Charter school founders strive to overhaul literacy instruction

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Cameron Elementary

photo by Christine Oliva

Cameron Elementary

In 1998, the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago switched to Plan B in its efforts to upgrade literacy instruction in nearby elementary schools. Frustrated over eight years of limited success as an external partner, the Center launched a charter school to serve as a beacon.

The Center spent two years getting its elementary school in solid working order. In 2000, North Kenwood-Oakland Professional Development Charter School opened its doors to the other schools in its network. Now the charter is the centerpiece of a proposal aimed at influencing literacy instruction system-wide. “This is a goal that we’re aiming for,” says Center Director Tony Bryk.

So far, the charter has proven a solid academic success, with above-average reading test scores and a growing pool of applicants for its admissions lottery. But its impact on neighboring schools remains uneven. The problem, in the view of Center staff, is inconsistent principal leadership. The Center directly trains a handful of faculty members from each school.

They, in turn, are to train their colleagues. Some principals have followed through in full on that second level of training, and some haven’t, Center staff report.

The Center’s instructional approach is modeled on the one that had dramatic results in District 2 in New York City and is now used in San Diego and Boston. In District 2, the superintendent replaced unsupportive principals. That is not an option in Chicago, observes Bryk. “How do we make this work given that principals are locally appointed?” he wonders. “That’s another dilemma.”

The Center for School Improvement was founded in 1988 to bring together two isolated groups—educators and researchers—to improve literacy instruction, social services and leadership in low-income Chicago schools. Since then, 25 schools on the South and West sides have chosen to partner with the Center.

Schools working with the Center learn a set of research-based routines for teaching reading and writing. Rather than follow a prescribed program, teachers tailor instruction to address individual student needs. Each week, a series of activities leads students gradually toward more independent work. The approach is a radical departure for most schools.

“These aren’t little techniques that you give teachers,” says Bryk. “It really is an entire reorganization of instruction.”

Few network schools reorganized completely. Some principals made poor management decisions or had conflicting priorities, Center staff say. And most schools opted for a shortened “closed campus” school day that left little time for planning or for instruction.

“The Center only had persuasive power in these schools. They never had any clout,” explains Principal Marvin Hoffman, the charter school’s co-director.

For its own school, the Center had an ambitious scheme: It wanted the charter to function much like a teaching hospital. Like doctors, teachers would practice their craft, train other practitioners and participate in research that would benefit other schools.

Since few applicants would have such experience, the Center sought out strong classroom teachers who were open to learning the other roles, says Hoffman.

The Center also needed to find teachers who were willing to work a longer school day—8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—with no additional pay. The extra time was needed for planning, staff development and simply more teaching of students.

As it turned out, the longer school day was no obstacle, as teachers who are interested in training others typically work extra hours anyway, Hoffman says. Many faculty members came from the Center’s partner schools.

Swinging into professional development mode was the real challenge, he says. For one, teachers whose classrooms would be demonstration classrooms had to get used to having other teachers watch them.

As a newly designated demonstration teacher, Debra Fields started the first day of school last year with a class full of kindergarteners and six new teachers hovering with notebooks. “It was a little intimidating,” she recalls.

The teachers were part of the Center’s New Teachers Network. They got to observe at North Kenwood-Oakland because the charter starts a week ahead of other Chicago schools.

During the school year, a stream of visitors dropped in to watch Fields’ reading lessons. Eventually she grew comfortable with the observation. Now when inquisitive visitors interrupt, she smiles and calls her next reading group.

The most intensive professional development North Kenwood-Oakland offers also places the heaviest demands on its demonstration teachers. Selected lead teachers from Center schools can apply to spend two weeks in residence at the charter. For host teachers that means daily discussions with residents and traveling to the teachers’ classrooms before and after the residency.

Amanda Djikas, who teaches kindergarten at the charter, says she found managing residencies a struggle at first, but that it grew easier with practice. And the rewards outpace the demands, she says. “We share ideas. I find it quite exciting.”

The Center generally works with schools in three-year cycles. During the first year, it holds workshops for teachers at a school. Principals from participating schools also attend monthly workshops to learn what to look for in a classroom and how to use that information to set priorities for professional development.

