ACT: ‘Kitchen table’ school

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ACT Spanish club

ACT Spanish club

Kierre Balark remembers what his chosen high school looked like three years ago: A dark, musty building with a few dozen students and a tiny band of young, enthusiastic teachers. And not much else.

In contrast to its lofty name, the Academy of Communications and Technology (ACT) started in a badly aging building in West Garfield Park that once was St. Mel’s Elementary School. Balark, now 17, says students and parents were recruited, along with teachers, to paint walls, pick up and install donated computers and generally make the new school presentable.

“We basically helped the teachers build this school,” he recalls. ACT was launched by Sarah Howard and Michelle Smith, two teachers who were classmates at Whitney Young Magnet High school in the early 1980s and co-founders and directors of a school-within-in-a-school at Harper High in the mid-1990s.

With ambitious plans to innovate but no institutional partner to help with even the basics of running a school, they have been building and rebuilding ACT for much of the past four years. One charter advocate calls ACT Chicago’s “kitchen table” school, for its modest beginning.

ACT is still grappling with its identity and is just beginning to solidify its academic program, which distinguishes itself by using portfolios of student work to judge learning. “I’m really glad that the entire shock part of this start-up is over,” says Howard, 32, who once considered going into politics. “We’re just getting to the point, in our fourth year, that there’s a clear continuity.”

For the first time, the school’s promotion requirements are printed and given to parents. Policies on personnel issues, like maternity leaves, are taking shape.

Even with their small-school experience and a year of charter planning, Howard says she and Smith were unprepared for the administrative minutia and recurring crises that quickly engulfed them. As operators of an independent school, they are responsible for everything from payroll systems to teacher contracts, and food service to security, all functions handled by CPS departments for other public schools.

Working inside a regular school, says Howard, “You never realize all the things that are done for you.”

ACT students say that in the first year, there was an air of confusion as teachers scrambled to get lessons set and assignments out. Academic requirements changed from one year to the next as staff tinkered with the assessment system. Bobby Knighton, 18, says he can’t recall all the changes in class schedules.

Howard acknowledges that their make-it-up-as-you-go approach took a toll on students and parents as well as staff. “We have to be much more clear about what we do,” she says.

And infrastructure remains a pressing problem. Despite recent renovations, students will continue to use an old, leased gym across the street for exercise. Many students want a basketball team, but a coach has yet to be hired.

Teacher-led school

Most ACT teachers are young and certified. At a recent staff meeting, they discussed not only such mundane business as schedules but also ways to reach particular students and how to cope with stress. They also kidded each other like college students.

Teacher Kris Sieloff, who also taught at Harper, says students have responded to ACT’s more intimate environment by exerting greater effort. About 75 to 80 percent of homework is turned in, she says, compared with a high of 30 percent at Harper.

Sieloff meets weekly with two other teachers to zero in on struggling students and brainstorm ideas.

At times, she acknowledges, the freedom to innovate feels like a burden. “It’s a teacher-led school, and sometimes I wish it wasn’t,” she says. When making a decision, she explains, teachers must think about its impact on the whole school, not just their own classrooms and students.

ACT’s unique claim is its assessment system. Modeled on a renowned New York City school, Central Park East, it requires students to show mastery of various subject areas by compiling collections of their best work, from videos to artwork to essays. Much as in graduate school, students are promoted to the next division, or grade, only after successfully defending their portfolios orally before a panel of teachers and a community member. In keeping with the school’s communications focus, students also do extensive public speaking and dramatization of texts.

Students struggle

After the first year, Howard says, it was obvious that many neighborhood students, who would have attended nearby Austin High, were unprepared for the rigors of portfolio assessment. Some thought attending ACT would be an easier way to catch up and get a diploma, she says. When they found it wasn’t, they left.Of the 80 students who enrolled as freshmen in 1997, only 20 remain. Of those, only 4 are on pace to graduate on time next June. Howard admits she is unsure what to do with students who do not complete the portfolios required to graduate.”Our kids are more like [kids at] Austin High School than we thought,” Howard says. “There’s nothing we’re facing here that’s not being faced in every other school in Chicago,” she adds. Like all charters, ACT’s enrollment is determined by a lottery among those who apply.

Like many colleagues in other public schools, Howard passionately opposes how test scores are used to judge students and schools. But she knows they form the bottom line.

“If we don’t test well, we close,” she says.

So far, ACT has not tested well. Last year, only 9.8 percent of its students scored at or above the national averages in reading on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency; only 13.4 percent did so in math.

Yet, students are warming to ACT’s closely knit community.

Juel Jones, 15, thought of attending private schools before coming to ACT. On this day, she is waiting to rehearse her part in the school’s first play, “Broken Hearts: True Tales of Sorrow,” by Oscar Wilde.

Her friends who attend other schools still don’t know what school she goes to. “It’s like [the] underground,” she says, adding, “ACT grows on you.”