Following the leader

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At 6 o’clock on a blustery Wednesday evening in March, four members of the local school council at Piccolo Specialty School wait patiently for a few stragglers. At 6:15, they get started despite the lack of a quorum. The chair calls the meeting to order and proceeds immediately to new business. The first item is a plan to start Helping Hands, a school-within-a-school that would serve up to 50 special education students.Copies of the proposal—each one brightly decorated with a student’s crayon drawing—are distributed to council members and visitors. Michael Roth, a special ed teacher, and two colleagues stand up to make their pitch.

Helping Hands will be grounded in fine arts, multiple-intelligence theory and volunteer work, Roth explains. Teachers will integrate the arts into math and reading instruction, use a variety of teaching techniques to reach students with varying strengths and employ volunteer activities to develop children’s practical skills and self-esteem. An outside organization, North Pulaski Development Center, already has expressed an interest in providing work activities for the children and grants for Helping Hands, Roth reports.

When the presentation is complete, the team fields a few questions from the council, which by then has enough members present to take an official vote. What grade levels will the school serve? First through 5th. How about mainstreaming? Helping Hands will honor a recent lawsuit settlement requiring the Chicago Public Schools to increase the amount of time special ed students spend in regular classes, Roth assures.

The council approves Helping Hands unanimously. “All right!” cheers Principal Linda Sienkiewicz. “Our sixth small school.”

Sienkiewicz has reason to celebrate. In three short years, her mission to reshape a large school—49 faculty members and 855 students in pre-K through 5th grade—into a cluster of school communities is nearly complete. A month earlier, the council approved Great Expectations, a small primary school that will keep students with the same teacher for two or more years. When Great Expectations and Helping Hands open next fall, all but three Piccolo classrooms will be part of a small school.

“This has really clicked at our school,” says Sienkiewicz, who was inspired to use small schools as a restructuring strategy after attending a workshop four years ago. “Small schools weren’t on my list of things to do when I walked in [as principal] in 1990.”

When Sienkiewicz arrived, she had two priorities: boost and then sustain student test scores, and motivate Piccolo staff, parents and students. At the time, the school was reeling from a School Board decision to split what was then a K-8 school with 1,600 students into an elementary school and a middle school and to put the former K-8 principal in charge of only 6-8. (See CATALYST, February 1990.)

Sienkiewicz tested a number of strategies to encourage teachers to collaborate and form teams. First she tried grade-level meetings. Teachers at each level would meet to plan lessons, and a representative of each level would meet regularly with Sienkiewicz and report back to the group. “It was OK, but it wasn’t hitting the mark,” she says. Next, she tried dividing the staff into management teams, each in charge of an activity, such as staff development or curriculum. That did not go very far either. “I was experimenting with ways to empower people. [But] I wasn’t seeing buy-in. I needed to feel that commitment, that ownership, that passion.”

In 1994, Sienkiewicz signed up for a day-long conference on small schools. It struck a powerful chord. “After that workshop, I came back and asked faculty if they’d ever wanted to start their own schools. This was not something I could do from the top down. I just planted the seed.”

Then she waited. “There was a lot of hope in my heart. I prayed.” Teachers Dee Smith and Ken Voorhees were the first to come forward with an idea. They proposed Connections, a K-5 school that would feature small classes, some cross-age activities and an extra hour of instruction every day.

Sienkiewicz recalls being impressed. “We were all new to this. We had a lot to work out, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they really put a lot of thought behind what they wanted to do.’ They had a plan.” She agreed to pay for an extra teacher to lower class size, and she suggested the teachers select classrooms that would create physical proximity, too. While initially uneasy about Connections proposal for a longer school day, the entire faculty voted to approve the required waiver from the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

Connections founders were then free to interview and select teachers to fill a total of six positions. They recruited 150 students from Piccolo and persuaded parents to assume responsibility for dropping children off at 8:30 a.m.—20 minutes earlier than other Piccolo children arrive—and picking them up at 3 p.m., 30 minutes later.

