important material from their curriculum.

“I bought the DePaul idea,” says Axel Massol, a graphic arts teacher who is serving as a facilitator for the project. After planning his courses using the learning calendar, Massol worked with teachers in the music department to plan their first quarter. And an art teacher “borrowed my plans, and we shared the same vocabulary,” he says. Since then, their word bank, or list of key terms, has made the rounds of everyone who uses desktop publishing in their courses.

Yet other teachers are clearly skeptical. “You’ve got to enlist [teachers’] minds, not just their pens,” says one, who requested anonymity. The project’s success, this teacher adds, “all depends on how much support we’re going to get from the office”support ranging from easier access to copying machines to more time for staff development. (This year, Clemente has scheduled staff development meetings every other Thursday throughout the year.)

Radner knows the faculty must be sold on the curriculum project, and hopes to provide material support even copyingas well as training. “The implementation has been inconsistent but increasing,” she says. “Fifty-two teachers worked on these things. They have to communicate them to the rest of the faculty.”

With a teaching staff of about 115, that’s no easy task. “It takes half an hour just to stuff faculty mailboxes that’s why communication is so important,” she notes.

The first week of school, less than half of the classes Catalyst observed had learning calendars posted. And the school’s first staff development meeting, held Sept. 12, began with a reintroduction of a basic step, the use of outlines as planning tools. While Radner’s approach is similar in some ways to that of her own dean, Barbara Sizemore, Radner doesn’t make much of tests or test scores. “I’m not a test-score person,” she says. Even so, Phil Hansen, the Office of Accountability’s intervention chief, notes that scores at the elementary schools she has worked with have improved, especially in math.

Clemente’s IGAP scores improved last year, especially in math, where the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state goals rose from 18 percent to 30 percent. In reading, the percentage rose slightly, from 21 percent to 26 percent. However, scores on the nationally standardized Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) dropped slightly in both reading and math.

As it did with uniforms, Clemente’s local school council also embraced the Reform Board’s new homework policy. On the third day of the new school year, teachers in every class Catalyst observed both collected and distributed assignments. And the majority of students in these classes had done the work.

“My daughter had homework everyday,” says Luz Martinez, a parent mentor whom Catalyst interviewed the first week of school. Martinez adds that she told her own child, “I know. You can’t lie to me. They said on TV you’re going to have homework every day.” Clemente’s leadership also is using the new decree from central office to advance its own community-centered agenda. In August, the school unveiled Homework Net Sites, a program that aims to tie increased homework, community involvement and computer literacy into one package.

The program calls for local businesses, youth centers and other groups to set aside space where Clemente students can use the Internet to do homework. The goal is to increase computer literacy among students and community members and encourage teachers to assign challenging, research-based homework. So far, 12 agencies have signed on to the project and one, ASPIRA of Illinois, already has committed computers and tutors as part of its after-school program.

Community politics

At Clemente, efforts to change the school cannot be separated from the contentious politics of its community. Like many Chicago neighborhoods, West Town is a political cauldron: liberals vs. conservatives, machine politicians vs. independent politicians, gentrification vs. affordable housing. But in West Town, there’s a unique, highly emotional issue that weaves in and out of the other divisions: Puerto Rican independence.

Some of the staunchest supporters of independence (including Catalyst Editorial Board member José Elias López) have been heavily involved in Clemente, as have some of the community’s more liberal activists. And that has made Clemente a political target. Last March, for example, an anonymously published “scandal sheet” that regularly satirizes pro-independence leaders, among others, ran a spoof lampooning Negron, who was then an assistant principal and heir apparent to retiring Principal Lou Geraldi; the spoof painted Negron with the brush of the FALN, a pro-independence group with a history of violence. In the publication, “FALN” appears to be synonymous with “supports Puerto Rican independence”: U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, for example, is termed “a known FALN infiltrator in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

The paper’s title, El Pito, translates literally as The Whistleblower but has bawdy connotations.

In April, a slate led by Gregory “Papo” Garcia, a parent with children in Von Humboldt Elementary, tried to take over the LSC but failed. Garcia then challenged the results, charging electioneering inside the polling place. But board lawyers found the charges groundless.

In July, shortly after Negron was named acting principal, unsigned flyers bearing the headline “FALN Open House at Clemente High School Come Meet Your Future Principal” were circulated in the community. The flyers urged residents to oppose Negron for full-time principal by calling the school, Paul Vallas and Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In late July, WBBM-TV (Channel 2) broadcast a story about the “smear campaign.” Asked by Catalyst for his reaction, Negron declined to comment, as he had to Channel 2.

Inside Clemente’s walls, Negron’s politics don’t seem to be a big issue. “I do not share Mr. Negron’s political opinions, but this school has been working much, much better since he took over,” says David Castro, a parent who works at the school. “I evaluate a person by his job, not by his political ideals.”

On Sept. 12, Vallas met with the Clemente LSC in an emergency meeting. A week after the meeting, Vallas said of the allegations, “That’s local politics. That doesn’t concern me.” The Department of Safety and Security investigated the issue and, according to Vallas, the allegations against Negron “could not be substantiated.”

Vallas, however, has repeatedly said he opposes Negron as principal because “he has no experience as principal.”

With pressure from many sides, the Clemente LSC appears to be taking a politically prudent tack. “We’re gonna look for a new principal,” says Antonio Beltran, a Mexican American who has been on the LSC since its inception. “Negron, he’s good, but the media has been too hard on him.”