Since the goal is to build the school’s own capacity to support its teachers, the Center spends most of its time intensively training literacy coaches, usually two per school, and a lead teacher at each grade level. Each month, lead teachers and their coaches visit during North Kenwood-Oakland’s two-hour literacy block.

On a morning in April, for instance, some 20 coaches and teachers from six schools circulate through three primary classrooms, jotting down observations in their notebooks.

In a 1st-grade classroom, the demonstration teacher, seated at a table with six students, wraps up her reading lesson and rings a small bell. On cue, another reading group comes forward while the rest quietly rotate among activity centers that include listening with headphones to a recorded story or composing a letter. Visitors are amazed at the smooth transition and how well students work without teacher supervision. “I thought I walked into a fantasy world,” one visiting teacher remarks.

Later, the teachers gather in the school’s spacious professional development room with the three Center teachers they observed. The visitors seek advice on structuring reading groups and managing independent work.

“What do you do with students having trouble sitting still during independent reading?” one 2nd-grade teacher wants to know. The first step, explains 3rd-grade teacher Kimberly Folkening, is to build a classroom library with books that aren’t too difficult for beginners.

To complement the workshops and charter visits, lead teachers get coaching in their own classrooms from Center staff.

In the second year of their training, lead teachers can apply for a two-week residency to focus on one or two areas of their training. North Kenwood-Oakland accepted nine residents this year.

In the third year, the Center steps back and lets the school run most of its professional development. This year, six network schools are in their first year, one is in its second, and one has a long-term partnership.

Measuring success

The success of the charter school itself is easiest to measure. Its standardized test scores are well above the district average in reading and approaching the average in math.

The school’s popularity is another indicator. A growing number of middle-class parents are applying for the school’s admission’s lottery, according to Hoffman. To maintain its credibility as a demonstration site for inner-city schools, administrators must scramble to recruit low-income students. This year, 75 percent came from low-income families, a percentage somewhat below the district average of 85 percent.

North Kenwood-Oakland’s impact on other schools during the past three years is harder to quantify. No school has passed through the Center’s full three-year training cycle since the charter opened to outsiders.

In a study of the students of four teachers at Holmes Elementary who completed two-week residences, the Center found greater test-score gains after the residency than before. Three teachers saw major gains—up to a half-year’s difference.

But overall, Holmes Iowa reading scores remained flat. Sara Spurlark, the Center’s interim director, thinks the school neglected to get teachers into the classrooms of those who had the intensive training.

The principal disputes that. But both agree that a changing student population and new teachers depressed scores.

Cameron Elementary in Humboldt Park, a long-time Center partner, made a stronger effort to pool its expertise, according to Spurlark. That school saw its reading test scores rise from 20 percent at or above national average in 1997 to 37 percent in 2002.

Of the six schools currently in their first year of Center training, only Ryder Elementary in Auburn-Gresham is going full-force with the coaching and classroom visits, she says.

Bryk believes that one key to District 2’s success in transforming instruction is that it trained everyone—student teachers, veteran teachers, peer coaches and principals—in the same approach to literacy. As District 2’s teachers became principals, the literacy program spread to other New York City public schools.

Bryk would like to grow a similar but voluntary “developmental district” in Chicago, up to 25 schools, all trained in the Center’s literacy framework. “What District 2 was to the New York City Public Schools, we would like the developmental district to be to Chicago,” he says.

Under this scenario, which Bryk has discussed informally with Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, the Center might serve as an advisor to local school councils in the principal hiring process.

Watkins worked part-time for the Center while principal at McCosh, and now the Center is directing part of the training of the district’s new area instructional officers and reading coaches.

On another front, beginning next fall the Center will train about a dozen University of Chicago seniors as teachers, doubling the number the following year. After graduation, these aspiring teachers will complete a six-month internship at North Kenwood-Oakland Charter and a second at another Center school.

To support its expanding program, Bryk envisions perhaps two more charter schools like North Kenwood-Oakland, possibly in Woodlawn and Englewood.

For more information on the Center for School Improvement and its literacy framework, visit the Center’s web site at www.csi.uchicago.edu