Applications up at teacher-run school

Print More

Two and a half years ago, a small group of teachers and university professors opened Best Practice High School, hoping to spark a Midwestern version of New York City’s small school movement. Looking back, Steve Zemelman, an education professor at National-Louis University, compares it to “having a baby,” that is, no easy task.

Though most parents show off their offspring from the get-go, the founders of Best Practice protectively kept quiet. But now, like a typical 2-year-old, the school is beginning to speak for itself. More than 200 eighth-graders have applied for half as many seats in next year’s freshman class.

In addition to Zemelman, the founders include two National-Louis colleagues, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Marilyn Bizar, and two teachers from Farragut High, Tom and Kathy Daniels. “Some of us have been friends for 22, 23 years,” notes Smokey Daniels, who is not related to the other Daniels. For Tom and Kathy, the bond is stronger than friendship; they are married.

The fivesome had worked together for years through the Illinois Writing Project and National-Louis’s Center for City Schools, both instructing teachers one-on-one and helping schools implement larger-scale reforms. The crown jewel of these efforts was the Best Practice Network, a group of Chicago elementary schools where teachers were learning “best practice” instructional methods, as outlined in a book of the same title by professors Zemelman, Daniels and Arthur Hyde.

Seeing results, the elementary schools began to worry about sending their graduates to Chicago’s troubled high schools. Zemelman voices the consensus of the five: “We could make a new one and do better than trying to change the old ones that don’t want to change.”

In 1993, the five were discussing new projects for the Center for City Schools, Kathy Daniels recalls, and her husband suggested starting a high school. By the end of the afternoon, the professors had committed to write a planning grant. “It all happened very quickly,” she says.

The quest for a building soon slowed the jackrabbit start, but the effort revved up again after Mayor Daley installed his school leadership team. In the fall of 1995, the School Reform Board issued a request for proposals to start small schools, and gave the winners $10,000 to plan plus money for furniture, books and space renovation.

Best Practice hit the jackpot by being accepted to board-rehabbed Cregier Vocational High School on the West Side. The school was reopened as a “multiplex” containing Best Practice and two small elementary schools that had been operating as schools-within-a-school.

The board then formed a committee to select a principal; it included Olivia Watkins, then chief of professional development for the school system, and members of such school reform groups as Leadership for Quality Education and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. With the three schools lending advice, the committee chose Sylvia Gibson, formerly disciplinarian at Reilly Elementary on the Northwest Side.

Though Best Practice is meant to be small, its founders’ goals are large: to offer Chicago’s high schools a model for change, and to give secondary teachers the chance to watch a school full of innovative colleagues in action. In many respects, it models the School Reform Board’s plan to redesign high schools, with embellishments borrowed from New York’s famed Central Park East Secondary School. Distinguishing features of Best Practice include:

ADVISORY Students meet with their advisors daily for 30 minutes. No advisor has more than 20 students.

BLOCK SCHEDULING Two days a week, the school follows a blocked schedule with 100-minute periods in the morning and afternoon. In addition, teachers can decide by grade level to change the weekly schedule from blocked to unblocked to meet special needs, like testing.

INTERNSHIPS Wednesdays, students are scattered around the city for a half day, working in schools, museums, hospitals or other businesses. They report to on-site supervisors who send evaluations to internship coordinator Shelley Freeman. She reads students’ “reflection” journals and issues grades; though internships currently don’t carry credit, they do fulfill the board’s service learning requirement.

STUDENT CHOICE During the other half of Wednesday, students select a “choice” class from a menu of options created by teachers. They range from art to street law to ACT preparation.

TEACHER COLLABORATION Each teacher teaches only one grade level of students, and teachers meet weekly by level during internship time to discuss their students’ progress and to plan interdisciplinary projects.

Finding good teachers who share the school’s progressive vision was and still is the school’s No. 1 priority. Candidates routinely interview with the entire faculty and a committee that includes students. Math teacher Vanessa Brechling, who signed on last spring, says two Best Practice teachers made the trek to her former school in Elgin to see her in action before making an offer.

The school is less finicky when picking students; it does not consider test scores, and it reserves 10 percent of its seats for students with disabilities.

