Spotlight Brings Focus

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Principal Betty Greer of Hartigan Elementary School broke the bad news at a Thursday morning faculty meeting. Most teachers were stunned. At least one teared up.

The bad news was probation. And 109 schools were getting it. Fresh into its second year in office, the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees had lowered the boom on schools where less than 15 percent of the students scored at or above the national average in reading. If these schools didn’t improve, the board could remove their principals and local school councils and even shut the schools down.

“The people of Chicago have no more patience for schools that are failing our children, and neither does the Board of Trustees,” board president Gery Chico proclaimed in a press release.

At the time, September 1996, 13 percent of Hartigan’s students were at level. A year later, the percentage had nudged up to only 13.2. Now preliminary 1998 scores put Hartigan at 19.4, just shy of the 20 percent needed to get off probation.

In Chicago and elsewhere, accountability measures such as probation are new, unproven and beginning to get the attention of researchers. Do states and districts have the resources to effectively intervene in low-performing schools? How do schools react to intervention? What motivates schools to improve? Most importantly, do probation and reconstitution improve student achieve-ment? And if so, why?

“That sounds simple, but it would be nice to get an answer to that question,” says Matt Keleman of Stanford University, one of four universities that have teamed up to study intervention in Maryland, Kentucky and San Francisco. The Consortium on Chicago School Research hopes to join the project.

In Chicago, the Reform Board gave Northwestern University a $650,000 contract to study high school restructuring, including probation partners. The board is seeking private money for a study of probation partners in elementary schools.

The Reform Board’s get-tough move played well in the press but knocked the wind out of most sanctioned schools. “We get children with so many problems,” notes Sentelle Kinard, Hartigan’s reading specialist. “We’re more than teachers. We’re social workers, truant officers, nurses. None of that seems to be taken into account.”

Schools that landed on probation do serve more disadvantaged students than most; nearly all are over 90 percent low-income.

Hartigan sits at the north end of Robert Taylor Homes. Except for school field trips, children rarely leave the housing project. Most come from homes without books, magazines or newspapers. The nearest public library lies within rival gang territory.

Even before probation, many Hartigan teachers worked late planning lessons and tutoring students for no extra pay. “How in the world can we be on probation as much as we do?” teacher Patty Mitchell recalls having thought when they got the news.

Hiding her own anxieties, Greer rallied her staff. “She praised us,” says 4th-grade teacher Joyce Fair-Lewis. “She told us [probation] wasn’t that bad and [that] we were excellent teachers and we could do this. That’s how I got through it.”

Greer also noted some needed changes. Teachers would get more staff development in reading. Planning meetings would ensure everyone understood the skills and concepts they needed to teach.

Throughout the city, staff at probation schools went through what a number of observers describe as a grieving process, starting with denial and progressing through anger, depression and acceptance. Where teachers got moral support and a sense of direction, they more readily accepted the need for change. Hartigan teachers say Greer supplied both from the outset; they say they left the announcement meeting disheartened but also determined to succeed.

“Schools were devastated,” acknowledges Philip Hansen, chief of the board’s Office of Accountability, which quickly switched from “bad cop” to “good cop.”

“We had to give that wake-up call,” Hansen says. “But simply telling people they’re not doing a good job is not going to work. Support is critical to the probation process.”

Probation schools get support from several quarters—central office, an outside partner (typically a university) and a probation manager (typically a current or retired principal).

Several weeks into probation, Greer got word that her long-time colleague Lula Ford, now at central office, would be Hartigan’s probation manager. Greer’s anxiety melted into relief. Ford had been principal of Beethoven Elementary, five blocks to the south, and she knew the neighborhood.

“They didn’t give me someone that was ‘Oh, yes, your school can do everything that a school near Evanston can do,'” says Greer. “They gave me someone who had dealt with the same kind of student population, who would be very realistic. And that was a blessing.”

Hansen says his office tried to pair principals with probation managers who had worked in similar settings. In some cases, his office looked for opposite personalities. For instance, “the dictatorial principal with the collaborative probation manager,” he says, or a “lackadaisical” principal with a manager who was more “high-powered.”

Ford worked with Greer and a team of school staff on an improvement plan with 20 or so items, including more classroom monitoring from Greer and more test preparation for students.

Ford drops by each week to check on progress. During her two-hour stay, she talks to Greer, tours the school, and steps into classrooms. “I want to see the teacher interacting with the students—using higher-order thinking skills like analyzing, synthesizing,” Ford says. Once a month, she reports back to the accountability office. Hartigan gets high marks.

In the fall of 1996, a central office team made a one-day inspection of schools on probation. At Hartigan, the team found little cause for complaint. “Potential for growth was excellent. Cooperative staff. School climate was positive, student centered. Strong leadership,” Greer recalls. The team suggested Hartigan study test data to pinpoint skills children were struggling with.

