Why two Chicago teachers left

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From Lake View High to Evanston Township High

When Richard Kaplan was chair of the math department at Lake View High School, the school had a larger portion of its seniors enrolled in calculus than almost any other high school in the country. But in 1998, after 12 years there—four as department chair—Kaplan resigned in frustration and headed for Evanston Township High School.

In 1995, his department lost its autonomy under a new principal who was following a new school board’s policies. Kaplan, who saw his department progressing on its own accord, felt the restrictions keenly. “We were getting kids engaged and excited about going on to college. It makes me incredibly angry that our ideas and talents and successes weren’t acknowledged.”

Kaplan came to teaching mid-career. After leaving his Ivy League university in 1972 with a degree in psychology, interest in union organizing drew him from the East Coast to Chicago. For 12 years, he worked as a machinist—mostly for the automotive industry—operating computerized equipment.

His career took a sudden turn in 1984, when a young daughter died. “That whole experience pushed me to want to work with young people and help them,” he says. Both he and his wife switched careers. She became a physical therapist; he chose teaching.

After earning a master’s degree in math education, he sought out a neighborhood high school in the city and landed one at Lake View, which is 86 percent low-income and 95 percent minority.

Kaplan describes Lake View’s math department as committed, hard-working, dynamic. “We had a wonderful esprit de corps.”

Principal Donna Macey encouraged the team spirit, allowing them to agree on teaching assignments and select curriculum, he says.

To get average kids interested in math, the department selected a program where the traditional strands of high school mathematics—algebra, geometry and trigonometry—are woven together and taught through “real world” problem solving in disciplines such as physics and the social sciences. It’s called Integrated Mathematics Program (IMP).

In the early ’90s’, the department also started a summer pre-calculus course aimed at preparing more students— especially minorities—to take calculus senior year. Eventually, about a third of seniors were enrolled in calculus.

In 1995, Macey retired, and Scott Feaman replaced her as principal. Feaman quickly ran into conflict with at least some members of the Math Department.

Soon after Feaman arrived, the new School Reform Board of Trustees unveiled a plan for high school restructuring and a revision of the academic standards.

Feaman felt that a traditional course sequence would better align with the new standards than did IMP. The restructuring plan also required a uniform curriculum for freshmen and sophomores. Up until that time, Lake View had offered parents a choice between IMP and a traditional course sequence.

Kaplan says the math department wanted to keep IMP; Feaman said it would be phased out.

“I think there was a lack of professional respect for the decisions of the math department, whether it was curriculum, or teaching assignments or any of a number of things,” says Kaplan.

“I’ve always respected Richard professionally,” Feaman responds. “He was a very sincere and hardworking teacher. Who decides curriculum, the principal or the School Board? I was unable to convince Rich of that very simple fact.”

In making teaching assignments, Feaman says, he always asks teachers for their preferences. He also suggests that teachers integrate some IMP material into the traditional courses. “That would be the best of both worlds.”

Adding to the tension, the new board began in January 1996 placing schools with low scores on remediation and probation. Lake View landed on remediation. “That put everyone’s jobs in this school at risk,” Feaman says.

That meant the school needed to take a hard look at its instructional program in light of its test scores. In 1995, only 16 percent of Lake View students scored at or above national norms on the math section of the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP). “They didn’t want to look at the fact that some of the kids were not doing well,” he says of some math teachers.

Between 1995 and 1999, Lake View’s math TAP scores rose steadily to 53 percent at or above national norms, an increase that took it from well below to well above the city average. Kaplan notes that some of that increase occurred before IMP was phased out beginning in 1997-98.

While his calculus program continued, the loss of some decision-making power and the heightened emphasis on standardized testing finally led him to move on. “I think that people need to have high standards [for] kids, and they haven’t been high enough,” he says. “But I think the fear now is to not embarrass the people above you … and not that people feel really accountable for helping students, and for turning them onto learning, and for wanting success.”

Kaplan chose Evanston for the diversity of its students—53 percent minority—and its commitment to closing the achievement gap between white and minority kids. There he started a summer pre-calculus course aimed at minority students, modeled on the one he taught at Lake View. His new school also gives him new earning potential—up to 35 percent more than Chicago teachers can earn with a master’s degree.

Evanston receives well over 100 applicants for math positions each year, according to school officials.

“He talked about building a cadre of students who would be committed to higher achievement, building a camaraderie and a team effort,” says Allan Alson, superintendent of Evanston Township High School. “He certainly practiced what he preached.”

Editor’s Note: Kaplan was a member of theCatalyst Editorial Board.

From Piccolo Elementary to working at home

When Juli Wright left her small Indiana town for Chicago in 1993, she planned to teach elementary school, just as her mother and grandmother had.

After five years in the Chicago Public Schools, Wright left teaching to sell school date books and planners from a home office. “It was a hard decision to leave because you feel that you’re letting the kids down,” she says. “But at some point you have to think of yourself.”