Seventy-five percent of the seats are reserved for students from the 14 elementary schools that comprise the Best Practice Network: Brown, Dett, Disney Magnet, Field, Herbert, Irving, Jenner, Orozco, Ruiz, Suder, Stockton, Telpochcalli, Waters and Whittier.

“We started this school to prove that you could have value added with regular kids,” says Smokey Daniels.

Test scores indicate “regular kids” is what they got. As eighth-graders, current freshmen almost exactly hit last year’s citywide median ITBS grade equivalents: 8.1 in reading and 8.2 in math.

But Daniels acknowledges an application that includes an essay draws students who are “a little higher on the gumption scale—nothing wrong with that. That’s a form of self-selection we’re happy to be part of.”

According to Kathy Daniels, prior to this January the number of applicants roughly equaled the number of openings, so very few students were turned away. Best Practice started with freshmen only and added a grade each year, bringing current enrollment to 371. Strapped for space, it expects to top out next year with about 450 students.

While the school’s enrollment may not be entirely “regular,” statistics hint that something valuable is happening. Last year, Best Practice boasted an attendance rate of over 92 percent, well above the 85 percent average of high schools citywide. The official annual dropout rate was 10 percent, compared to a citywide average of 15 percent. The school disputes that figure, saying some students counted in it transferred. Last year’s TAP scores, which included only freshmen, placed the school 22nd in the city in reading and 14th in math—out of 77 high schools.

Consensus rules

Best Practice also is distinguished by how decisions are made: through a complex but informal structure of faculty committees. Everyone keeps up to date through weekly meetings, where the 25 teachers and two non-teaching staff have their say and reach consensus. Co-lead teachers Tom and Kathy Daniels act as the nerve center of the school’s communication network and report information back to central office. Principal Gibson handles building-wide issues, teacher ratings and troubleshooting as needed within each small school.

Best Practice and other small schools have had unusual freedom to experiment with school governance. In 1996, Jeanne Nowaczewski of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest lobbied successfully to add small schools to the list of schools, such as those for pregnant teens, that can have nonstandard local school councils. The rationale was to give external partners like National-Louis a formal role in governance. Under state law, these schools can operate without an LSC.

After two years of internal debate over whether to start with an elected or appointed LSC, Best Practice now has a board-appointed council with teachers, parents, a student and outside partners Zemelman and Nowaczewski. The school is considering switching to an elected LSC in 2000.

But the governing structures are much like the stage crew in a play—essential but almost invisible. What takes center stage at Best Practice is instruction.

With project-based learning, “It’s not always a test, a test, a test—read the questions at the end of the chapter,” says Sonja Kosanovic, a special education teacher who left Ruiz Elementary to join the school’s founding faculty. “I think the way teachers teach here is ideal for LD kids.”

From the start, Best Practice has been committed to including special education students in regular classes. Kosanovic and colleague Michelle Dulak normally work in regular classes that include six to eight special education students. “They’re not just helping the special ed kids—it’s like having a co-teacher,” marvels chemistry teacher Douglas Spalding.

During the first year, Kosanovic realized her students would need more support than she could provide in regular classrooms. Since then, she has successfully badgered them into attending supplemental after-school classes three times a week.

Although it’s tough to create a school from scratch, especially one with multiple innovations, Best Practice was blessed with a major commitment from National-Louis University. “Our dean ponied up one full-time position at the school, for one of us to be there every single day,” notes Smokey Daniels. “That’s a lot different than an external partner,” he adds, referring to the help offered schools on probation. “That’s a real partnership. The relationship is much more close, much more collegial.”

And like parenting, it takes more work than you first expect. “This is the hardest thing we ever even thought of doing,” says Daniels. “It’s easy to drive by and do a workshop. But to be in this thing for the long haul … it’s really hard.”

Like a preschooler playing with blocks, Best Practice displays budding intellectual vitality. For example, many freshmen say that physics, the first science course they get here, is their favorite subject. Kids play chess with School Patrol officers over lunch. On the teacher in-service day that ended the first semester, a steady stream of students brought in work in a last-ditch effort to pull up their grades.

