School gets act together before offering training

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Two years ago, the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago launched a small charter school with a big mission: to provide a model education for children and professional development for teachers from nearby public schools.

To date, the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School has concentrated on the children. Neighboring teachers won’t be invited until September 2001.

“For us, it was important that before we added the professional development component, we build a strong, solid school where children can learn,” says Anthony Bryk, the center’s director. “And a good school is very complex. Even if you have good teachers and good classroom experiences, people need to gel. Teachers have to gel. The school has to build relationships with parents and the community. Services have to be in place. All this takes time.”

The charter opened with only four grade levels: prekindergarten, kindergarten, 1st and 5th; it added 2nd and 6th grades this year as the inaugural classes moved up. It expects to enroll a total of about 275 children by 2001, when it will have a full complement of grade levels, pre-K through 8.

The charter grew out of the center’s 10 years of work with 10 schools on the South Side. Bryk says it was clear where the schools needed improvement—literacy instruction, social services and leadership—but that the center feared it would alienate the staffs if it pushed them too hard.

“We encouraged schools to move in a certain direction, but with no formal authority, it’s a much slower and cumbersome process,” he says. “This, in turn, limits how forceful or directive you can be in advancing change initiatives.”

So the center decided to create its own school, recruiting staff with the same philosophy. When charters became available, says Bryk, “We jumped at the chance to put those three elements into practice.”

The school’s co-directors are Barbara Williams and Marvin Hoffman. Williams retired from CPS in 1993 after having served as a teacher, counselor, principal (Jefferson Elementary) and associate superintendent. Hoffman is a center staff member with 30 years of teaching experience, ranging from pre-school to graduate school, in New York, New Hampshire and Texas.

Most of the charter’s teachers are CPS teachers on leave whom the center worked with on professional development.

Bryk says it’s a challenge to find teachers who can work with both children and adults. “It’s an issue we’re continuing to struggle with—creating master teachers of children who are also master teachers of adults,” he says. “That’s a work load, and these are two distinct skills.”

The charter’s professional development program will be aimed at teachers who have demonstrated success with their students. “This is not a program to remediate teachers,” Bryk stresses. “This program is for teachers who have made progress with their students.”

Modeled on the nationally recognized staff development program in New York City’s District 2, the charter’s program will allow teachers to spend two to three weeks during the school year at the charter, working on areas they’d like to strengthen. For example, if a teacher wants to improve her math instruction, she will be paired with a master teacher who is strong in that area.

Meanwhile, a master substitute teacher will teach her regular class. Bryk says that the substitutes will spend time getting to know teachers’ classes and what they are studying before the regular teachers leave for their mini-sabbaticals. When the regular teachers return to their classrooms, the substitute master teachers will be available for follow-up help.

The Center for School Improvement also is looking into the possibility of using the charter for an alternative pre-service program. Bryk says that many of the University of Chicago students who have tutored or done other volunteer work in the area have expressed an interest in teaching.

Next year, the charter plans to try out a team approach in kindergarten and 1st grade that is similar to a teaching hospital’s model of attending physicians, residents and students. For example, each team will consist of a lead teacher, two regular teachers and two or three “student teachers.” Subject matter coordinators also will work with the teams.

“We’ll start out slowly, and if that approach works, we’ll break the whole school up into teams,” says Bryk.

Next year, the school will move from a church at 46th and Ellis to the former Shakespeare School, 1119 E. 46th, where it will share space with Ariel Community Academy.

From the beginning, the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School has focused on reading skills and social services. For example, in prekindergarten and kindergarten, it uses the FAST program from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which is a combination of parent education, parent support and relationship building between parents and school staff.

It also is using the “AS3” process to review the academic and social progress of all students four times a year. Students showing difficulty in an area get support services, such as using Reading Recovery, supplemental small-group work, extended-day tutoring, counseling or referrals for family and health services.

“While a school like this can work, it won’t happen overnight,” says Bryk. “And some of the problems can’t be solved until the whole thing is up and running. The trick is not to expect it to be perfect right out the box. There has to be adjustments, reassessments and the flexibility to change things.”