Rundown labs part of the equation

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Walter Payton College Prep

Jason Reblando

Walter Payton College Prep

The shabby state of science labs in many Chicago public high schools is evident at Senn High in Edgewater.

Ten of Senn’s 11 labs show their age—about four decades—with out-of-order sinks, sealed-off gas lines, water-damaged ceilings and dingy walls with peeling paint. Only one lab is in good condition, rehabbed in 2000 under an initiative that has since been retooled.

The rundown labs limit students from carrying out meaningful experiments, so Senn’s teachers rely heavily on lectures and demonstrations. “For hands-on projects, [my room] is cumbersome,” says environmental science teacher Anna Perkins, whose room has one sink and an electric hot plate instead of Bunsen burners.

But Perkins notes an overriding need: more Internet-connected computers for students. One desktop computer is the only portal to vast, free online resources that would enhance her lessons, such as real-time weather data and a searchable database of the entire human genome.

Like Senn, more than half of public high schools—many of them struggling academically—have dilapidated labs that need extensive repairs or gutting, according to a Catalyst review of CPS data. The data indicate that Senn’s labs need complete overhauls.

Without adequate labs, students do fewer hands-on experiments, which experts say diminishes the quality of science education and prevents students from being adequately prepared for college, other postsecondary training or jobs that involve 21st-century technology.

Senn’s one state-of-the-art lab has seven workstations with electric and Internet outlets, a sink, gas hookup and well-stocked cupboards. The lab also has movable worktables, a projector connected to the Internet and a fume hood to ventilate noxious gases generated in chemistry experiments.

“Even just walking in, it is uplifting,” says Assistant Principal Badel Khano. But the lab can accommodate only about 20 percent of the students, even though it is in use all day

Michael Lach, director of science for CPS, admits that students pay an educational price. “We know we’re not there yet, and it shortchanges some of our kids.”

Khano, too, concedes that courses end up watered-down. “There are definitely fewer hands-on labs, especially in the second semester when [students] get enough reading and theory together and it’s time to test it. That’s the compromise we have to deal with—this is what you’ve got, make the best out of it.”

Pace of rehab ‘ridiculous’

To renovate labs system-wide, the cash-strapped district recently launched an initiative to drum up nearly $60 million in financial help.

Raising the money is only one challenge. Some high schools, including Senn, have one new lab but will likely have to wait years for more renovations.

CPS has spent more than $50 million on lab renovations since 1998, when then-CEO Paul Vallas directed the district to repair one chemistry lab per high school. Forty-three schools, including Senn, benefited. But in 2000, officials in a new administration realized that approach was inefficient and switched gears to renovate all the labs in a school at once. As a result, six schools have had substantial renovations to all their labs (a typical high school has five to six) and rehab is underway or in the planning stages at another 14.

But there’s a catch-22: CPS is now pouring more dollars into individual schools, but that means fewer schools get attention each year. Under the current plan, the 43 schools that already have one new lab are at the end of the line for additional improvements.

Sean Murphy, the district’s director of operations, says CPS is working as quickly as possible and that labs are scheduled for repairs “based on need.”

“The pace is ridiculous if we want to fix these labs quickly enough,” Lach says.

Best of labs not enough

This year, $5.9 million is slated for lab upgrades at Michelle Clark, Hancock, Lincoln Park and Sullivan. CPS plans to spend a total of $30 million over six year on rehab work and aims to raise $60 million more from corporations and lawmakers through the fundraising campaign Laboratory Chicago 2020. Lach envisions corporate-sponsored labs in each high school, perhaps branded like U.S. Cellular Field.

Jacqueline Leavy, director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a watchdog group with its eye on public capital spending, supports any infusion of money for school upgrades. But, Leavy notes, “It’s kind of sad that a world-class city like Chicago has to be beggars for excellence in science education.”

Lab 2020 debuted in June with a kickoff conference sponsored by the Wrigley Company, Accenture and The Chicago Community Trust. The first milestone: blueprints for prototype labs, which are expected this year.

To prepare for full-blown fundraising, CPS teamed up with the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science and a handful of architects, scientists and business executives to design a prototype that can be outfitted for different science courses. Lach says the prototype plans will help sell Lab 2020 to funders by “articulating a clear vision” for linking labs with quality instruction.

Among the design concepts under consideration are workstations at the edge of the room with movable worktables in the center, allowing teachers to create a multitude of student groupings for different activities; top-notch computers with Internet access and appropriate software; and fume hoods in labs used for chemistry classes.

CPS officials, however, point out that raising science achievement will take more than even the best of labs.

“Labs by themselves don’t really help,” Lach notes, explaining that curriculum improvement is part of the Lab 2020 concept. “In addition to a capital plan and a fundraising plan, you need a technology plan (to keep computers up-to-date) and an instructional plan.”

Lach is a member of a committee formed by the National Academy of Sciences that is charged with creating guidelines for lab-based science education. Recommendations are due next spring. Lach’s presence on the committee is intended to ensure that CPS efforts to improve curriculum are informed by leading national opinions and research.

One expert told the group that lab activities in many popular textbooks are seriously flawed. For instance, one textbook asks students to grind up plants in solvents and use filter papers to sort out pigments. “That activity showed kids nothing about plants making sugars,” which was the focus of the related lesson, says Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, started by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to raise the public’s science literacy.

The leaders involved in Lab 2020 want to make sure that lab activities match the curriculum, as Roseman suggests. Doing so will help control costs because schools won’t purchase unnecessary lab supplies.

The district’s efforts to standardize science curriculum through CMSI, the Chicago Math and Science Initiative (see story on page 6) is helping to guide the discussion of what equipment labs should include.

Small schools, elementary schools

The CPS plan to convert 20 high schools into 40-60 small schools could create more challenges. Already, Senn teachers and administrators oppose creation of a naval academy inside the school, saying it would cost Senn three labs.

“We’re already teaching several of our science classes in regular classrooms,” says Assistant Principal Khano.

South Shore High’s conversion left one of four small schools, the School of Entrepreneurship, with only one room designed to function as a lab.

“It’s really depressing. Our science labs are like art rooms. The one [real] lab looks the same as when I graduated from here,” says School of Entrepreneurship Principal Bill Gerstein.

To ensure equity, the district is planning a costly overhaul for all the labs at South Shore.

“There’s more that the district could do to help resolve these conflicts,” says Gerstein, referring to the turf battles that initially arose among the four schools. “They really just let small schools fend for themselves.”

Jeanne Nowaczewski, small schools director for CPS, acknowledges that science labs, often clustered together in old high school buildings, pose a challenge for small school breakups. She notes that each building has “mitigating circumstances,” such as floor plans and how science labs are clustered, which the district will consider when choosing conversion sites.

And most small school sites now have campus managers to mediate territorial tussles, Nowaczewski adds. South Shore is slated to get a manager next year.

Once high school labs are up to par, the district will turn its attention to elementary schools, where CPS has not spent any money on labs in years. Lach, however, says lab gear and other materials in the CMSI program can serve most elementary school needs.

To compensate for the lack of facilities, some elementary schools have formed partnerships with nearby universities and hospitals, such as the 45-school Science and Math Excellence Network administered by Rush Hospital.

Through SAME, about a dozen schools have been outfitted with brand-new or renovated labs that feature microscopes, measuring scales and other resources. Thirty schools are part of an equipment-sharing program.

Reginald Adams, director of SAME, says the network got started after he visited Hefferan Elementary in North Lawndale during the early 1990s.

“I got in a room and [the teacher] showed me a sink,” Adams says. “That’s not a lab.”

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.