DuSable’s 8-year journey toward small schools

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Eight years ago, Charles E. Mingo made a crucial career move. Leaving prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School, where he was assistant principal and then district administrator, he became principal of DuSable High School, one of the nation’s worst schools.

Roughly 80 percent of DuSable’s students resided in the Robert Taylor Homes, located in one of the nation’s three most poverty-stricken communities. Many were and still are poorly prepared, poorly motivated and poorly informed about the potential of education to empower them. Over the years, no more than 65 percent have attended school regularly.

Clearly, the veteran, politically astute administrator was challenged to salvage the seemingly unsalvagable by raising academic achievement while reducing truancy and dropout rates. Eventually, he would reinvent DuSable by sub-dividing it into smaller schools. But first he had to complete several housekeeping preliminaries.

Early on, the principal bought alarm clocks for some students, sent emissaries knocking on doors to rouse others, even visited homes himself. “He’s in the bed,” one mother told him.

“Well, you get him to come,” the principal pleaded.

“I’m tired!” the mother responded.

DuSable finally installed a telecommunications system to transmit wake-up calls. But even that didn’t bring dramatic results.

Mingo also resumed in-school suspensions, which had been abandoned five years earlier. Instead of sending offenders home for three days and risking their staying out six, Mingo had them study in a room isolated from fellow students.

At the same time, however, the principal expelled students who had been enrolled six years. “I wasn’t going to have 22-year-oldsters sitting next to 13-year-old girls,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, the principal sought togetherness for a faculty he felt was heavy on prima donnas pursuing their own agendas. For five years under the federally funded Project CANAL (Creating a New Approach to Learning), DuSable trained about 80 teachers in consensus building and various learning and teaching strategies. “They learned human relations skills to improve how they talked to parents and how they listened to and really heard students,” Mingo reports. “CANAL brought us experts, opened up some closed minds and gave us funds to send people around the country to observe successful teacher models.”

Nevertheless, the principal had to contend with teachers who had not issued books, fearing students would lose them. Finding stacks of out-of-date, unissued new books, Mingo scrapped the practice and decreed, “One child, one book!”

Similarly, he confronted teachers who had kept students from using classroom computers. “Where are the computers?” Mingo asked one teacher.

“They’re locked up,” she replied.

“Why?”

“I don’t want kids to steal them.”

The principal found 10 new computers that had become obsolete while locked up.

Before his arrival, DuSable teachers also had locked out tardy students, ending up with only three or four students in their classrooms, while hordes crowded the halls. To restore order, Mingo ordered teachers to admit students—tardy or not.

In searching the nation for instructional programs that might work at DuSable, Mingo decided that no one program, by itself, could solve the school’s instructional problems. So DuSable adopted bits and pieces of many programs, including Accelerated Learning, direct instruction, Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics and the programs of the Chicago Cluster Initiative and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. In 1993, it merged these elements with the nine principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national program stressing critical thinking and student responsibility for learning.

‘Christmas tree’ school?

To some critics, DuSable had become a “Christmas tree” school with lots of ornaments but little focus.

“You have to tailor your program for the kids you have,” Mingo explains. “We have kids who go to jail and come back, get pregnant, fail classes and are harassed by gangs. We have to put together a program flexible enough to meet the individual needs of all students. So if the Christmas tree works, you use it. Christmas trees are beautiful.”

Staffers received a year of Essential Schools training, aimed at helping them help students use their minds well and master a limited number of essential skills rather than simply cover the textbook. The principal had sought to wean teachers from merely following textbooks sequentially. “That’s one of the reasons we installed Internet here,” he explains, “so teachers could have access to a vast array of information.”

Students can learn from each other, the principal continues, alluding to cooperative learning; in his words “teachers do not have to be know-it-alls.” Instead, they are to guide learning by stressing mutual instruction, by moving around their rooms to help individual students (rather than lecturing to the whole class) and by recognizing that student groupings are no stronger than their weakest members.

Because the Coalition stresses “authentic assessment,” DuSable has moved beyond multiple-choice tests to include recitation, essay writing and diorama construction as ways to determine whether students understand concepts.

In line with the Coalition’s push for low pupil-to-teacher ratios, the school doubled the length of class periods and reduced to 80 the number of students whom any given teacher teaches each day.

Visits to small schools in New York City convinced Mingo that, ultimately, the way to increase DuSable’s academic achievement was to have schools so small that even one absentee would be “missed at the lunch table.” In short, in small schools students could not slide anonymously through high school.

“Adolescents need opportunities to be in environments where caring adults know them well as learners and how they proceed intellectually,” explains William Ayers, a DuSable advisor and education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you’re dealing with thousands of kids, all you can do is march them through the cafeteria, break up hall fights, etc. An English teacher with five sections of 30 kids deals with 150 a day. He or she can’t give them much.”

Ayers also notes the difficulty of 150-plus DuSable staffers having meaningful meetings themselves. “But if 10 teachers pull up two tables,” he suggests, “they can actually talk about Hector or Louie or Mary or Sam and what they need in terms of learning.”

Two years ago, DuSable subdivided into 11 “houses,” each with about eight staffers and 100 to 125 students.

“The 60 to 90 juniors in my House B English class all had the same science and social science teachers,” recalls Keith Harrison. “Because most had several classes together, they got to know each other and identified with their house. Smaller groupings gave teachers more one-on-one time with students.”

