An enterprising school struggles with the basics

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Over the last six years, Amundsen High School in Lincoln Square has produced a string of homegrown successes. The school crafted an environmental program that includes ecology, interdisciplinary work between science and social studies and an annual Earth Day celebration that typically draws more than 1,000 enthusiasts. Amundsen’s continuing sponsorship of an annual walk-a-thon to raise money for cocaine-addicted babies won national recognition in 1995 and raised over $100,000 this year. And an intensive schoolwide reading program paid off this spring with major increases in test scores, an accomplishment that brought the school recognition on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times.

As this school year winds down, however, the school is struggling with changes not of its own making. The Reform Board’s high school restructuring plan is forcing Amundsen and every other high school to rework their academic infrastructure: students’ course programming, credits for graduation, staffing and even the school day.

The requirement to create an advisory period for freshmen is at the heart of the debate at Amundsen. The board wants a formal avenue for advising students about classes, careers and personal issues; and it is developing a curriculum. Amundsen teachers want to know whether advisory will then count as one of the five courses their union contract requires them to teach. If it doesn’t, they want to know, will they get paid extra for taking an advisory? That uncertainty, says Amundsen Principal Edward Klunk, “is the biggest hindering issue right now” in planning for next year. Union and board sources expect an agreement before the end of this school year.

As Catalyst went to press, a vote was looming on a contract waiver that would change Amundsen’s basic school day from seven 50-minute periods to eight 45-minute periods. The change would enable students to take an extra class, which would spare business, music and art positions jeopardized by the board’s decision to increase academic requirements. The change also would make room for an advisory period within the regular schedule, which teachers fear will mean more work without extra pay. Further clouding the issue is the school’s rocky experience with “freshman academy,” which at Amundsen amounted to an extra period three times a week to teach study skills and offer special activities.

May 2 Good news makes the news.

The No. 1 message on the dry-erase board in the main office proclaims: “Congratulations on a job well done.” The percentage of freshmen and juniors scoring at or above national norms in reading and math doubled—to 22 percent in reading and 29 percent in math—and the news was trumpeted on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Upstairs in the faculty lounge, a teacher poses the big question: “But does that take you off probation?” All schools with less than 15 percent of their students at or above average in reading were placed on probation last September.

Like most schools, Amundsen added practice in test taking. Like most students, Amundsen’s took the tests much more seriously—freshmen faced mandatory summer school if they didn’t post at least an 8.0, equivalent to the beginning of 8th grade, in both reading and math. However, teachers also worked hard as a group to improve instruction.

Last fall, teachers created a task force to organize reading across the curriculum. It collected a variety of reading strategies, ranging from the obvious (highlighting main ideas and unfamiliar words) to the highly creative (having students sketch pictures of the main idea of a reading). In what educators call a metacognitive task—thinking about thinking—students practiced “K-W-L:” listing what they already Know about a topic before reading, what they Want to know as a result of reading, and what they Learned when they had finished reading.

The reading strategies were taught to all teachers, and each strategy was taught to all students for two weeks, with each department taking up the challenge on a given day of the week.

May 5 Mayoral visit scheduled, graffiti blasters arrive first.

The office is abuzz with news that Mayor Richard M. Daley will hold a press conference at the school tomorrow. Newly arrived graffiti blasters, sent by City Hall, make a racket of their own outside the library, where seven students are taking the Advanced Placement exam in English literature. A floor up, the noise drowns out English teacher David Witter as he reads Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry to his class.

“What business is it of the mayor and all these people to come out here and disrupt everything with these graffiti blasters during an AP test?” grouses David Goodman, chair of the special education department and a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) delegate. “Especially when they’re not gonna come with a letter in their hand saying ‘You’re off probation.'”

Late in the day a call comes from City Hall: The mayor has had to cancel and will reschedule.

As part of the school’s corrective action plan, every teacher is required to attend a staff development meeting every Monday. To accommodate everyone’s schedules, the meetings are held the first and last two periods of the day.

Teachers in the first two sessions examine their success this past year.

