Board scrambles to launch new effort

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Two months ago, the Board of Education chose five underperforming high schools—Bowen, Collins, DuSable, Orr and South Shore-to undergo intervention, the most severe accountability measure it has taken.

By the time schools opened, however, one of its newly named principals had backed out, and the board changed its mind about two others, summarily replacing them. In addition, two of the 25 intervention team members quit.

Meanwhile, schools reported increased difficulty filling teacher vacancies. (See chart, below.)

Like reconstitution, which was tried three years ago at seven high schools, intervention provides for the expedited removal of staff found wanting. However, this time, the board is sending in teams of veteran teachers in various subject areas to work with their colleagues in the intervention schools first. By law, teachers and other staffers have a year to demonstrate their ability. Under reconstitution, they were judged on the basis of brief interviews.

Under the board’s intervention plan, principals will spend 90 percent of their time evaluating staff while intervention team leaders work with assistant principals to run the school. Principals are required to observe every teacher on five separate occasions before April, when they will decide whether teachers will be kept, reassigned or dismissed for poor performance. During a three-day training session in early August, principals and intervention staff were told to document every step—not only to record what happens for later analysis but also as protection against legal challenges from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has protested the start of intervention.

Finding principals who would agree to lead intervention schools was not easy, says Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney. CPS considered more than 20 candidates for the five slots; some who were offered the job turned it down, she adds. In the end, only one of the five principals has administrative experience at a high school, and only three of the five team leaders have high school experience.

“There’s a shortage of good high school administrators,” says Hellen DeBerry, who is Orr High’s team leader and previously worked as an associate principal at Gage Park High.

Buckney says that even without a high school background, the new principals are experienced enough to make valid teacher evaluations. If principals need support in specific content areas, such as science or math, they can tap the expertise of their intervention team, she notes. “We’re not sending them in by themselves,” says Buckney.

That wasn’t enough for Frederick McNeal, principal of Mayo Elementary School, who initially accepted the board’s offer to become principal of DuSable. Two weeks before the start of school, McNeal started having second thoughts about his primary duty of observing and evaluating teachers. The leader of DuSable’s intervention team would make all budget and operations decisions.

“I want to lead, not be led,” says McNeal, who is returning to his post as principal of Mayo Gloria Archbold of Leland Elementary will succeed McNeal at DuSable.

DuSable is one of two intervention schools—Orr is the other—that had been reconstituted in 1997, when they also got leaders hand-picked by the central administration.

Initially, the board announced that Bowen High School Principal Alejandra Alvarez, whose contract was renewed last spring by the school’s local school council, would keep her job. But then it changed its mind and chose Fausto Lopez, principal of Jungman Elementary, instead. LSC members vowed to fight.

The board also changed its mind about Loretta Lawrence, whom it had put in Collins last spring. Two weeks before school opened, the board replaced her with Diane Dyer-Dawson, principal of Proviso East High in Maywood and principal of Park Manor Elementary from 1984 to 1992.

The other principals are Leon Hudnall at Orr High and Larry Thomas at South Shore High.

Vallas names Roberts

Schools Chief Paul Vallas tapped a well-known administrator, JoAnn Roberts, to lead the intervention effort. Roberts left CPS in the 1980s to become school superintendent in Muskegon Heights, Mich. Former Chicago Supt. Argie Johnson brought her back in 1994 to head up operations. Six months later, Johnson removed her. (Roberts says she was not removed, but was a casualty of sweeping administrative changes.) Roberts then became principal at Wacker Elementary School for two years.

In 1996, Roberts was hired as superintendent of Hazel Crest schools, a small south suburban district. Roberts hit the ground running, reorganizing grades and initiating an effort to reopen an abandoned school. But in late 1997, some board members charged that Roberts had misused district funds. After a three-month leave of absence, Roberts went before a hearing officer to answer the charges. She was found not guilty. By then, the board had decided not to renew her contract.

She returned to CPS in 1998 to become a “troubleshooter” for the first round of schools on probation. Most recently, she served briefly as principal of Lindblom High School, which is being converted to a regional college prep school.

Reflecting on her frequent career moves in and around CPS, Roberts says challenges draw her. “I’ve been doing intervention everywhere I’ve been,” she says.

To her admirers, Roberts is seen as demanding; to her detractors, she is rude and stubborn. The principal of one probation school says Roberts came on so strong that teachers gradually stopped coming to her meetings. Still, test scores increased enough for the school to get off probation that spring.

Roberts acknowledges having a “strong” personality, adding that she is impatient with excuses or mediocrity.

On a cloudless summer day in early August, Roberts is presiding over a three-day team-building workshop at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park. Outside on the lawn, intervention teammates are trying to figure out how to lift each other through the gaps in a “spider wed” of ropes strung between trees. The goal of the exercise is to help them learn to work closely as a team.

Over the course of the sessions, Roberts is a motivational maven. Think out of the box! If you put the same-old in, you’ll get the same-old out. Making a difference is in your hands. We have to break the mold!

At one point she gets all the team members fired up about raising test scores. She tells them to cross out her initial goal of boosting 33 percent of students to meet or exceed national standards in reading and math. The goal is not high enough, she says. “Who can do better?”

Orr’s team steps up first. Throwing aside their original goals of 36 percent in reading and 40 percent in math, Orr aims even higher—75 percent—in both reading and math. Soon, every team pledges to have three-fourths of all their students at or above national norms on standardized tests.

While Roberts hailed the teams as “master teachers” with the know-how to lead wayward teaching staffs toward academic success, team members and principals stressed the need to collaborate.

“I’m not in there to be a hatchet person,” says Ricardo Isom, a science teacher on the Orr team. He says he will tell teachers that “hope is not lost.”

Fausto Lopez, the new principal at Bowen, says building relationships will be the key to changing his school. His 12 years as principal at Jungman taught him that teachers need to feel support before they try new things, he says. “Instilling fear in everybody isn’t going to work.”

Yet, offering help when none is asked for can create tensions that take time to overcome, says Connie Bridge, a University of Illinois at Chicago associate dean. Bridge is leading an effort at Manley High School that served as a model for the intervention teams. Last year, four teacher mentors began working full time at the school to integrate the teaching of reading and writing into every subject. They also teach classes of students. (See Catalyst, May 2000: Full-time coaches move into Manley.)

Although Bridge says her team approached the Manley staff with care and respect, some teachers still resisted. “They said they resented the idea that we were ‘trying to fix them,'” says Bridge. Building trust that is strong enough to withstand critiques takes time, she insists.

At the end of the year, the mentor teachers reported that most Manley teachers remained skeptical of the team’s efforts. Of 51 teachers, only 17 had adopted the new teaching approaches, Bridge says.

Veteran teachers have a hard time opening themselves to scrutiny by outsiders, who might be critical of their approach to teaching, Bridge says. For intervention teams to be effective, she urges, “the establishment of rapport will be the key issue.”