Proud papa Daniels especially relishes a colleague’s compliment. “Sitting around with a bunch of other school reformer types, licking our wounds,” he recalls, one made reference to Best Practice: “You know, a lot of what we do, it’s just dabbling. But that school, that’s not dabbling.”

JAN 7 Snowed in?

Chicago is still digging out from last Saturday’s record snowfall and shuddering through a bitter cold snap. Only about half of Best Practice’s some 300 students will make it to school today.

Before classes start, lead teacher Kathy Daniels hustles between the third floor main office and the second floor teachers’ workroom. At one point, she plans lunchroom duty with two substitute teachers. At another, she offers a quick tip to English teacher Jenny Cornbleet on teaching Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The document is required reading for all CPS freshman and will appear on the new Chicago Academic Standards Exams, which are still at the pilot stage.

When Daniels tells music teacher Phyllis Curtwright that next week’s schedule will be altered for the CASE exams, the teacher reacts with unusual equanimity. “Do I have to come next week?” she jokes, immediately adding, “OK, I’ll regroup.” In her next breath, she’s rewriting the week’s lesson plans.

This is the first year that Best Practice has had a lead teacher who does not teach classes. Daniels had planned to teach two English classes, but art teacher Aiko Boyce argued successfully that the school had grown large enough to require someone who could work full time on school business. This year, Daniels’s position is funded through the Office of High School Reorganization, which is supporting one teacher in each high school to oversee progress on the board’s plan to redesign its high schools.

Although classes today are small—none Catalyst observed topped 12—students work hard.

Best Practice has reversed the order of science courses, teaching physics to freshmen and biology to juniors. That means that its juniors will participate in the upcoming CASE exams, which will cover the first-semester courses taken by the typical CPS freshman and typical sophomore.

After school, the “junior team,” which comprises the five teachers who together teach all junior-level courses, meet in biology teacher Melissa Bryant’s classroom to divvy up grading responsibilities for the upcoming science fair projects. Science fair was the focal point of interdisciplinary teaching for the second quarter; all students had to produce an entry for judging.

During the meeting, the group of five unanimously sounds off against central office’s decision to excuse all absent students this week; high school students, they observe, will take advantage of any opportunity to ditch school. “They’re going to movies,” says Bryant. She adds that several Spanish-speaking students openly made plans to attend a matinee tomorrow—not knowing that Bryant understands Spanish.

JAN 14 Breadth vs. depth.

A week later, everyone is back in school, and CASE is winding down. During lunch, two students settle into algebra teacher Tom McDougal’s room to make up the multiple-choice section of the CASE exam. Calculators are permitted. “If you get to something you’ve never seen before,” McDougal advises, “just take a guess and move on.” He knows they will because he opted to spend more time on selected topics at the expense of covering everything in the board’s syllabus.

McDougal trained at the University of Chicago under Zalman Usiskin, who was a prime force in developing the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ national standards. From that perspective, McDougal gives the CASE mixed reviews. “There are parts of the test that are meaningful, and there are parts that are just traditional symbol manipulation,” he observes.

The biggest problem with the CASE in algebra, he argues, is that it sacrifices depth for breadth. “I try to give kids experiences that make math meaningful,” he says. “But there’s an awful lot of math on the CASE that you would have to work really hard to make meaningful. To do it right, so that there’s actually some meaning, takes a lot of time. That means you can’t do as many topics. I did a fraction of the topics in the CASE, but I did them in more depth.”

This year, teachers are permitted to use their own discretion in counting the exam toward students’ grades. Though Best Practice students don’t know it yet, McDougal intends to use that freedom to the hilt. “There were a couple of questions in the constructed response that I think were worth [students’] giving it a shot,” he says. But overall, he adds, “I wouldn’t count it for any more than a homework assignment.”

McDougal also recently received the board’s new daily lesson plans. He shows a reporter the blue binder containing 370 pages for geometry alone. “They want to raise the level of mediocrity,” he says of the board’s effort. “What I’m worried about is the cost at the higher end.”