“I learned things that I didn’t learn in teacher training—maybe some English teachers did,” says social studies teacher Eddie Fuentes, referring to the sessions on reading strategies.

Charlie Vanover, a librarian and CTU delegate, thinks the sheer amount of reading students had to do made a big difference. “They couldn’t hide from the fact that they had to do a lot more reading during the school day than they had in years past.”

Another teacher credits teamwork. “What happened this year was an expansion of our ability to work as a faculty. Normally you work in isolation. There’s no backup, no support.”

At the end of the day, all teachers gather in Room 329 for the weekly faculty meeting. For starters, Klunk climbs atop the teacher’s desk.

“I want to stand on the desk and take my hat off to you,” he says, tipping an imaginary hat. “If it weren’t for everything you guys did, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in. Everyone in this room was responsible for raising the test scores.”

“We went on this crazy instructional calendar and got everyone teaching each other reading strategies, but it didn’t affect content areas,” he adds. “We still got all that stuff done.” He then informs his staff that scores rose not only in reading but also in math, social studies and science.

Continuing, Klunk says: “I hope it’s convinced all of us it can happen again. …. We did it without lots of extra people telling us what to do. We asked them if they could help us do what we wanted.”

Referring to probation, Klunk voices a school consensus. “We shoulda never been on that list in the first place.” Calls of “yeah” echo around the room.

Then Klunk gets down to business: He wants to change the basic school day from seven 50-minute periods to eight 45-minute periods. (Due to overcrowding, Amundsen’s schedule includes 10 periods, with different groups of students beginning and ending at different times.) He stresses that the change would both accommodate the newly required advisory period for freshmen and make it easier for students to take electives while meeting increased academic course requirements.

“This is that 5 o’clock day again,” a teacher mutters. “These kids can’t handle [being in school until] 5 o’clock. I would go nuts.”

Klunk tries to separate the issue of advisory from the issue of the schedule. If the schedule remains as is, he says, electives like band, chorus and studio arts will have to take place after school and be paid for with the school’s discretionary funds. However, the board has agreed to pay for the extra teaching time involved in going to an eight-period, 45-minute day, he says.

But Klunk can’t avoid the advisory issue, since the board and the union have not agreed on whether or how teachers will be paid for it. If the schedule remains as is, advisory likely will be added to the basic day, and teachers involved would get overtime. It’s not clear what would happen if the schedule changes and advisory fits into the basic day.

“That part of it is an issue I can’t deal with at a local level,” says Klunk. “I hope the hierarchy of the board and the union work that out before September. The easiest thing would be just to compensate everybody” for advisory.

May 6 Creativity vs. conformity

CTU delegate David Goodman is still mulling over yesterday’s faculty meeting. “I thought [Klunk] came across all right with his proposal,” he says. But the teacher is still unhappy about advisory, which he calls “dumping on division teachers. It’s clearly top-down. The union wasn’t consulted.”

And Goodman is downright angry about probation. “There has to be a way to get off. … If there’s not a way off, well, that’s bull.” Referring to schools with much lower scores than Amundsen’s, he adds: “They have to see you can get off [or] they’ll say, ‘There’s no possible way to succeed, so why try?'”

Fourth period, the reading task force meets in the basement lounge one teacher calls “the board room.” “What do we want to keep from this year? What do we want to use next year?” asks Assistant Principal Ken Hunter.

The discussion begins with some nuts-and-bolts issues but quickly turns to a fundamental question—whether students are served better when teachers have free rein to be creative or when they must conform to a plan.

Is there a better way to teach the strategies than “every seven days they’re doing K-W-L?” asks social studies chair Mary Ross.

Gloria Henllan-Jones, who teaches English as a second language (ESL), wants to see a more holistic approach. The strategies should be “integrated as an ongoing part [of teaching], rather than on Monday you do this, on Tuesday you do that,” she says.

But Judy Pollock, a special ed teacher, argues that the current system enforces a certain accountability. “I know that I thought sketch-to-stretch [drawing the main idea] was dumb at first,” she says, adding that she wouldn’t have done it without the unity imposed by the reading calendar.