Wright knew in high school that she wanted to teach. Her senior year, she enrolled in a semester-long program for prospective teachers that had her working in a 1st-grade classroom. “I liked it so much they let me do it for a whole year.”

In December 1992, she graduated with an education degree from Purdue University in Indiana. “All my undergrad teaching was done in rural towns where kids were very, very good. And then I came to Chicago.”

She looked for jobs in both the city and nearby suburbs before accepting one at Gladstone Elementary on the Near West Side because it had a vacancy in a 1st-grade position.

That first year, she says, “was an overwhelming experience.” There were two big surprises. One was that so many children came to school without knowing letters, colors, numbers or even which end of a book to open. The other was the student mobility at Gladstone. “If you lost one, within the next couple of days you would always get one more and sometimes two. Of my original roster of 30, I probably kept 15 by the end of the year. It was crazy.”

An experienced teacher down the hall helped with ideas, supplies and moral support. “I don’t think I could have gotten through the year without her.”

Despite the problems, Wright says, “I really liked it. A big part of it was the challenge.”

After three years, she decided to switch to a 4th-grade classroom, where student discipline became a bigger issue. “First-graders, they try to please. They’re not disruptive; they’re just ornery. In 4th grade, they’re starting to grow up, and they go by what they see. And some parents had absolutely no respect [for teachers.]”

Only a handful of kids in her class caused serious disruptions. “But that was enough.”

Discipline was a schoolwide problem, and by time she left, administrators were making a serious effort to get it under control, she says. “But that’s a long process to get something to change. And I wasn’t willing to stick around and find out how it turned out.”

Weary of dealing with disruptive and transient students, Wright decided to try another school. “I was a little naive at that point. I thought it could get better.”

In 1997, she took a position at Piccolo Elementary in Humboldt Park. There, teachers organized themselves into “small schools” to plan their own curriculum and work as a team.

Competition between the schools was intense, she says. One small school, “Connections,” outshone the rest. “Their school day was longer without any pay. They worked like crazy. The principal was praising that school for succeeding. [Other] people were very derogatory towards their accomplishments. It was almost like a cat fight.”

The tension spilled over into her own small school, “Bright Beginnings,” she says. Teachers didn’t want to work together and bickered constantly—”which I’d never had a part of at Gladstone, [where] the staff got along wonderfully.”

Wright found Piccolo’s discipline problems more serious than Gladstone’s. Unlike Gladstone, Piccolo had no special room to send disruptive students, she says. She and another teacher arranged to swap kids who needed a time-out.

Linda Sienkiewicz, the principal of Piccolo Elementary, says that while the school has “ongoing issues, as any school, I wouldn’t call it out of control or very serious. As in any school, there are examples of students doing things that are inappropriate. And we address those incidents though our uniform discipline code.”

As for friction among the small schools, Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says some conflict is inevitable when a school starts a new program. Klonsky’s group is providing professional development for several small schools at Piccolo.

“Connections” started first and quickly outperformed other classrooms on standardized tests, which may have caused jealousy, he says. Other small schools at Piccolo are still getting off the ground, he continues. “That’s when it’s tough. When you’ve been doing any job for years and you suddenly are asked to do it differently, it’s emotionally difficult.”

Sienkiewicz adds that last school year, “We had small schools that made significant improvements and were recognized for their achievements.”

A former Piccolo teacher who asks not to be identified says that despite school politics that she also felt were damaging, Wright was able to focus on teaching. “I would be in tears everyday. Juli was very supportive. She was always so calm.”

In addition, “Anne” calls Wright an invaluable source of teaching strategies and classroom management techniques. When a long-term substitute couldn’t handle one student, she says, Wright even offered to take him for the rest of the school year. “How many teachers do you know who would do that?”

Wright considered transferring yet again but worried about how three schools in six years would look on her resume. “At that point, I’d tried two. I felt like no matter where I went, it wasn’t going to be any better.”

In fact, both Gladstone and Piccolo lost unusually high percentages of their faculties during the past two years—an average of 33 and 25 percent respectively, compared with 14 percent for the district as a whole. Gladstone was on probation the first of those two years, but Piccolo has yet to get off.

When the sales job fell into Wright’s lap in the spring of 1998, she decided to take it.

Her new job still allows her to work with educators, but with two big advantages—more freedom and pay based on productivity. “It’s not like teaching, [where] if I worked hard, I got paid the same as the person who was doing a horrible job.”

Still, she misses “seeing the kids learn and accomplish something. I miss that a lot. The day-to-day bureaucracy, I do not miss one bit.”

Anne, now happily settled at another Chicago school, calls Wright’s leaving “a waste of a good teacher” but sympathizes with her decision. “There’s so much more [to the job] than just teaching your kids. People get frustrated with it. We shouldn’t get burned out at our age.”