Teachers academy to open amid unanswered questions

July 28, 2005

Three years ago, during a campaign speech, Mayor Richard M. Daley said he would build a new K-12 school and staff it with master teachers who also would train student teachers and CPS veterans.

officials could answer. Since then, plans for the school's program, location and grade levels have changed. Even now, just three months from its scheduled opening, the National Teachers Academy is an institution in flux.

It has not hired a director of professional development, the No. 2 spot, and it is not yet fully staffed. Schools nearby, whose students have the option of transferring, say they don't know what's going on. Even educators who have helped plan the academy's programs say they're still in the dark.

"We've advised the board on professional development and [credentials for] master teachers, but we have not been privy to what the final design for the school looks like," says Allen Bearden of the Chicago Teachers Union, who has served on the academy's professional development committee.

The academy's plans were complicated by the School Board's last-minute decision to make room for 400 students displaced from nearby Williams Elementary, which is closing in June for a year. Originally, the academy had planned to open with only pre-K through 5th-grade students, now it will enroll students through 8th grade. Enrollment capacity is 850.

The opening of the Teachers Academy at 55 W. Cermak is significant for another nearby school—South Loop Elementary. Attendance boundaries for the new school include blocks of low-income families who were previously assigned to South Loop Elementary. Although students already enrolled can remain at South Loop, 84 attend classes at a branch location near the academy that the board is considering closing.

In May, Catalyst interviewed academy Principal Linda Ford, members of her staff and central office officials to get a fix on where things stand.

What's the status of construction?

The construction of the new school is on schedule and on budget, says Carolyn Tucker, a spokesperson for CPS operations. "The building is 80 percent finished," she says.

The building cost $47 million; three years ago, the mayor pegged costs at $30 million. "Construction was $32 million," Tucker explains. Purchasing land, demolition and landscaping the campus park make up the difference, she notes.

By late May, the exterior of the building was complete, and interior work, such as painting and wiring for computers, was in progress. On the to-do list: installing classroom furniture and special equipment to outfit science labs, libraries, an auditorium and a music room.

The academy is comprised of two buildings—a four-story school and a two-story community center—that are connected by a second-floor pedway. The school facility has 32 pre-K through 8th-grade classrooms, six infant/toddler rooms, two science labs, two libraries, an art room, a music room and a computer lab.

One-way windows have been installed in four classrooms, one on each floor, for student teachers to observe. "Teachers can come in this little room and not only observe what's going on, but put on headphones so they can hear what's going on, too," says Ernie Miller, the academy's technology coordinator. Classrooms also will be equipped with cameras, to tape teachers in action, and computerized blackboards, called smartboards, that can save written lessons, he adds.

The two-story community center has a full-size gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and meeting rooms for after-school programs; it will be open evenings until 8 or 9.

Who's going to run the school?

The academy principal handles the day-to-day operations of the school. A director of professional development will oversee teacher training programs, and a board of directors will govern policy.

Plans for the academy cycled through three central office administrators before Linda Ford was tapped in October 2000 to put flesh on the bones of its program. Ford was later named principal; she reports to Al Bertani, chief officer of professional development.

Ford is highly regarded and has a successful track record as the principal of Brownell Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing, where she served for six years. She also served as a probation manager for Roque de Duprey Elementary. After Brownell, Ford spent three years at the University of Chicago's Center for School Improvement, overseeing its principal leadership initiative.

"She's a big-picture person, a problem solver, who is inclusive [and] distributes leadership," says Arnold Aprill, director of the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE), an arts integration group that will be an academy partner.

By mid-May, Ford had not yet hired a director of professional development, who will be responsible for designing, implementing and monitoring the curriculum for adult learners, including training for academy staff.

In the absence of a No. 2, Ford and her staff have been developing the professional development programs. Ford says she is currently interviewing candidates to fill the position, and hopes to have someone on board before July l. Advising her in the search are Bertani, Mary Ellen Caron, special assistant to CEO Arne Duncan, and Madeline Miraldi, director of professional development at the Chicago Academy, CPS's first contract school.

Instead of a local school council, the academy will be governed by an 11-member board of directors that will consist of the CPS chief executive officer, the CPS chief education officer, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union or a designee, two parents and one community representative appointed by the Board, two representatives from foundations, a representative from a university, the academy principal and the academy director of professional development.

By May, no appointees had been chosen. "No, we don't have names yet," CEO Arne Duncan admits. "But we know what kinds of people we're looking for: a diverse, talented group from each of those particular sectors."

How far along are teacher recruitment efforts, and what are the credentials of the new hires?

The academy has to fill 36 master teacher slots; by-mid May, 27 had been hired.

Four of them are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. One is a Golden Apple Fellow. All but one has a master's degree. The lone exception is board certified and expected to complete his course work for a master's degree in June.

At a minimum, academy teachers must have a master's degree and five years of teaching experience. Also, new hires who are not National-Board certified must agree to become candidates for the credential within five years.

"This may all seem hard, but this is the perfect place to go through National Board certification," Ford says. "Teachers here are already critiquing and commenting on each other's work [and] reflecting on what they are doing. [They] will be videotaping their classes and using research. We are doing the work that the National Board does, so it won't be anything that our teachers won't already be used to."

In addition, Ford says she has asked new teachers how they felt about juggling teacher and trainer roles while going through National Board certification. They assured her they were up to the task. "It's hard work, but that's what we do—work hard," Ford recalls new teachers telling her.

Currently, the academy is advertising for new teachers through CPS bulletins. "We started out advertising in Education Week, but we had to tell people that we couldn't pay them what they wanted," says Ford, who expects to complete faculty hiring by the end of July.