The report was “very laudatory,” agrees Barbara Radner of DePaul University, Hartigan’s outside partner. She says that while reports on the 15 other schools she was partnered with provided useful criticism, the one on Hartigan failed to identify some subtle problems with the instructional program.

The main central office contribution has been money. With probation, Hartigan has received funding for a longer school day, summer school and a subsidy for the DePaul partnership. DePaul had been working with Hartigan for several years so it used the new board money for Saturday workshops and more classroom visits.

Radner’s overriding objective is to get schools organized. “Work smarter, not harder,” she tells them. Her goal for Hartigan: a sharper focus on essential skills and concepts in every classroom.

In the summer of 1995, Radner had helped Hartigan plan a curriculum spanning kindergarten through 8th grade. Quarterly and weekly teaching schedules were posted in clear plastic folders outside classroom doors.

“And the date had better be the right date, not the one from the week before,” says 5th-grade teacher Cynthia Wolski, approvingly. “Even though you have your new one on your desk, it had better be on the door.” Once probation hit, DePaul stepped up monitoring. Before, not everyone followed the schedules. Now teachers say they’re sticking to the program.

“To put it in the vernacular, they’ve cut some of the crap out of the day,” says resource teacher David Johnson. What’s out: “Coloring maps without much reason for doing it. Cutting and pasting [unless] it’s related to a reading skill or math skill. A lot of time in supplemental textbooks like English books and spelling books.”

Teachers report using more of Radner’s reading comprehension strategies, too. Ten teachers attend monthly Saturday workshops at DePaul and then share what they learned at monthly, two-hour inservices at the school. Before probation, Hartigan scheduled only a few inservices each year.

Radner finds teachers taking her strategies more seriously these days. Before, “some people would say, ‘That’s an interesting idea.’ Or, ‘Maybe I’ll do that in April.'”

Now she tells them, “We’re on probation; we have to do things differently—that’s a must.”

Other outside partners also report that probation gave them more leverage in schools, says Northwestern University Prof. Charles Payne. “Shortly after probation, they got listened to in a way they hadn’t before.”

Hartigan teachers say they are working harder to collaborate, too. “Before, teachers were hesitant about saying what didn’t work,” says 1st-grade teacher Denise Moore. “But now they’re willing to accept constructive criticism from other people.”

Probation “put a spotlight on everybody,” Johnson says. “And when you’re being watched, you do a better job.” Other teachers agree.

On the downside, Johnson says, pressure to raise scores has led teachers to spend more time on practice tests, against his advice and Radner’s. If kids haven’t learned the skills, he points out, the test preparation materials won’t teach them.

Fatigue is another downside, teachers say. “The stepped-up intensity in the classroom wears you down,” says 2nd-grade teacher Gaylord Workman. He says some talented co-workers have left due to stress, and two more plan to leave by September.

Johnson thinks teachers’ reactions to probation depend on their personalities. “Some of us rise to challenges. Some get burned out and frustrated. We have a mixture here.”

Part of the concern is job security, says Johnson. But he adds that their fear is tempered by Chicago’s teacher shortage. “People are saying, ‘Where are you going to get the teachers from if you fire us?’ So there’s a reality check.” For the most part, probation schools will have to improve with the teachers they’ve got.

At Hartigan, teachers say they have three unmet needs: parental support, discipline techniques, and strategies to teach the lowest readers.

“DePaul is doing a lot. But we need more help,” says 3rd-grade teacher Ellen Rosenfeld.

She describes her day: “I had a little boy crawl under his desk and start crying for no apparent reason. I had a little girl start pulling her hair out for no apparent reason. I know her Dad’s in jail, but I don’t know what happened last night.”

Rosenfeld says she also needs reading instruction strategies that target disad-vantaged children. Reading difficulties are common at Hartigan, Johnson and reading specialist Sentelle Kinard agree.

“They can’t read enough difficult words to get meaning from text,” says Johnson. The school uses two phonics program and a popular reading textbook series, and recently added a recreational reading program. “But it doesn’t seem to be enough,” he says.

The board itself is concerned about the quality of outside support probation schools are getting, according to Prof. G. Alfred Hess Jr., who is overseeing Northwestern’s high school study. The board considered a higher cut-off score for probation but decided 109 schools were all it could handle, he says. “The system understands there is only so much [effective] support out there—the question whether they estimated [the amount] correctly is still unanswered,” says Hess.

Anthony Bryk, head of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago, says some board funds would be better spent on teacher training. “When you buy extended day or summer school, that’s all you get,” he says. Upgrading teachers’ knowledge and skill could ultimately impact every hour of the school day, he notes.

Meanwhile, Hartigan teachers say that signs of success—reading scores have risen steadily since 1993—keep them going.

“If you can see that you’ve been making progress—that you’re not banging your head against a wall and getting nowhere,” says Johnson, “then it shouldn’t make any difference whether Godzilla is standing outside the door breathing fire on you.”