Bridge Program wins raves, rehab work lags

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Only last year, Gage Park High School parents and students erupted in protest when it was suggested that the school move its program to Lindblom High School to make room for nearby, overcrowded elementary schools. Lindblom’s West Englewood neighborhood was too rough, the Gage Park group argued.

But with Gage Park’s building slated for rehab work over the summer, the School Reform Board moved the school’s summer programs to Lindblom anyway. As with other high schools under rehab, the board provided shuttle buses for the 8th-graders enrolled in the summer Bridge Program.

Gage Park’s local school council ordered Principal Audrey Donaldson to root through the school’s budget to fund an extra bus for the regular summer school students. She did, but it turned out not to be necessary. Enrollment was lower than usual this year, and Donaldson says that most students who enrolled got to Lindblom on their own. Between the buses and some coordinated planning by both schools, the summer at Lindblom went by without a hitch.

While the Bridge Program and the summer school ran their course, Donaldson and the staff got ready for next year—holding interviews with all incoming freshmen, starting a five-year partnership with a national school-reform group and waiting for the promised rehab work to start.

Some of the tradesmen didn’t show up until mid-August, and when they did, they had some bad news for Donaldson & Company.

JUN 25 Smooth start to summer school.

At some schools, the Bridge Program gets a bumpy sendoff. Kids sit idle much of the morning, while teachers try to figure out just who they’ve got, where to put them and how to schedule classes and mandatory testing.

Not here at “Gage Park South.” Counselor Jean Perez spent much of the last two weeks on the phone, calling area grammar schools to chase down the names of the kids who would be coming. Last weekend, Perez, program director Ed Bieryla and other staff—working on their own time— spent hours double-checking their lists, making sure they would know where to send every student.

The result: When Gage Park’s Bridge students step off the buses at Lindblom, they immediately line up to get room assignments, and there’s work waiting for them when they get to class. “It took a lot of work to get the program started so smoothly,” says Bieryla. “I’m proud of this program.” Smiling impishly, he adds, “Make sure you put my name in that story. Do you want me to spell it for you?”

Bieryla and his staff had an extra wrinkle to iron out, too. The Gage Park LSC is paying for Sylvan Learning Systems to tutor the Bridge students who are to attend Gage Park in the fall, provided they make the grade this summer. But more than a third of the students in Gage Park’s Bridge Program are heading to other high schools and had to be scheduled differently.

Gage Park’s Sylvan Center has moved to Lindblom too. “We set up within two days,” says director Joyce Spight. “Things we could do without, we left. We don’t have all the amenities that we had over there, but it’s fine. We have the 3-to-1 ratio [of students to teachers].”

Gage Park is slated for more than $1 million in building repairs this summer, which is most of its share of the board’s $800 million capital improvement plan. Some is tuck-pointing and related touch-ups, but students and most staff have been cleared out for work on hazardous lead paint.

However, the work hasn’t started yet, and there’s no word on when it will begin. Meanwhile, the office staff are still at Gage Park, working on next year’s schedules and other logistics. “We haven’t been kicked out of here yet, and we don’t wanna go,” says programmer Diane Higgins.

JUL 3 Catholic school kids get “hired.”

Though summer school is less than two weeks old, the first marking period is about to end for students in the regular summer school program, which is aimed at students who need extra credit to graduate on time. Music teacher Robert Allen has carefully designed his class to help kids make a passing grade.

“The whole point of summer school is to figure out how to pass them,” says Allen, while his students watch a video of an orchestral performance. “It’d be a shame for them to sit there all summer and not pass. I’ve got a point system; there’s a whole potpourri of things to get points for. There’s almost no way they can not pass, if they meet me halfway. A couple of kids are just below the level right now, but they can still get extra credit.”

“There is no discipline problem,” says Gage Park’s chief disciplinarian, James Gorecki, who is running the regular summer school this year. “The kids are outstanding in summer school. They’re better than good. They played around all year. Now, they need the credit.”

The Bridge Program is running just as smoothly, according to counselor Perez. “I’d say we could count our problems on one hand—and that’s pretty good for two weeks of school.”

The teachers say their biggest surprise is how well the kids are responding. “These kids are working,” says Spight, director of the Sylvan center. “They were really interested in raising their reading comprehension. They asked, ‘What’s this program about?’ And when I told them, their eyes lit up.”