He fears good teachers will “end up so painted into a corner” that they won’t be able to teach in ways they themselves have found effective. “There’s no space in the curriculum to teach how to work in cooperative groups,” he notes. “It’s assumed from day one of geometry” that students know how to do that, an assumption he finds unrealistic.

JAN 19 Science Fair required.

This morning, all students report to the gym and the auditorium to set up their science fair displays. Topics range from aerospace to zoology, with the most projects in behavioral science and physics. Eventually, three Best Practice students will make the school and regional cuts to compete citywide on March 19.

Students are supposed to make oral presentations and display their work to three judges. Although the school has recruited 25 judges, including parents and staffers from National-Louis University, foundations and other organizations, there aren’t enough to keep things moving. Teachers are trying to fill the gap, but many students are forced to bide their time.

“We’re bored, we’re frustrated,” says Luisa Roman, a junior who transferred here from Lane Tech after her freshman year. She welcomes the chance to compare her experiences at the two schools.

Luisa finds the academics at Best Practice as challenging as those at Lane, and she likes the internship program. But she sometimes misses the independence that students have in a larger school—Lane enrolls 4,217 students. “I’m happy here, I like it, but it wasn’t what I expected,” she says. “The teachers are pretty cool, [but] they’re too grammar-school like. They’re with you every step of the way instead of letting you do it. At Lane, you’re on your own.”

“It’s a good thing,” she concludes, “but we’re not getting a taste of what it’s like out there.”

Smokey Daniels of National-Louis University wanders over to judge Luisa’s project on reforestation, greeting her by name. She explains the process of reforesting Central American rainforests, pointing to pictures of slash-and-burn agriculture and replanting. After she gives her spiel, Daniels wants to know her opinion of using reforested areas for commercial forestry or other industries. “Are you against that, or is it OK if they replant?” he asks.

“It’s OK to an extent,” she replies. “But when they just buy land, use it and then abandon it when it’s no good, then that’s no good. As long as it’s managed, it’s OK.”

JAN 20 Choice and no choice.

Physics teacher Arthur Griffin’s classroom looks like a rough-hewn version of “Mr. Wizard,” the public television show about science. Today he has set up four lab stations. They involve a pendulum, a set of colliding balls, a miniature air hockey table and and a sliding track that allow students to create and observe collisions in one and two dimensions.

Lab packets in hand, students circulate among the stations, following written instructions and answering questions. When they finish a lab, they report to Griffin, who asks questions to check their understanding before signing off on their work.

Griffin fields a constant stream of questions from students, who trail him around the room with the eagerness of fans chasing a movie star. One girl, frustrated by waiting, shrieks: “Mi-ster Grif-fin!”

“Hold on, sweetheart,” he replies, unfazed. “I need to make a copy.” Remarkably, students, including the shrieker, seem to concentrate still harder after he leaves the room. The noise level subsides, and they ask each other questions and work together on problems.

Griffin’s class demonstrates a key tenet underlying Best Practice: Students learn more from hands-on projects and one-on-one interaction between teacher and student than they do from lectures and textbook problems.

It’s also an example of students having a say about what they study. This particular class is part of the school’s Wednesday “choice” program, which allows students to select from a teacher-generated menu of 100-minute classes. The menu typically changes from week to week because choice classes meet for a varying number of sessions. With the end of the semester looming, today’s choices lean heavily toward catching up in academic subjects. But in other weeks, choice classes may include more touchy-feely activities like single-sex forums on teen issues, facilitated by teachers.

Juniors take their choice classes in the morning and do their internships in the afternoon. Freshmen and sophomores follow the reverse order. While students are off campus, teachers catch up on paperwork and lesson planning, as well as meet by grade level. Today, grading takes priority.

Following almost 30 years of teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, Jim Edminster is putting in what may be his last day. Last week, the School Reform Board sent him a letter stating his employment would be terminated effective tomorrow. Edminister is one of 138 laid-off teachers, including 40 who lost jobs through reconstitution, who are suing the board to win them back.