From the beginning, Connections students have outperformed other Piccolo students. Last school year, for example, they advanced, on average, a year and six months in reading. And the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms was about double the percent-age in the rest of Piccolo. This year, Connections has more 4th-graders than does any of its sister small schools because more of its 3rd-graders scored well enough on reading and math tests to clear the Reform Board’s promotion hurdle. “I’m the only 4th-grade teacher [at Piccolo] with a full class,” notes Voorhees.

After Connections immediate success and a Reform Board announcement that Piccolo was one of 109 schools put on probation—the rest came naturally. Two more small schools debuted in the fall of 1996: Bright Beginnings, a primary-grade school with a focus on reading, especially phonics;

and Unity-Umoja-Unidos, a dual-language program for kindergarten through 4th-graders. Generations Global, featuring a technology and a multicultural curriculum, opened last September for children in 3rd through 5th grade.

Each of Piccolo’s small schools has its own mission statement, report cards and grading system.

Christina Aguilera, who teaches in Unity-Umoja-Unidos, says Sienkiewicz “didn’t force anyone to form a small school, but the ones who didn’t felt left out.” She acknowledges that she was on the fence about joining the Unity-Umoja-Unidos team. This year, she’s the lead teacher.

While Piccolo cannot yet claim across-the-board success with its small schools, there are signs that its culture is moving in a positive direction. For one, teachers are more involved in running the school. Lead teachers from each small school assume some responsibility for policy, procedures and negotiating budget matters. “That’s where people are feeling a touch of autonomy,” says Sienkiewicz.

At a February workshop on team building hosted by Connections, the discussion is part how-to, part self-help. “When I came to Connections, I had a lot of reservations, but it was my own personal stuff,” confesses one teacher, who was new to teaching. But a veteran took her under her wing during the first year and helped ease the transition, she reports. To grow closer together, Connections teachers have held staff development retreats and sometimes get together for social activities.

Piccolo’s restructuring has not been trouble-free. At first, teachers outside Connections complained that the school had special privileges [small class size] and had taken the smartest students. “They do not have the cream of the crop,” says Sienkiewicz. “They are not the highest-achieving students. The only criteria [to get into Connections] is parents allowing the extra hour of instruction.”

The complaints subsided as other teachers started their own small schools, Sienkiewicz says. Connections’ latest challenge is obtaining permission to keep its students through 6th grade. The adjacent Piccolo Middle School agreed; in March, the Reform Board tossed the decision to the regional administrator.

Piccolo’s small-schools effort suffered another growing pain when some teachers who had teamed up, fell out. That’s what was behind the creation of Great Expectations. Initially, its teachers were part of Bright Beginnings. All had agreed on a curricular focus, but they split over classroom organization. One group wanted to keep children with the same teacher for two or more years, a practice called looping, and the other preferred the standard one-year arrangement. Great Expectation plans to loop students when it opens in the fall. “It was not a negative break,” says lead teacher Juli Wright. “It was different ideas. The ideas we had could not be pursued with Bright Beginnings.”

Wright advises teachers who are considering a school-within-a-school to make sure they have similar professional and teaching goals. “If your group is not compatible, it’s not going to work,” she says.

Piccolo also had some near misses with teacher seniority, too. In Chicago, when a school’s enrollment falls short of projections, it’s the school’s least senior teacher who loses his or her position there and must search for another job in the system. If that teacher is part of a small school, the school could wind up with a replacement who does not support that particular program. By luck, “I’ve been able to avoid that a couple of times,” Sienkiewicz says.

Sienkiewicz says she promotes cooperative rather than competitive relationships among the small schools. She encourages them to share ideas on teaching, attendance and the like. And she shares all information with everybody. For example, each small school knows how much of the Piccolo budget each of them gets. “There’s nothing that’s done in a closed room with one small school,” she says.

By sharing power, Sienkiewicz adds, she’s become a strong leader. “It’s ironic. The more you let go, the more you get back. Someone might feel you’re giving teachers power to take over. That’s not what happens. It’s a true collaboration.”