Pollock fears that more flexibility could degenerate into “well, here’s the book, use it. You’ll use it as much as you use any other book, which means probably not as much as if someone was breathing down your neck.”

Finally, Principal Klunk asks the question directly: “Are people happier wanting to be more creative? Or are they happier doing what we ask them to do?” No one answers.

Today is the social studies department’s turn to teach reading. In the late afternoon, on the second floor, about 20 freshmen squirm and chatter in their seats. To get their attention, environmental geography teacher Janet Fennerty simply stands and looks at them. Like magic, a hush falls on the room. “Thank you,” she says quietly.

Later, students read an article about the destruction of elephants by ivory hunters; they must highlight what they think is the main idea of each paragraph. The room is remarkably still as students begin reading. But when a messenger comes to the door and Fennerty’s eyes are off them, they revert to being teenagers, whispering or staring out the window. One look from Fennerty, however, and the magical stillness returns.

Some students have nearly covered the page with highlighter; others have barely left a mark. Even so, all participate in a thoughtful discussion about ivory and debate whether Chicago would be affected if elephants disappeared. It’s hard to tell how many of them understood the point of highlighting, but there’s no question that all of them were reading.

May 7 Another monkey wrench for planning.

This morning, school programmer Timothy “Mike” Barnette makes a special appearance in the “board room,” where department chairs are meeting. “I gotta talk about classes,” he says.

Dave Goodman arrives and is surprised to see Barnette there. “Uh-oh, it must be serious if you’ve gotta come,” he wisecracks. “I mean, they don’t wake you up for just anything.”

During the meeting, Klunk asks teachers to volunteer for advisory training. In the last week of July, five teachers and two counselors from each high school are to attend a week of paid training. Guidance department chair Sondra Few already is in training to become a trainer.

Reading specialist Jane Moy raises her hand to volunteer. Goodman also volunteers, but he has some questions, too. “What are these people gonna do, train the others?” he asks. “Is this telling us who’s gonna do it?”

“This has nothing to do with those issues,” replies Klunk. “This is trying to prepare.”

However, Few notes the effect: “But the five teachers will be the five experts for the teachers.”

Science chair Jaime Alvarez, foreign language chair Sonia Barillas and math chair Aurora Villegas join Few and Goodman to complete the teacher contingent. Gloria Bader and Katrina Hamb will represent the guidance counselors.

“Let’s jump down to books,” Klunk says. “When do you want to get together to do the book money?”

“ASAP,” answers Alvarez.

“As soon as we know how many classes are available,” cautions social studies chair Mary Ross, bringing up the still unresolved class schedule issue.

Klunk tells the group that a Junior Academy proposal has been sent to central office. If approved, it could bring up to $100,000 to the school, with $80,000 available for extended-day salaries.

Soon, the group again is talking schedule, which gives Barnette his opening. “We’re working with soft numbers, and that requires forecasting,” he says. Elementary schools don’t yet know how their students did on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, so they can’t say for sure how many 8th-graders will graduate. Since those who don’t graduate in June will get a second chance in summer school, “we won’t really have final freshman numbers ’til the end of summer,” he notes.

Further, new state guidelines for ESL have caused another scheduling wrinkle: Double-period classes will be required for advanced as well as beginning ESL. With about 600 of Amundsen’s 1,700 students enrolled in ESL, Barnette is desperate for space.

“For ESL, we need 12 additional classrooms. For foreign language, we need 11 additional classrooms—in a school that had every classroom filled second through eighth period,” he says.

Klunk adds that the new ESL requirement means he will need more teachers as well as more rooms. “I don’t know exactly how it will fit,” he says. “It means almost doubling that function. I don’t think central office knows the impact it’ll have on a few schools—us, Senn, Mather, some schools on the South Side.”

May 9 Making music.

Senior Zita Molnar, who started playing violin in Hungary at age 7, is a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony. Although her own musical education has been mostly outside the Chicago public schools, she appreciates Amundsen’s commitment to music. The school is one of very few that offer orchestra; it also has three levels of music instruction.