He takes a break from grading to tell his story. He had been teaching English at Collins High for 12 years when the Reform Board established minimum test scores for admission to high school. “We had been asking for a hundred years, do not send us kids who read at a 3rd-grade level,” he recalls approvingly. For him personally, though, the policy boomeranged. “All of a sudden, our freshmen enrollment was halved.”

In August 1997, Collins cut Edminster’s position, and he entered the substitute teacher pool at his regular pay. Under a 1993 board agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, he would have had 20 months to win another permanent assignment inside the system. But his dismissal from Collins coincided with reconstitution at seven other schools. In the wake of the shakeup, the board unilaterally changed the grace period to 10 months, subsequently approving two extensions.

Edminster says that when he was cut from Collins, “I was told they didn’t have to” abide by seniority, as provided in the CTU contract. Edminster, who is white, started a civil rights investigation through the Illinois Department of Human Rights and declines further public comment because proceedings continue.

“One of the problems I have seen in job hunting,” he says, “is that reassigned and reconstituted teachers were given the same kind of ID.” He believes that principals, as a result, automatically assume, “Oh, you’re incompetent, forget it.”

Further, Edminster’s specialty, English, also tends to be in oversupply.

Schools have been happy to have him as a sub, though. “I would bring stuff with me” to occupy students, he recalls, “or whip up a lesson plan. They would say, ‘Oh, you’re not crazy.'”

Juarez High kept him for most of last year. This year, he has divided his time between Marshall High and Best Practice, teaching health and physical education here since December. Students Catalyst spoke with all praised Edminster as a gym teacher.

Edminster takes a moment to ponder his immediate future. “I could be a regular sub, but it would cut my income by two-thirds. I might as well go on unemployment,” as he has been advised to do by the Chicago Teachers Union. But he’s happy at Best Practice. “These are the most fun kids I’ve ever seen,” he raves.

JAN 22 Teacher’s last day?

Today’s teacher inservice day starts with a meeting in the computer lab. Tom Daniels distributes copies of a letter to principals from Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney. In it, she outlines 10 steps the administration is taking to help schools make up for time lost during the week disrupted by bad weather—especially “to support student preparation for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency.”

Prime among them is money to allow elementary schools to conduct the after-school Lighthouse Program four days a week instead of just three; two are to be devoted to “full academics.”

The letter also offers a list from which schools may choose options to boost academic time.

The only across-the-board “request” is that schools spend the week before testing solely on academics: no shortened days, “non-instructional” activities or professional development. Central office pledges not to hold regional or citywide meetings during those weeks.

Teachers review the options, which include a month-long moratorium on field trips, eliminating special activities that would affect the school schedule, and increasing class time spent on math and reading. “Cancel school restructured day? Huh?” asks McDougal.

Generally, Best Practice dismisses students early every other Friday afternoon and uses the time for staff development. Teachers assume this time is what is meant by “restructured day”; they refuse to give it up.

Later in the meeting, Kathy Daniels pushes teachers to start rewriting the school improvement plan. “The LSC is very agreeable to going along with what we suggest,” she tells her colleagues. “We should seize the day and do it before that changes. We have to do it in time… “

“…so there can be a real dialogue,” says teacher LSC representative Kate Lang. She tells the group the LSC will need to see a draft at its March meeting.

Kathy Daniels offers a tip from Principal Sylvia Gibson. “One thing Sylvia said was not to put a whole lot of ‘we need, we need, we need.’ It makes us look like we don’t have our act together.”

“Don’t be too honest?” asks math teacher Vanessa Brechling, drawing laughter.

“No, but don’t be compelled to include anything and everything,” Daniels replies.

As the meeting wraps up, the staff take a few minutes to note internal comings and goings. School assistant Gwen Downing was absent for a few weeks following a car accident and is still using a cane.”I’d just like to welcome Gwen back,” says Brechling, sparking applause.

“I’ll have your checks in a few minutes,” Downing says gruffly.

Brechling ignores Downing’s effort to deflect recognition and says: “It wasn’t the same without you. We really missed you a lot, Gwen, and it’s really nice to have you back.”

Brechling also takes note of Edminster. “This may be his last day,” she says. “We will certainly miss you.” After farewell applause, she adds, “Sylvia’s trying to get him on as a cadre [substitute].”

