Chicago Discovery Academy: Doing it all the first year

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Chicago Discovery Academy

photo by Christine Oliva

Chicago Discovery Academy

Once a week, Richard Butler makes the rounds at Chicago Discovery Academy, making sure students are attending their workshop classes. He enters a chilly garage, stone chips and dust fly as students use electric drills to carve sculpture from hunks of alabaster under the watchful eye of local artist Roman Villarreal. Guest instructors like Villarreal are not familiar with CPS attendance policies, so Butler helps them keep track of who’s showing up for class.

To make it easier for workshop instructors to identify who’s missing, Butler brings a face book as well as the standard attendance sheet. After reviewing everyone on the list, Butler trudges upstairs to check in at the gym.

A veteran architecture and drafting teacher, Butler is a rookie when it comes to scheduling. “First semester was a zoo,” he recalls. Things have improved since then, he observes. “Now their IDs [show] where they’re supposed to be. Attendance is much better.”

Without an experienced administrator on staff, CDA’s faculty is learning how to run a school from scratch. And they decided to do everything at once. Unlike BEST, which enrolled only freshmen, CDA accepted 387 students in all four grades—a much more difficult start-up strategy, say small school proponents.

Only one other small school startup funded by Chicago’s High School Redesign Initiative, Orr’s Phoenix Academy, launched with all four grades. Most others began with freshmen only with the intention of growing into the other three grades.

“We believe that starting from scratch and growing up has a lot of power,” says Patricia Ford, director of the Redesign Initiative. “Overall, our recommendation is a 9th-grade start. But we’ve also listened to arguments from groups that have wanted to do more than one grade.”

CDA made the case that keeping current students in their long-established art and architecture programs was worth the extra hassle. “We didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” says Director Lauralei Jancaric.

However, the first-year experience has taught her and the staff that a freshmen-only start—fewer students, less complex scheduling—would have made for a smoother first-year ride.

Still, Jancaric says she has no regrets. “I’d do it again because I knew the students and I had relationships with them. I would not do it again if that factor wasn’t in place.”

Coming out of the gate, CDA has had the advantages of veteran staff, well-established programs in art and architecture and motivated students, relatively few of whom require special education. Last spring, the school recruited its sophomores, juniors and seniors from Bowen, and drew a full complement of freshmen applicants right away. (On the other hand, too few freshmen applied to BEST, which had to fill in slots by randomly selecting students.)

Demographically, CDA is nearly equally split between Latinos and African Americans, over 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“CDA skimmed the majority of the more academic students at Bowen,” charges Neil Bosanko, a Bowen LSC member whose child attends CDA. He cautions that the system not create “prima donna” small schools that selectively enroll students. (Ford says the Redesign Initiative is working with small schools across the city to address this issue.)

In year one, CDA can boast award-winning students. The school laid claim to seven medalists at the All-City Arts Competition. It also achieved the second highest daily attendance rate—90 percent—among high schools in Area 24. Teacher attendance is strong, too.

Wednesday workshops, ranging from auto shop to tae kwon do, are a clear draw for students. “It’s fun, it’s real cool,” raves senior Donald Johnson. Though Wednesdays are a highlight, Johnson also says he gets more attention from teachers at CDA than he did at Bowen. “They’re breaking it down more. The teachers over here, they really want to help us learn.”

The school also hosts monthly field trips for each grade level so students may “discover” something new about Chicago. Recent visits have taken them to the Museum of Broadcast Communications and City Hall. At a staff meeting this spring, however, teachers conceded the trips needed to be more closely tied to the curriculum.

Teachers agree that switching to a small school has given them a second wind. “We have a number of teachers who were about to retire but changed their minds because [CDA has] turned out to be such a nice teaching experience,” says Jancaric.