The smooth start has come in spite of some central office shortcomings. For instance, materials for the official Bridge reading program just arrived this week; until then, Gage Park teachers made do, using newspapers as impromptu texts. And the diagnostic tests that teachers hurried to complete and get to central office by last Friday haven’t been scored yet. They were supposed to be turned around in 24 hours, Perez says, but they’re just starting to trickle back. It will take several weeks before she gets them all.

John Easton, who oversees the scoring and reporting of tests, says that many tests were submitted in a form that made it hard for board computers to match results with student names. Usually, the board “pre-slugs” student information onto test forms before they’re delivered to schools, he says, adding there wasn’t time to do that for the summer program.

These are “little, little things,” says Principal Donaldson. “For materials to arrive only one week late is outstanding,” and her staff did fine in the interim. The late test score results were irrelevant, she says, since staff already had information about the kids from the elementary schools and their own informal assessments. “Teachers were not sitting waiting for test score results,” she says.

And there are windfalls too. Yesterday, Bieryla and his staff unexpectedly found themselves with 10 tutors recruited from the city’s Catholic schools. They’ll come in two days a week this summer and visit Gage Park once a week during the school year, working with two students apiece. The board will donate between $150,000 and $300,000 to the Big Shoulders Fund, a Catholic-affiliated charity; in turn, the Archdiocese will give the tutors a $1,500 break on their tuition. The program was thrown together just in the last few weeks.

The Catholic schools are just one of almost a dozen agencies that are supplying tutors, says Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. “We allowed them to put in an application, just like anybody else. I know us talking to the Catholics generates the headlines, but . . . we’re trying to build relationships with all educational institutions, both public and private.”

At Gage, the Catholic school students join a half dozen Gage Park students, who are earning $5 an hour for tutoring in Bridge classrooms.

JUL 16 National restructuring program debuts.

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Vallas announced that the board might place as many as 30 schools on probation because of flagging test scores, meaning their principals and teachers could lose their jobs if improvements aren’t made. The names of the schools have not been announced yet, but Gage Park’s scores have been low enough to keep it on the state’s academic “watch list” for the last few years. (Currently, 28 schools are on remediation, a less threatening intervention for failing schools.)

As part of a citywide program that pairs watch-list schools with outside resources, Gage Park has signed on with a Washington, D.C.-based group called the National Alliance for Restructuring Education (NARE). Today, Assistant Principal Frank Lacey and teacher Lula Davis go to their first NARE training, at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They’re part of an eight-person team from Gage Park that is charged with bringing NARE’s message back to the rest of the school’s staff.

At 11 a.m., after a couple of hours of training, Davis has three preliminary comments: (1) The training was hard to find, because she was given the wrong address, and the room wasn’t well-marked. (2) The sight lines are poor in her part of the room, so she can’t see the images from the overhead projector—the conference room is packed with dozens of teachers from 16 Chicago schools. (3) So far, the material is overwhelming. “We need more time to process this information,” she says. “Months, rather than days.”

Asked later about Davis’ concern, Principal Donaldson offers reassurance: “We have five years. We just have to take it one step at a time.”

NARE asks schools to set high standards for students and suggests a wide variety of ways to measure students’ knowledge and abilities. At a NARE school, students have to succeed not just at paper-and-pencil tests, but also at longer-term tasks, like writing and revising papers, and at “authentic” tasks, like helping organize a Drug Abuse Awareness Week. Students graduating from a NARE school get a “certificate of mastery”—roughly, a cross between an academic diploma and an Eagle Scout badge.

Donaldson says that she especially likes NARE’s insistence on high standards for all students. “Right now, test scores are taken very seriously by administrators and teachers,” she points out. “Our evaluations, our job security rests on them. But until the students are forced to be accountable, I think they’ll continue to draw geometric designs on their test answer forms.”

Last February, the School Reform Board awarded NARE a $300,000 grant for a year of work with up to 70 Chicago schools. This year, Gage Park will pay a few thousand dollars in conference and travel fees. Soon, the school probably will have to buy NARE’s book of “Performance Standards” ($27 per copy), student test forms ($180 per set of 25) and test grading ($11 per student).

JUL 22 Copying Disney World, the Mayo Clinic and the Catholic Church.

With their school shut for rehab, several Gage Park teachers have set up shop in the gym of the Gage Park Field House. Seated around a few pushed-together tables, they’re munching rolls, drinking juice and coffee, talking quietly and waiting to start three days of training by The Gallup Organization, which not only conducts surveys, but also develops job interviews for businesses.

