Probation policy tougher on schools, but gives credit for making progress

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Chart: Four ways to get off probation

Chart: Four ways to get off probation

Last month, the School Board approved tougher standards for school probation that left many schools wondering whether they stood much of a chance of ever escaping this sanction.

The new target is 40 percent of students scoring at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, or meeting or exceeding state standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. However, little-noticed provisions give schools credit for making progress even if they fall short of the target.

Under the progress standards, Warren, Stowe, and Revere elementary schools all would have avoided probation even though their scores are below 40 percent. At Warren, the percentage of students meeting state standards rose from just under 28 percent to just over 39 percent in the past two years. At Stowe, student proficiency went from 19 percent to almost 30 percent. At Revere, it went from 20 percent to 32 percent.

About 40 schools made at least 10 percentage points of progress over the past two years and would have escaped probation, according to the School Board.

“I’m telling my schools to concentrate on that 10 percent,” says Virginia Vaske, instructional officer for Area 15, who helped three out of the four probation schools in her area get off the list last year.

Under the board’s previous standards, almost 150 schools got off probation in the past seven years, during which time the minimum number of students required to score at or above national norms increased from 15 to 25 percent. Some of those schools started in the single digits.

What follows is a sample of strategies and tips from principals and area instructional officers (AIOs) about how to survive the probation process and live to tell the story:

MAINTAIN FOCUS

Trying to do everything at once is an understandable but ineffective reaction, say several principals and AIOs. “The way you survive [probation] is by maintaining your focus on what you’re capable of doing,” says Noble Pearce, principal of Attucks Elementary School, which got off probation last year with a score of about 35 percent meeting or exceeding ISAT standards.

“You have to read the data, see where there are deficiencies and take focused action.”

ONE CHILD AT A TIME

Gathering teachers to talk about individual children and develop individualized teaching strategies has usually been reserved for special education students but is a key part of what teachers are doing at Finkl Elementary, says Principal Susan Jensen, whose school came out of probation in 2000 and now has reading scores in the mid-30 percent range. “We’re like a think tank,” says Jensen, who arrived at the school recently and credits her teachers for making the most difference. “We look at one child at a time.”

SCRUTINIZE YOUR BUDGET

Some schools have been able to make their discretionary dollars go further by looking hard at their budgets and being creative, says Cynthia Barron, instructional officer for Area 24, where six of 15 high schools currently are on probation. For example, they have used volunteers to help with security and have reclassified personnel so that the School Board—not discretionary funds—pays for them.

CHANGE YOUR LINEUP

In education as in sports, sometimes you have to move people around in order to make improvements. In particular, this means putting top teachers in the three ISAT testing grades and subject areas. “Some of my [principals] don’t do that,” says Vaske. “Their friend wants to teach 5th grade, or they promised someone else they wouldn’t have to teach an ISAT grade.” But those considerations should come a distant second, she says. “You put your very best teachers at the crucial grades.”

OPEN DOORS

Rather than clamp down on teachers, some successful principals worked to create more trust and collaboration. “The main thing we did was to create a different climate at the school,” says Elizabeth Gonzalez, principal at Chase Elementary. “Now we have open doors, grade level meetings and lots of prep time.” Chase went on probation six years ago with only 19 percent of students reading at national norms; last year, it had 37 percent.

BAKE A BIGGER PIE

Applying for outside grants has been one of the keys to success at Pickard Elementary School, which was once on probation but now stands a good chance of exceeding the 40 percent. Outside funding helped Pickard support a bevy of experts from outside the school, a second reading specialist, a full-day kindergarten program, 15 aides in the early grades, a dual language program, and—new this year—freeing a teacher to work with students on extended writing for the ISAT.

DON’T IGNORE THE MIDDLE KIDS

“We identified [second quartile] children and targeted them for extra involvement,” says Pearce of Attucks. “We knew that the students had good foundations. They just needed the confidence that they were going to be successful, and help with one or two types of items that they were having difficulty with.”

LOOK THE DATA IN THE FACE

Looking at test score results can be as unpleasant as opening your wireless telephone bill, but progress requires it, say some principals and AIOs. “It’s common sense, but a lot of people don’t do it,” says Vaske, saying that many educators are still not comfortable interpreting the data or knowing what to do with the information.

READ THE MENU

Some of the schools that have gotten off of probation report having used one or more of the strategies that the board is now requiring at all probation schools, including hiring a second reading specialist and creating smaller class sizes in the early grades.

To contact Alexander Russo, call (312) 673-3837 or send an e-mail to russo@catalyst-chicago.org.