Where will the academy turn for students?

In March, the School Board redrew the attendance boundaries for Williams, South Loop and Haines elementary schools, stipulating that all students already enrolled in any of those three would have the option of transferring into the academy.

Then in May, the board decided to close Williams, and 400 seats at the Teachers Academy were reserved for displaced students, many of whom live in nearby public housing.

Meanwhile, the Teachers Academy's attendance boundaries are causing confusion for some South Loop students. The northern boundary at 18th Street is the dividing line between low-income families living in the Hilliard public housing development and middle-class residents on gentrified blocks of townhouses and lofts. The two communities have been caught in a decades long tug-of-war for control of South Loop. (Catalyst November 1997)

A branch location of South Loop at 19th and Federal streets is located within the academy's attendance boundaries, and it's likely to be closed, says Giacomo Mancuso, CPS director of capital planning. "But that's not final, and we're not sure what it will be used for," he says. Currently, 84 students attend South Loop branch. If it closes, then students who live within the academy's boundary must go there.

Parent Sheila Garrett, whose child is enrolled at South Loop, is wary. "Are they [the academy] only taking kids from the CHA housing projects?" she asks. "All the poor kids will be on 22nd Street and [middle-class families] will have their own private school at South Loop."

"This is not true," says Arne Duncan. "We're trying to create great schools for a community that has been underserved. Both [South Loop and the Teachers Academy] have the potential to have a good racial and economic balance."

Academy Principal Ford says she has not had to actively recruit students. "We'll have more than enough," she says. The Chicago Housing Authority Relocation Program may be moving another 200 families into the area this summer, she notes.

At Haines Elementary, Principal Gandy Heaston doubts many of her students will transfer to the Teachers Academy. She conducted an informal poll on report card pick-up day to find out how many parents knew about the academy. "I couldn't find a soul in that building who'd gotten a letter," she says.

Haines LSC member Sammy Chow agrees. "People are very comfortable at Haines. Parents don't know enough about the new school to make a switch."

What about infants and toddlers?

Another goal of the academy is to get an early start working with children and their parents to build healthy relationships between them and the school.

The academy will have six classrooms with up to eight children between 6 weeks and 3 years old; 12 slots will be reserved for infants or toddlers with disabilities.

"Fifty percent of our work has to do with parents and building relationships," says Barbara Abel, who will oversee the academy's early childhood program. "We will be focusing on developmental education, not content."

Early childhood teachers must have master's degrees, a Type 04 early childhood education certificate and five years of teaching experience, two of which must be working with infants and toddlers. Each class will be staffed by a master teacher, a teacher's aide and an education assistant. So far, two early childhood master teachers have been hired; the academy needs six.

Infants and toddlers will be recruited from the surrounding community. Recruitment efforts, however, will not begin until the academy has firmer commitments on funding, says Abel.

"We're looking at existing grants," she explains. "Some are aimed at teen parents, others at single mothers who are at poverty level. Once we [secure funding], then we will recruit."

What's in the works for student teacher training?

When the Teachers Academy opens for students this fall, it also will be open as a training facility for juniors and seniors from local colleges of education. The academy's student teacher training program will last a semester and will reflect national professional teaching standards.

Student teachers will observe master teachers in the classroom, who will, in turn, serve as mentors and coaches for the trainees. Student teachers also will help out in the classroom and have an opportunity to teach classes themselves.

"They will really be like another pair of hands in the classroom," says Ford.

The program will train student teachers to diagnose a child's individual needs and to write academic "prescriptions" to meet those needs, Ford explains. "We will mirror what the National Board talks about in terms of creating quality teachers," she says.

About 30 student teachers will be trained the first year, Ford says. (Two years ago, School Board officials said the academy would train 170 student teachers in its first year.) Those who are accepted into the program must commit to teach at least three years for CPS.

Roosevelt University is sending four education students to work at the academy this fall, says George Lowery, dean of the college of education. Roosevelt has helped develop the academy's student teacher program, providing resources and input on education theory and quality teaching. "We were impressed with the model," says Lowery. "It is advantageous for our students to work alongside exemplary teachers."

Five student teachers will come from Chicago State University. The academy is looking to fill out its student teacher program with recruits from Erikson Institute, St. Xavier University, Loyola University, Northwestern University, University of Illinois-Urbana and Illinois State University. They are in discussions with other schools as well.

Patricia Walsh, dean of education at Northeastern Illinois University, says she was impressed by the academy's program, which invites student teachers to work with master teachers this summer as they plan their academic program. "Usually student teachers get into a classroom after a teacher has set it up," she says. "Under this program, they will get to see how teachers set up their classrooms ... and how they plan for the first day and the year."

Conspicuously absent is the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), an original partner in developing the academy that will not be participating. UIC was originally tapped to pull together the curriculum and supply a site for the academy, but the relationship cooled when CPS offered few details about the academy's governance. Since then, UIC was left out of the planning loop. "We haven't been involved with the academy for several months," says Connie Bridge, the executive director of UIC's Council on Teacher Education.

What are the school's hours?

The school day runs 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for students; master teachers will work from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. The Teachers Academy may remain open to the public until 8 or 9 in the evening for social and academic activities coordinated with the Chicago Park District.

What's the name of the school?

In two School Board reports released in February, the new school has been referred to as the National Teachers Academy and the National Teaching Academy.

"It's the National Teachers Academy," Ford says.

Where do parents, teachers go for more information?

Ford acknowledges that the academy has not done much outreach to inform the community about the school. A series of community meetings was scheduled for late May and early June. For more information, call the National Teachers Academy at 773-534-9970.