Summer program aims to retain teachers at West Side schools

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Neighborhood trolley tours

photo by Christine Oliva

Neighborhood trolley tours

Last school year, Johnson Elementary in North Lawndale lost five teachers—four who were new to teaching—in six months. One moved to another state and four transferred to other schools.

Such turnover is not uncommon in the schools of poverty-stricken North Lawndale.

“They can bring them in,” says Madeline Talbott, director of Chicago ACORN. “However, when candidates were hired, they left almost immediately.”

In a survey of predominantly low-income schools, including many in North Lawndale, ACORN found a turnover rate of 22 percent for new teachers hired in 2001-02. The citywide average that year was 19 percent.

Now, with a program called Ignite the Light-Teach, ACORN, CPS and a local foundation are tackling the three problems that principals and veteran teachers cite for new-teacher flight: apprehensions about personal safety, isolation and a lack of classroom management skills.

Aimed at new teachers in 25 West Side schools, the program provides four days of workshops in cultural diversity, classroom management and effective communication with students and parents. It features a trolley ride through several West Side neighborhoods and a visit to student homes. And it all happens before the first day of school.

The thinking behind it is that if teachers get comfortable with new surroundings early on and have a support system in place, they will be more likely to stay.

“Absolutely,” says Susan Udelhofen, co-author of “The Mentoring Year,” a guide to professional development that CPS will use this year. “This not only encourages teachers to stay, but to become knowledgeable about the context of where their kids are coming from.

Launched in 2002, the program has served 65 new teachers. This year, 30 participated, 10 of them from May Elementary in Austin. The program just now is beginning to track participants to see if they remain in their schools.

What teachers learn

On the first day of the program, new teachers get a crash course in cultural diversity and working with students in the classroom, then take a two-hour trolley tour of the North Lawndale.

In the morning, two speakers share tips. Give students an interesting reading assignment during the first week and assess how well they do, suggests Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education and Assessment at DePaul University.

Break the curriculum into weekly chunks, she suggests, to help students get a handle on what they are supposed to learn.

The next speaker, poet Oba King, gives a short lesson in African-American culture and advises new teachers to create lessons that allow students to celebrate diversity.

“I felt a lot more confident my first day,” says Kelly McNamee, a new 7th-grade teacher from May Elementary. “I’d never seen anyone go through what should be done on the first day of school or the first week before.”

In the afternoon, teachers hop on a trolley and head south on Sacramento Street. Sites along the way include neighborhood elementary schools where many of the new teachers will be working, Manley and Collins high schools, Mt. Sinai hospital—”Where many of your students were born,” says the guide—a YMCA, the technology resource center at the new Homan Square Community Center and recent commercial developments. The tour ends in Douglas Park, where Michael Scott Jr., son of the School Board president, led a tour of the park’s recreational facilities, including an outdoor pool and 18-hole miniature golf course.

Teachers say the trip vanquished some preconceived notions. “Before the tour, I thought the West Side would be poorer than the South Side,” says Ashanti Howard, a new 2nd-grade teacher at Dvorak and a life-long South Sider. “But that’s not true.”

On the second and third days, new teachers participate in an intensive workshop in classroom management, called Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline. The program was developed by researchers at the University of Houston and is being piloted in 12 North Lawndale schools this year.

The course offers techniques for teachers to create a positive learning environment and avert discipline problems. For example, teachers were instructed to make small, hand-held signs on Popsicle sticks that say “Stop” and “Quiet, please” and hold them up for control of the classroom. Another idea was to create mail boxes for students to communicate with the teacher, and brag boxes for them to praise each other’s work. Finally, instructors suggest setting open and closed times for the pencil sharpener, a popular way for students to disrupt class.

“I used all of these techniques in my first week of school,” reports Howard. “And they work. I have very few interruptions in my class.”

The last day begins with communications coach Kenneth Robinson, who challenges new teachers to examine their own beliefs and ideas about teaching to improve their own communication with school staff, students and parents. A teacher’s own fears about his or her performance may cloud perceptions and interactions with others, he warns.

Visiting families

After wrapping up the communications session, teachers embark on a walking tour of the community and visit potential students at home.

ACORN tried to pair each teacher with a family with children from that teacher’s assigned school and grade level.

“Many of them are from the ‘burbs and have never been on the West Side,” says Sallie Pinkston, a teacher and mentor at Johnson. “Visiting the neighborhood helps them get a deeper understanding of the neighborhood and the children they will serve.”

Talbott agrees and adds, “New teachers need to know that the folks behind the door are not what they see on TV. These are not people lurking behind these doors, but people who will respond positively to them.”

McNamee, who moved to Chicago from Belleville, Ill., only two weeks before the orientation, says the home visit put her more at ease.

“When I told people I was going to teach in an inner city school, they said, ‘Why?'” says McNamee. “I didn’t know how I was going to be received by parents or how the kids would respond to me, especially because I’m a white teacher. Being able to walk around and meet a family and some of the other kids helped.”

On the first day of school, one student whom McNamee met during a home visit recognized her and gave her a hug. “That made me feel great,” she says. Even so, by mid-September, McNamee had left May for a job in sales. (See related editorial.)

Putting it together

The summer program was developed by the Steans Family Foundation, which concentrates its education grant making in North Lawndale. Steans tapped two community groups—Chicago ACORN and the North Lawndale Learning Community—to plan the program content. This year, the MacDougal Family Foundation kicked in funding for classroom management training, which was piloted in six North Lawndale schools six years ago and extended to include six more this year.

The summer institute costs $20,000, which covered the costs of a teacher coordinator, speakers and other resources. Staffers from ACORN volunteered their services as tour guides.

“This program could definitely be duplicated citywide,” says Susan Adler-Yanun, senior program officer for education at Steans. “It seems like a no-brainer. It doesn’t cost much, and the costs would not increase if we had more participants.”

Program planners concede that they did not track last year’s participants to determine whether they remained on staff at their schools. However, they plan to do so beginning this year. “We decided to assume this role this year,” says Russell. “We also want to make sure to keep up with all the teachers that attended the institute throughout the year to see if they are being supported.”

In the meantime, ACORN would like to see the program duplicated in other neighborhoods that it works with like Englewood, West Englewood and Little Village.

“We’ve raised the idea to CPS and they are very interested,” says ACORN’s Talbott.

For more information on the “Ignite the Light” program, call Cheryl Russell, executive director of the North Lawndale Learning Community,

773-722-0950.