The meeting adjourns an hour and a half after it started.

Although it’s quieter than usual today, Principal Gibson’s work is never done. This morning, she put in a brief appearance at the Best Practice faculty meeting and then met with staff at Foundations, one of two small elementary schools that share the Cregier Multiplex with Best Practice. After bidding farewell to a fellow principal who stopped in to go over homework for a technology, she ushers a reporter into her office.

Although Gibson formerly was the disciplinarian at Reilly Elementary, a large Northwest Side school, she finds small, teacher-led schools a good fit for her collaborative style. She’s not interested in being a principal who makes decisions by fiat. “I’ve never been like that,” she remarks. “That’s not where I come from.”

As she talks about Best Practice students, it’s apparent that she thrives on giving students the kind of personal attention that’s possible only in a smaller setting.

She notes, for example, that junior Edgar Arellano “came up to me last week and said, ‘I have my application for [the University of] Iowa.’ As a freshman, he said, ‘I’m going into the service.’ Edgar wasn’t that aggressive. You saw Edgar with a little girl every day. I started teasing him.”

She encouraged him to take his studies more seriously and arranged for a minority recruiter at Iowa to visit Best Practice.

She says that although it’s a challenge to mesh the schools’ progressive approaches with citywide mandates, she’s not overly worried about pressure from outside. “If you show that you’re succeeding, that’s not when they come down on you,” she observes.

“The only thing that rocked the teachers a little would be the CASE exams,” she says. As a teacher, she adds, “you kinda get your back up” when told you must follow a set curriculum. But she thinks it’s possible to do what the board asks and still accomplish internal goals. For example, if the board assigns particular books, “So they read that, and they read additional things you want them to read.”

After the interview, Gibson takes a reporter on a tour of Cregier’s cafeteria and kitchen, which she wants to see improved. For lack of a dishwasher, three women form a washing line in front of three industrial-size sinks. “When I first came here, the walk-in freezers were wooden,” she says. “They finally converted our last one this summer.” She’s convinced the somewhat rusty stove also was converted from wood.

Gibson, students and teachers agree that the food service run by the Aramark company is a big problem. Gibson had to forbid Best Practice students from ordering out, but she sympathizes with their plight. “I hope Aramark is on its way out,” she says. According to Gibson, central office’s process for putting new contracts up for bid has dragged on for months.

Later this afternoon, science teachers Bryant, Griffin and Douglas Spalding meet over root beer and sandwiches in Griffin’s physics lab to brainstorm ideas for elective, senior-level science courses for next year. Each suggests a course tailored to his or her own strengths: Bryant for anatomy and physiology, Griffin for earth and space science and Spalding for microbiology.

Tom Daniels drops by and puts a related question to them: “Do we want to offer an AP course?”

“To appease the parents who want us to?” asks Bryant. “I can only think of five kids who would be capable of it.”

Griffin rejects the idea on philosophical grounds. “There is no bending” the curriculum to suit particular circumstances, he argues. “I don’t think it’s worth it. I’d rather they do college credit in college.”

After Daniels leaves, Spalding resumes the elective discussion. “We need to find out what the students want to do,” he points out, repeating a Best Practice mantra: “voice and choice, voice and choice.” But he acknowledges the importance of looking good for college. With electives, “they could have four to six science classes, and that really looks great,” he says. “Five or six science classes is exceptional.”

While they are discussing the mechanics of assigning electives to teachers, Kathy Daniels stops in. “Lesson plans, Arturo?” she says gently.

“Do I get fired if I don’t turn in lesson plans?” asks Bryant, a rookie.

“No,” Kathy assures her, “but your evaluation will reflect it.” She quotes the language that likely would be used: “Does not turn in lesson plans in a timely manner.” Then her eyes pop as she spots the Berghoff root beer bottles, which bear a striking resemblance to their alcoholic counterparts. Everyone laughs.

Daniels has invited teachers to drop off the results of their CASE grading at her home over the weekend so she can turn them in to central office first thing Monday morning. “You’re gonna see me on Sunday afternoon,” Spalding predicts.

