Getting out on their own: Foundations and Nia

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Alice Brent is eager to share something new with her 1st-grade class at Foundations School. Over the weekend, she boned up on the topic of continental drift for a presentation on a homework program on cable television. “I wasn’t going to do all that research without telling you all about it,” she begins.Holding up a colorful map of the world, she settles the unruly bunch and then begins the afternoon lesson. “Plate tectonics. That’s a word we’re going to learn. What’s a plate … that you know of?”

“An eating plate,” shouts one boy, who for the moment has stopped fidgeting.

A few minutes later, a class of 8th-graders arrives to join in on the lesson. Brent continues. “What is plate tectonics? Big kids help us out because we just learned this two minutes ago,” she says, scanning the room for a volunteer. “Or little kids,” she adds when a 1st-grader’s hand shoots up.

“When parts of the earth divide?” the lad answers. An 8th-grader looks impressed, as do both classes’ teachers.

Anthony Johnson presents a regal presence in his white and gold, hand-tailored jacket and hat. He and one of his sons, a Nia Middle School 6th-grader, tell a class what it’s like to design and make clothes for a living.

In other classrooms, visitors describe their jobs and answer questions. A dancer shows students a rap music video and gives students a behind-the-scenes glimpse of show business. An aviation engineer explains his profession using aerial photographs of O’Hare and Midway airports. A criminal court judge

is temporarily stumped by one student’s question. “What’s the dumbest case I’ve heard on the bench?” he repeats.

The theme of this career day is “Black Men Working,” the first of two events to follow up a class lesson in economics. When instructed to find jobs they expected African Americans to hold, Nia students had cut out newspaper want-ads for secretaries, maintenance workers and security guards.

“Seemingly their expectations for black men were low,” says lead teacher Jacqueline Sanders. “There’s nothing wrong with being a security guard, but we were hoping they would aim higher and learn about challenging careers that black men have.”

Foundations and Nia occupy opposite ends of a West Adams Street building that used to be Cregier Vocational High School; the schools moved in two years ago. Both are teacher-led efforts. Both got their start as a school-within-a-school. Both met with resistance from their original host schools.

“Both Foundations and Nia were in situations initially where they were not going to succeed,” says Allen Bearden, director of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for a school-within-a-school to have a hard time if the whole school isn’t converting to small schools.

At the Cregier multiplex, Foundations and Nia are free to pursue their individual missions. First, there are no outside jealousies. They also have control of their own budgets, personnel and curriculum matters. Next year, they will seat their own local school councils.

Teachers from both schools say the experience has given them a chance to learn new skills. “I have grown so much,” says Nia teacher Geraldyne Saines. “I had 26 years of experience with the board, and I was burned out. This has given me new life.”

Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, a founding teacher at Foundations, echoes her. “We’ve grown as a faculty. We divide up the tasks and run our own school—real empowerment.”

Foundations, officially the city’s first small school, embraces a progressive style of teaching often seen in private schools. Teachers combine classrooms across grade levels for buddy reading groups or to share a common lesson. Students consult primary sources for research and keep portfolios of their work that they must “defend” to peers. “We wanted Francis Parker [an elite North Side private school] to be an option for kids who couldn’t afford it,” says Cherkasky-Davis.

Nia is much more traditional in its approach. Children are grouped according to ability for math and reading. The school’s mission or purpose—that’s what Nia means in Swahili—is to steep children in an Afrocentric curriculum. “In order for our children to understand who they are they have to know their history,” says Saines.

For Saines, new life as a small-school teacher began under stressful circumstances at Bethune Elementary in East Garfield Park.

In 1992, the principal encouraged Bethune faculty to participate in “teacher talks,” brainstorming and support sessions hosted by the Teachers’ Task Force, an independent reform group. After a while, most dropped out. But four teachers, including Saines, came up with an idea for a middle school-within-a-school. “We decided to focus our school on those grades when children have the most trouble.”