Want to work at Disney World? A Gallup interview is part of the application process, says Gallup trainer JerLene Mosley. The results will help determine whether you will, say, operate a roller coaster or wear a giant Mickey Mouse mask. Want to learn medicine at the world renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.? An Gallup interview will be part of the screening, she says. Want to become a Catholic priest or deacon? Yep. In some places, you may go through a Gallup interview, she says.

For the last four years, Gallup has been training teachers at Gage Park to interview incoming freshmen to find out the kids’ strengths and enthusiasms before they start high school.

Today, Arlene Crandall, the program’s coordinator and its biggest booster, opens the training with one of her favorite stories:

Reuben Lauva, the fourth-ranked student in this year’s graduating class, was one of the first students Crandall interviewed. Just before the ceremony, Reuben took Crandall aside to make a confession. “He said, ‘Mrs. Crandall, when I talked to you four years ago, I just didn’t have the heart to tell you that I had just come to Chicago from Mexico to get a job—and that I thought that coming to school was just a waste of time. And then you kept bugging me, when you’d see me in school. You didn’t know what my real agenda was, and every time I saw you, I just didn’t have the heart to tell you that I was just waiting to turn 16, to get a driver’s license, to get a job.’ ”

After Reuben’s freshman year, Crandall leaned on him to take tougher courses—and to take them all in English. He did, and the effort paid off. He’ll be going to Illinois Institute of Technology on a scholarship in the fall. Crandall says that if she hadn’t established a strong relationship with Reuben right at the start, he might never have considered college.

Many of Reuben’s classmates didn’t get that kind of follow-up—some had been interviewed by volunteers who never saw them again. Yet Crandall gives the interview program much of the credit for Gage Park’s declining dropout rate. Last year, 30 more Gage Park students made it to their senior year than had the year before. Gallup studied this year’s junior class and found that kids who had been interviewed tended to have a better first semester than kids who had not been interviewed, faring better on attendance, tardiness, failure rates and grades. This year, for the first time, every freshman student will be interviewed by her or his homeroom teacher.

Gage Park uses state Chapter 1 funds to give each teacher-interviewer an $800 stipend. Figuring that each will devote 100 hours to training, interviewing and writing reports, Crandall says this is a bargain for the school. The school shares the cost of the entire program with two corporate partners: Gallup charges a reduced rate for its services, about 30 percent, and Gallup’s $12,250 bill is paid by ServiceMaster, a Chicago-based corporation that hires itself out to companies and consumers to do everything from cleaning offices to managing operations.

ServiceMaster uses Gallup interviews, and company officials suggested the interview program as a way to partner with Gage Park. ServiceMaster also provides meals at the three-day training. (Board officials frown on schools’ picking up such expenses.)

Crandall booked the park gym for the training because of scheduled lead-abatement work at the school. Several other teachers, trained earlier in the summer, are conducting interviews in the field house’s musty basement.

But the lead-abatement work still hasn’t begun, and school programmers are still working in their own offices. They expect to be kicked out a week from today and to finish their summer work in some spare rooms at nearby Curie High, which is home to Bridge programs from Kelly and Bogan high schools, both also shut for rehab.

JUL 25 Bridge students surprise their teachers.

Patricia Hubbard, a math teacher in the Bridge Program, can hardly believe she’s working with low-scoring students. “I’d hate to see the kids who scored high on that test, because these kids are really good,” she says. (Students who scored two years below grade level in either math or reading were funneled into the program, which includes instruction in both reading and math.)

Hubbard’s class today is two hours of no-nonsense work on simplifying ratios. Kids horse around for a couple of minutes at the start of class; after that, they stick to their seats, listen to Hubbard’s explanations and work the assigned problems. At the end of class, a few kids show their work on the chalkboard, whipping through solutions without missing a beat.

“They’re some hard-working little rascals, and the attendance is tremendous,” says Hubbard. “At least three days a week it’s 100 percent.” During the school year, average attendance at Gage Park is about 80 percent; but for the Bridge students, where graduation to high school hangs in the balance, it averages 96 percent, says Principal Donaldson.

At the end of the day, Counselor Jean Perez gives Hubbard an update on the still-fuzzy exit criteria. Right now, it looks like students will take some version of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, but the results may not determine their future.

“It changes by the minute,” says Perez. “Now, we haven’t gotten anything in writing. But this is typical. You just go with the flow. Whatever these kids are getting is more than they started with. It’s a pilot program, and it’s running smoother than I expected.”