“You’re not the only one,” she replies. “My house will have visitors all weekend.”

JAN 25 Picking a principal.

Today’s faculty meeting is held in the library. Teacher LSC rep Mark Fertel updates the group on awarding a principal contract. Sylvia Gibson has been interim principal since the school’s inception, but this year the newly appointed council is working to make it official.

Fertel tells the group, “The Board of Ed requires us to send three candidates for principal.” Last week, Cregier’s “super-LSC,” which is comprised of three members of each small school LSC, selected four possible candidates. He invites teachers to come to a meeting Wednesday to meet the candidates. “[Gibson] is going to be one of our choices,” he assures the group.

“Is there a chance they’ll go with someone else?” asks Spalding.

Fertel says yes, but Kathy Daniels adds, “They usually go with your first choice.”

“The most important thing is to find out what they’re going to say about teacher-led schools,” Daniels says later. She recalls interviewing principal candidates when the multiplex opened. “They’d say, ‘Bottom line, I’m gonna make the decision.’ And Sylvia was the only one who could get the word [teacher-led] out.”

In other news, Daniels announces she has students’ CASE results. “Supposedly, the board’s not publishing the results this time,” she comments wryly. (Last time, the results weren’t very good.) Returning to a serious tone, she says, “We do need to give an analysis to the board about these tests.” She asks teachers to write up “anything you thought was stupid, unfair, or whatever,” so she can submit feedback.

Daniels has some good news among her final announcements. “Jim Edminster is going to be back as a cadre sub.” A few teachers cheer loudly. “He doesn’t have to disappear on Tuesdays,” she adds, referring to the board’s policy of giving so-called reassigned teachers one day per week to job hunt.

She tells the group that Edminster has offered to obtain an American Library Association list of recommended books for school libraries, and that he suggested having students select titles from the list to help guide the school’s purchases.

FEB 1 Food service beefs.

In the midst of small talk over lunch in the teachers’ workroom, social studies teacher Lang comments on the board’s suit against the newspaper Substance, which published the complete texts of three CASE exams. “I think it’s so amusing that the board is so worried about it,” she says. “What are they worried about? Showing everybody what a silly test it is?”

After school, teachers gather in Lang’s classroom for the weekly faculty meeting. But cadre substitute Jim Edminster heads for the stairs, his duties done for the day. Although he’s glad to stay on at Best Practice, he says, “My take-home pay is now one-quarter of what it was.” Plus, his medical benefits changed with his change in status, and they won’t start for two months. “So I can’t get sick until April,” he notes. “I am not pleased.”

At the meeting, a recurring issue resurfaces: How to help students who are behind on course credits. “One of our juniors has only three credits,” says Tom Daniels. “They need 13.75 to be up to snuff. … When do we decide to suggest they need to find a school more responsive to their needs, or less academically oriented?”

Griffin wants teachers to gather by grade level to determine which students are short and by how much. He would make sure that any slippage among freshmen is rectified right away so the problem doesn’t snowball.

“I think advisors would be the first line of defense here,” says Kathy Daniels. She also recommends that counselor Heidi McCaleb be part of whatever process develops.

Spalding reminds the group that advisors’ previous efforts to help students catch up haven’t paid off very well. “Maybe we need some combination of academics and a counseling program,” he suggests.

Kathy Daniels agrees that a formal, schoolwide program may have better results than individual teacher efforts have. She likes Spalding’s idea of providing some kind of group guidance.

“At what point do you think we better start jumping on kids?” asks social studies teacher Peter Thomas.

“Two credits behind can still be made up in summer school,” notes Kathy Daniels. “More than two credits behind can’t be made up in one summer.”

Returning to bread-and-butter issues, special education teacher Sonja Kosanovic complains about the food service. The other day, she notes, “They didn’t even start serving the kids until 12:10, 12:15,” nearly halfway through the lunch period.

Tom Daniels tells her to let Gibson know. Teachers add that when the lunchroom manager was suspended in early January, the food was better and service was more polite.