Nevertheless, some DuSable teachers either opposed or were indifferent to houses. About 70 percent of the faculty had taught at DuSable 20 or more years, Mingo explains. Unschooled in alternative approaches, they believed their methods were adequate. However, one teacher, who received an unsatisfactory rating from the principal, admitted, “Mr. Mingo, I’m an old dog. I can’t be trained to do anything else.”

Further, for years teachers had seen many promising instructional innovations go down the drain, leaving some with a “show me” attitude, according to DuSable’s ever-busy resources director, Odis Richardson.

Impatient, Mingo angered some teachers by encouraging them to retire; since his arrival, his staff has turned over 70 percent.

At the same time, he fashioned a staff development program to introduce those who stayed not only to newer instructional practices but also to the latest innovations in information technology.

DuSable’s reinvention continued when Ayers, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop, accepted Mingo’s 1994 invitation to organize a workshop around the small schools motif. For 13 weeks, 35 faculty members learned how to develop curricula and how to control budgeting and daily scheduling. While they voluntarily accepted their training after school without pay, teachers received “lane” credits leading to salary increases. Also, they were aware they would be running their own small schools within a year, Mingo explains.

Unlike houses, which had stressed general education, each small school would have a central academic theme, a facilitator, and a permanent set of teachers for core subjects—English, math/science, social studies (U.S., world and African-American history), art, music and gym.

The principal’s visits to successful small schools outside Chicago had convinced him that to achieve significant, lasting change, teachers had to be central to the process; he could not simply dictate to them. Thus, they—not Mingo—selected the faculty teams, which planned four-year curricula around the interests and concerns of students, parents, community and the State of Illinois.

In September, 11 small schools made their debut: Performing Arts and Humanities; Culinary Arts; Business Technology; Transitions: Math, Science and Technology; Journalism and Communications; Medical Technology Preparation; Government, Law and Economics; Health, Athletics and Technology; Institute for the Study of Individual Skills; and General Studies.

A handful of houses remained, but by the second quarter, they too were gone. Student failure rates were so high that Mingo abolished the houses, letting students pick a small school and reassigning their teachers.

In each small school, teachers coordinate their lessons so that children see how the various academic disciplines work together. “For example, students have to build projects in woodshop,” explains English teacher Robin Mitchell. “They may have to present them to a group of judges. In my English class, I show them how to prepare speeches, how to present them, how to organize their thoughts properly, how to do the library research and practice their speeches as part of their credit for English.”

More than academics

The 120 students enrolled in the Journalism School learn communication skills by writing for DuSable’s popular student newspaper, Panther Press, which Columbia College ranked last year as No. 1 among 80 Chicago-area high school newspapers. Teacher Keith Harrison stresses that the Journalism School isn’t just for would-be reporters and editors. “No matter what your job is, you’re going to have to know how to communicate effectively,” he notes.

Communications effectiveness is also stressed at the School of Business and Technology, which aids student job hunts. “Our kids have to learn how to communicate, how to dress, how to interview well,” reports facilitator Norma Smith. “I tell them, you can’t job hunt with a ring in your nose, grease dripping out of your hair and baggy, hip-hop pants falling off your behind.”

Smith recalls two students seeking employment at a fast-food restaurant. Arriving, they buy hamburgers, stuff them in their pockets, and then walk into their interviews smelling like hamburgers. Predictably, they are not hired.

“You just have to teach students basic skills, things that you assume most people know not to do,” Smith says. “So many of them have never worked and have no sense of a time schedule. Many of their parents don’t work, so the kids never learn that they must get to a job on time.”

Anna West agrees. “I have to be at school on time,” says the Med-Tech facilitator. “This is not a vacation space. Some kids think Mondays and Fridays are not school days. They don’t come before or after weekends. That pattern has to be changed.”

Similarly, Eugene Stampley, co-facilitator of the School of Math, Science and Technology also is a tough task master. For example, he forbids students to talk without permission, or talk during a lesson, or leave their seats without permission. He neither accepts late assignments nor assigns makeup work to students who have been absent but have no explanatory note from their parents.

Stampley admits that he has been so busy preparing his students for college that he sometimes forgets they are just children and that growth does not occur overnight. “There’s so much more to teaching than just the subject matter,” he says. “These are human beings with feelings.”

Stampley is trying to relax his own rigid teaching style because he believes it has hindered student spontaneity.

Indeed, Mingo reports small schools have brought about a greater bonding between students and teachers since September. “It’s now dawning on some of the teachers that they’re going to have their kids the next two or three years,” he explains. “Some of them are warning students, ‘You’re going to learn this. You’re not going to let it be said that I didn’t teach you.'”

But DuSable’s biggest challenge is still low attendance, Mingo reports. “I’m doing everything I can to keep the kids in school,” he says. “But when I have children who are overage, not coming to school, not passing, just listed on the books, I have to do something to get their attention.”

So, Mingo suspended more than 300 failing students at mid-term and then invited them to return in January to start anew. Many will not return, he predicts, but those who do might be better students. Meanwhile, he clamors for changes in the way standardized test scores are reported to incorporate crucial attendance data.

“When we report the TAP test score for each kid, let’s also report his attendance percentage and who his teacher was, Mingo urges. “When he takes the IGAP, let’s do the same thing. You will find that the kids who are in school 70 percent of the time or more perform the same way that kids do nationally. When you drop under that 70 percent, you began to get poor performance.”