“This is giving me some encouragement,” says Sabrina Thurmond, who had been anxious about teaching remedial, freshman English in the fall. “You hear the myths about low English students: They won’t work for you, they won’t come, they won’t perform. But they will work, they will perform. The material has to be something interesting and something they can relate to.”

And the readings in the Bridge curriculum fit the bill, she says. Students relate to a biography of Jackie Robinson, she says, because “they have to overcome so many obstacles themselves.” Robinson’s perseverance, especially in the face of racism, is something they connect to and admire, she notes. Several kids, math-lovers, are devouring an Albert Einstein biography.

This week’s unit on mystery stories strikes close to home for many students, too. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, we solve mysteries in our neighborhood every day,’ ” she says. “Like, ‘Who’s that big man in our neighborhood who’s selling drugs?’ ” She concedes, “It may sound violent, but it’s a way into better things.”

AUG 1 Loopholes spare most Bridge students.

Jevon Diming didn’t sleep much last night. She was too worried about getting sent back to 8th grade. Jevon and other Gage Park Bridge students got word yesterday that if they don’t score at least 6.8 on next week’s Iowa reading test, they won’t go on to high school. (The number represents the reading level of the typical student who is in the 8th month of 6th grade.)

“That’s a hurting feeling, when I know I tried my best in 8th grade,” says Jevon. In fact, she says, she was an honor student at Anderson Elementary last year but gets “nervous taking tests.” Jevon says she wound up in the Bridge program only because she folded under the pressure of testing last spring and left the math section unfinished. Now, she worries about a repeat performance. “I just know with all that pressure, that’s a perfect chance for me to mess up again.”

Actually, Jevon doesn’t have to worry about the test. She scored fine on the reading section last spring, and her score there will be a ticket into high school, according to counselor Jean Perez.

Indeed, thanks to several loopholes in the board’s new promotion policy, only 45 of the 131 students in Gage Park’s Bridge program run the risk of repeating 8th grade, so long as they complete the summer school program.

First, the board continued the longstanding policy of promoting all 8th-graders who would turn 15 by December of freshman year. Second, some students enrolled in special education and bilingual education programs also will get an automatic pass. And then there are the students who, like Jevon, scored at least 6.8 on reading last spring but scored lower on math and, as a result, didn’t get their 8th-grade diplomas.

But Perez isn’t telling students any of that because she doesn’t want them to blow off the math test or the last week of school. “I come on real strong,” she says. “They don’t need to know.”

LSC Chair Donna Koestner points out one more loophole. “There is a waiver,” she says. “They can get a waiver from the principal. And that’s good. Especially when we’re paying $225,000 for a Sylvan Center. If they’re only a few months behind, let them come; we’ll catch them up.”

Perez adds that regardless of the promotion guidelines, the students “are getting more than they would have gotten without the program.”

Oddly, Jevon agrees. “It is necessary,” she says. “Some teachers may get to you more than other teachers did. My old teacher was a good teacher, but Mrs. Hubbard, my math teacher now, she really gets me understanding things. And you learn things every day in reading. We just read a book about these Chinese people, and that was good. I didn’t know anything about those people, or how they act.”

Meanwhile, at the Gage Park field house, math teacher Laura Lopez is spending part of her day administering the Gallup interview. “I think it’s exciting,” she says. “I like talking to the kids one-on-one. … I probably never would have known half this stuff just from seeing kids in the classroom.”

And some of what she’s finding out impresses her. “Most of the kids I’ve talked to know what they want to do in the future. They say, ‘I want to be a lawyer,’ or ‘a judge,’ or ‘I want to be an electrician.’ And I think that’s pretty good. I mean, when I started high school, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do in the future.”

Back at the high school, the office staff carries on. It will be at least a week before the lead-abatement team arrives, according to central office. Says Koestner: “It should have begun today. They told me Aug. 1.”

AUG 9 Paul Vallas calling.

When Sharlene Parker arrives at Lindblom this morning, she’s scared that she’ll be headed back to 8th grade in the fall. She and her classmates in Patricia Hubbard’s room took the Iowa test earlier this week, but they haven’t heard the results yet.

Hubbard begins by asking the class to write their own impressions of the summer program and read them aloud. Although they have good things to say about the program, many maintain that the last-minute decision to impose a cut-off score on the Iowa was unfair.

Around 10 o’clock, Hubbard leaves the room for a few minutes; she returns with good news. “Everybody here made it,” she says.

Students jump out of their seats and run over to embrace her.

“I’m still shaking,” says Remona Simpson, an hour later.

“I’m going straight to the pool,” says Sharlene. “I’m going to swim ’til I fall out.”

