System still riddled with inequities

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Read it and weep.

At Collins High School in North Lawndale, school improvement means hall sweeps and holding pens, students signing contracts to get free spiral notebooks and the specter of gates being installed in washrooms to keep kids from hiding out in them.

Meanwhile, serving students better at the impressive new Northside College Preparatory High School means free e-mail accounts and personal computers. At the equally impressive new Payton College Prep, students can learn web-site design and how to play the guitar. If the students at Collins, one of five schools undergoing intervention, had free e-mail accounts, computers and guitar lessons–in other words, if they had a curriculum and activities that excited them–maybe all that whip-cracking wouldn’t be necessary.

But, no, the School Board’s remedy for dysfunctional high schools is to turn up the heat, even though that approach failed three years ago with reconstitution, rather than cultivate a culture of success from the ground up, the approach it has used with some of its new college prep high schools.

The crackdown at Collins is focused mainly on faculty. Monitors check daily to see whether teachers have posted the objectives of their lessons and are teaching to them. Teachers with frequent absences and tardies have been “written up,” as well they should be. As with reconstitution, however, intervention ran many of the school’s better teachers out the door, students told Catalyst Contributing Editor Jody Temkin. More teachers want out, but a freeze has been put on transfers, casting them as ducks in a shooting gallery.

When it comes to middle-income high achievers, the board knows how to grow a school. Its creation of Northside and Payton proved that. In both cases, the board built new buildings, loading them with weather stations, planetariums and other attractive extras. Equally important, it gave the new principals plenty of time to recruit new teachers, develop an attractive curriculum and get the word out.

However, as the board moved south with its college prep program, it lowered its standards, making 11th-hour decisions on principals and facilities, and, initially, planning only minor investments in existing physical plant. The South Side schools were afterthoughts.

Reporting by Associate Editor Debra Williams indicates that Jones and Southside college preps are recovering from their hurried start-ups. But Lindblom College Prep in West Englewood is a sham. The board removed the principal just as it rechristened the former technical school; a year later, it promoted that principal to central office and installed an interim principal. Boths teachers and parents are confused about what’s going on. Not surprisingly, the school has had trouble attracting enough 8th-graders whose test scores meet prep-school requirements; this year’s freshman class numbers just 75 students. In contrast, Payton, on the edge of the Gold Coast, is bursting with applicants and has 370 freshmen.

To make good on its pledge to create at least one star high school in each section of the city, the board needs to get serious about Lindblom: Hire a permanent, first-rate leader and give him or her the time to recruit a first-rate faculty and plan a first-rate program. Follow up with the money to carry out that program. Finally, give Lindblom College Prep the same kind of public send-off that Northside and Payton got.

Then the board needs to take this approach to Collins and every other high school in the city: Create a pool of strong leaders who know how to work with teachers and communities to rebuild schools, and provide support for these community-based efforts. Communities, in turn, need to take responsibility for seeing that the board does right by their schools.