LSC Chair Alice Perry tears herself away from a family emergency for tonight’s meeting, but only four other members attend, leaving the council without a quorum. The meeting proceeds anyway, to share news, prepare for school improvement planning and begin a campaign to improve the school’s food service operations. Three observers listen.

Turning to the school improvement plan (SIP), Perry, who previously sat on Pasteur Elementary’s LSC, tells the group, ‘We need a committee from the council to give input and monitor it once it’s in place.”

“Input in the sense of being there when it’s written?” asks Fertel. Teachers have already begun making arrangements to revise the plan during the school day.

“Some schools have parents who sit on the SIP committee and work along with [teachers],” notes Gibson, adding diplomatically that Best Practice does not have to adopt that model.

“This is different because it’s teacher-led,” Perry observes. “Before, when I was involved, we were taking a survey of what the community wanted.”

“Survey asking what?” Fertel inquires.

Gibson notes that an SIP survey also would document parent involvement in improvement planning for the upcoming school quality review by the state. “We have to document something that shows that parents are stakeholders in the process here,” she notes. “I just want to make sure we have all our documents.”

During public comment, the Rev. Charlie Ware Jr. addresses a discipline incident involving his son. He says he was not informed when his son was suspended for five days. “That’s not bettering my son’s situation, suspending him for a week,” he says. “I was dismayed and hurt about the way that was done. That’s the past, and that’s over and done, but for the future, there’s got to be some kind of communication going on with the principal.”

Gibson apologizes. “I’m sorry you were dismayed over the process.” She urges him to speak to her right away if such a situation should arise, but cautions, “I’m not saying it would have been overturned.” Later, she gives him the phone number to her direct line. Before the meeting, Fertel and Lang spoke at length with Ware and his wife about their son’s academic progress.

In her principal’s report, Gibson highlights the continuing struggle to improve the kitchen. “I’m going to do the petitions. We’re going to get something done to this lunchroom. … We need to have our LSC send the letter to our alderman and to Danny Davis.”

Ware jumps in eagerly. “I know Danny,” he says, offering to speak to him.

Gibson accepts, saying, “I would appreciate that, Mr. Ware, because it’s going to take a little political clout to get this done.” She goes on to recommend that a group from Best Practice prepare to speak at a School Reform Board meeting.

“It can’t be teachers, either,” says Lang.

Gibson agrees. “No, it’s got to be parents. That’s what’s going to work.”

At this point, Ware helps the group strategize. “I did slumlords years ago,” he notes.The group decides they should focus on the stove and the lack of a dishwasher. “This is the time—let’s not miss it,” he says, referring to the upcoming elections.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ware, we need you,” says Gibson.

The council switches its focus to the size of next year’s freshman class and then to the issues of testing.

“At some point, you have to start teaching to the tests, don’t you?” worries Perry.

Community rep Steve Zemelman of National-Louis adamantly disagrees. “No, no, no, no, no. You just keep teaching the skills.”

“Right now, it’s hard to teach anything,” says Fertel, “because we have to give the tests.”

“So once you get to the first of the year, you’re just basically testing what they’ve already learned,” observes Perry. “That’s how it feels to me as a parent.”

“That’s how it feels to me as a teacher, too,” concurs Fertel.

Afterwards, Ware is delighted to share his impressions of Best Practice with a reporter. “This is a great school,” he raves. “They don’t make schools like this no more.”

FEB 18 Teacher no more?

“Teacher layoffs upheld by court” declares a front-page headline in today’s Chicago Tribune. Edminster is at least as angry about how the newspaper portrayed the teachers as he is about the court’s decision. His biggest gripe is that the plaintiffs were portrayed alternately as incompetents or troublemakers.

He was neither, he proclaims in one breath: “I have never had a low rating. I have never been at a reconstituted school. I was never political in school circles. I was never on the local school council. I was never for or against the principal, and to my knowledge never had problems with parents or students in 30 years.”

He doesn’t know what will happen next. “My reward for being an inner-city teacher for 30 years is to be a cadre sub at one-quarter the pay. … It’d be nice if somebody would take this to Bobby Rush and have him defend us,” he muses. “But I’m not a political person. I’m just an English teacher who for 30 years did his job.”