“I feel relief,” says Jevon Diming. “I was nervous [about the test], but it was easy. The same work that was on the test was the same work that my teacher taught me.”

Their classmate Jeneea Moore also singles out the Sylvan Center tutors for praise. “They took time,” she says. “They had real patience—because a lot of people don’t have patience. If you were sitting there and just looking at the page, they’d ask you, ‘Do you need help?’ They paid attention to you.”

By 10:30 a.m., Principal Audrey Donaldson is in the Lindblom cafeteria, handing out certificates to the 108 kids who are graduating from the Gage Park Bridge Program. In the middle of the graduation, somebody tries to call her to the phone. “I’ll call them back,” says Donaldson. But when she learns it’s Paul Vallas, she quickly decides to take the call.

Returning to the cafeteria, where the students are still gathered, Donaldson explains her absence. It was Paul Vallas on the phone, she says, and he was calling to congratulate Gage Park’s students and staff on their high success rate. “I think we all deserve a round of applause,” she says. “So on behalf of Mr. Vallas, congratulations, and we wish you every success.”

The students, staff and tutors draw a breath, give each other an enthusiastic round of applause and line up for juice and cookies.

At the end of the day, there are some disappointments. “I was proud of the kids that passed, but I just wished that all of them had made it,” says Miguel Cambray, a Gage Park tutor. He’ll be a junior at the school next year.

About half a dozen kids Miguel worked with didn’t make the grade. “It was wrong. They were smart. Most of them just missed it by one or two points. They did the work; they came. It was wrong of Mr. Vallas,” Miguel says, not to tell kids right away that they’d have to pass the Iowa test. “They thought that if they came to summer school, they would go to high school.”

Principal Donaldson intends to request waivers for 14 of the kids who didn’t pass the test, and she spent some time consoling the nine Bridge students who are headed back to 8th grade. “I told them that this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to them,” she says. “And I told them that if they wanted to, they could still be part of the class of 2000—but it would take an awful lot of work on their part.”

Donaldson says the kids perked up when she told them that they could even come to Gage Park for summer school next year and earn a credit before starting high school—if they get their 8th grade diplomas next June. “They said, ‘Really, you’d let us come?’ And I said, ‘Of course I would.’ I love encouraging kids, so they left with a glimmer of hope.”

Meanwhile, a board official gave Arlene Crandall a quick deadline this morning: turn in a one-page description of Gage Park’s Freshman Academy program this afternoon, and you’ll get $50,000 for the program.

Gage Park won’t actually have a freshman academy this year. But board officials have OKed the school’s current efforts, including the Gallup intake interviews and Sylvan Center tutoring, as “a partial phase.” Also, for next September, the faculty is eyeing block schedules, which cut down on the number of different classes students attend.

Crandall figures that because the school’s work with NARE involves setting high standards—another Freshman Academy requirement—Gage Park might be able to use the $50,000 to pay teachers for NARE planning and conferences. Grabbing Donaldson as she’s about to leave, Crandall makes her pitch. “It’s gonna cost you lots of money to do this NARE thing,” she says.

Donaldson says it sounds fine to her, but she suggests putting some money into after-school tutoring for 9th-graders. “I mean, $50,000 is a lot of money, but it’s not really a lot of money,” she says. “We can spend it pretty quick.”

Leaving the building, Donaldson notes that the lead-abatement workers were supposed to be here today. “They said it was 95 percent certain they’d be here today.” She shrugs. “I guess we’re in the 5 percent, then; they’re not here.”

AUG 12 “It’s going to be hectic.

They arrive! And they may be here until February. Donaldson has a lengthy meeting with the contractors who are about to start the lead-abatement work.

Gage Park staff and students haven’t spent the summer in exile for nothing, explains Carol Wilinski, who oversees the board’s efforts to rid schools of health hazards. Board contractors spent the early summer testing Gage and other buildings, to see just what lead and asbestos hazards most needed attention, she says, and some of the test equipment—like an X-ray machine to look for lead—are not safe for students to be around.

One reason it will take so long to finish is that once school starts, work can proceed only at night and on weekends. “They can seal off a classroom, but they can’t be chipping away at the lead while the children are in the building,” Donaldson explains.

“It’s going to be very hectic,” she says later. The contractors will be sealing off classrooms for a week or more at a time—and Gage Park doesn’t have any spare rooms to house classes in the meantime. “We’re going to have to have sections in the auditorium. … Yes, this is going to have a very strong impact.”