They wanted to teach an Afrocentric curriculum and elected to use the seven principles of Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday, as a base. Excited by the prospect of starting their own school, they invited the principal to attend the next teacher talk. “He was very supportive,” Saines recalls. “He said anything we needed to get started, he’d be willing to facilitate.”

The group met with Patricia Ford, then a Small Schools Workshop coordinator, and took classes on setting up curriculum and delegating administrative work. They applied for and received grants from the Workshop, a non-profit based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and from the Quest Center. Then they got approval from Bethune’s local school council.

But trouble started brewing when Nia began recruiting students. “We simply made up some signs and went around to classrooms and asked students, ‘How would you like to try something new?'” Saines explains. “Initially, it didn’t matter because these teachers weren’t going to have these children the next year anyway. We were too excited to see the [possible] conflicts and problems.”

As opposition to the plan grew, a Bethune teacher from outside the group suggested Nia be scrapped because it was destined to fail. “It was sobering,” says Saines. “I realized then there were many people who felt that way but wouldn’t say so.”

In the first year, when Saines was lead teacher, Nia tried to build a school in what amounted to hostile territory. “We were constantly defending what we were trying to do,” Saines recalls. By the second year, Nia was no longer allowed to recruit students; instead new students came to the school at the discretion of the principal. Common planning time was disrupted by schedule changes. Bethune colleagues openly shunned the group. Nia’s teachers were disheartened.

“I knew our program would not survive another year,” she says. “The pressures were tremendous.” Then Saines saw a newspaper story about the Reform Board’s plans to solicit proposals for small schools. Saines put the issue up for a vote. “The consensus was, if we stay here, Nia will be no more.”

Nia even ruffled feathers on the way out because 90 of its 100 students went with it to the Cregier multiplex.

Since their move, Nia teachers have found it easier to work as a team, says lead teacher Jacqueline Sanders. “We don’t always agree, but we present a united front to everyone else—especially students. Our kids feel this is a family-type situation.”

Foundations’ roots are in Dumas Elementary School, where, in the late 1980s, a group of progressive teachers formed their own after-school support group, also called teacher talk. Sylvia Peters, then the school’s principal, had recruited some of these teachers and promoted their instructional efforts. Much of the Dumas faculty, however, preferred traditional methods. When Peters left the school in the spring of 1992, a veteran teacher from that group took her place.

Dumas’s progressive contingent decided it was time to start its own school, but got nowhere fast. The teachers sent a proposal to the School Board, but got no response. “They didn’t actually laugh at us,” says Cherkasky-Davis. “They did read it, but at the time, there was no such thing.”

Plus, then-Supt. Ted Kimbrough was in the process of closing schools. Even so, he finally agreed to support Cherkasky-Davis and her colleagues—on the condition they find a host school. By then, the Dumas group had support from parents, the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. “Now there was a critical mass,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with us.”

In the end, parties reached a compromise. To guard against his school being closed, the principal of Price Elementary offered up his school’s vacant third floor. In the fall of 1992, Foundations moved in. The school operated at Price for two years, outgrew the space and moved into a vacant wing at Phillips High School for the next two years.

When the multiplex became available, Foundations applied. “We did not necessarily want to leave Phillips,” Cherkasky-Davis says. “We wanted to be in a location with other schools with like philosophy.” The multiplex also is home to Best Practice High School, another small school that uses progressive teaching practices.

Foundations’ early years were rocky in more ways than one. Teachers came and went—only 3 of the original 10 remain—and test scores remained low. Though emphasis on standard-ized tests goes against the grain of their progressive philosophy, Foundations has posted gains. Last spring, 25 percent of Foundations’ students met or exceeded national reading norms, up from 17 percent in 1996. The percent-age of students at or above national norms in math rose from 10 percent to 19 percent.

Says Cherkasky-Davis: “We were forced to speed up our learning curve—if we didn’t, our existence was at stake.”

In fact, multiplex principal Sylvia Gibson issued a challenge to the school when it arrived. “I told them flat out. ‘You are one of the oldest small schools in the system. If you go under, so goes the small-schools movement in Chicago public schools.’ They had to bring the test scores up. They had no choice.”