“Not a lot, but a few people” juggle their programs to take music all four years, Zita says. But the steady increase in other required courses has “made it harder to get it into their budget, or however you say it,” she says, giggling at her phrasing. Zita thinks the new crunch on electives is a “really bad idea.”

Not surprisingly, choir director Bill Spain agrees. “They only want people to have one year of music, at most two,” and not necessarily consecutively, he says. “That means I’d be teaching beginning stuff all the time. There’s no way I can build a program. When you can’t build a program, the students who are in it and like it can’t advance.”

Music pays off in surprising ways, he argues. “I know at least five students who don’t drop out because they can express themselves in music. I end up with the troublemakers. Most of the other staff here don’t understand how I can do that, but those kids want to be here. They will do their best in their classes because I insist” they keep up their grades to take music.

Advisory dominates the discussion over lunch in the upstairs faculty lounge. Jaime Alvarez wonders about the practicalities: “Do we have the time? Do we have rooms? [Is] this going to be a class itself? Since we are supposed to have five classes, how will this work? We are in limbo.”

Though Alvarez speaks passionately about the uncertainty, he’s comfortable with change. He enjoyed the challenge of incorporating reading strategies into his lessons. “The teacher is supposed to be creative,” he says. “We have to be a little bit of everything.”

But Gloria Henllan-Jones is uneasy about possibly being thrown into highly emotional waters. “If it goes there [into personal issues], some really scary stuff can happen,” she says. “I have a lot of Bosnian kids who have been through some terrible stuff. If some of that stuff starts getting out into the classroom, how will I deal with that? I wouldn’t want to try.”

English teacher Mary Kay Cappitelli talks as if the 45-minute schedule is a done deal, despite the need to vote on a waiver. “I liked 50 minutes,” she says, “but then I liked Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too. It’s not a choice anymore.”

At the end of the day, David Goodman talks about Thursday’s Union House of Delegates meeting. “The union dropped the ball” on the advisory issue, he says. “No, they didn’t even pick up the ball.” Goodman says he was one of only two delegates who raised the issue.

May 12 Block scheduling.

Another piece of the scheduling puzzle is block scheduling. Principal Klunk has promised that any teacher who wants to teach double-period classes and can find a partner can go ahead next fall. Science teachers are especially eager to get the time for lab experiments. But many details have yet to be worked out.

Gloria Henllan-Jones has been teaching double-period classes as part of her ESL duties for years. “I don’t think of it as a block any more,” she says. With two periods, students have time to read, write, speak and listen.

But she doesn’t think block scheduling is for everyone, right away. “You need to be trained. If you’re not experienced, you need the training.”

She notes that during a course last summer at the University of Chicago, she met suburban teachers whose schools had shifted to block scheduling. “They prepared for two years,” she says. “They still had problems, but they were prepared to deal with them.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen here in this school or in this system,” she adds. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re on block programming and that’s it.'”

May 13 Rehashing Freshman Academy, welcoming International Baccalaureate.

This morning Joe Shoffner is taking the students in his Freshman Academy class to the computer room for a career interest survey. The results will help guidance counselors Gloria Bader and Maria Fonseca organize groups for career counseling in Junior Academy next year.

Freshman Academy has received mixed reviews at Amundsen. Freshmen meet with their division teachers three times a week for special instruction. The classes were held at the end of the day first semester, but were changed to first thing in the morning second semester to allay parent fears about student safety. Although students disliked having to get up early second semester, a number of those interviewed credited Freshman Academy with helping their grades and possibly their test scores.

Small groups of teachers worked together on each of the five topics Freshman Academy addressed: study skills, reading, writing, math and guidance. Teachers developed lessons in their areas of interest and taught them to their own division plus four others. “I would keep the rotation we’re doing now,” says choir director Bill Spain. “I get to see more than just my kids.” Other teachers say they appreciated having time to perfect a lesson and the sharing of curriculum responsibilities, a departure from the typical “every man for himself.”

“I think it’s been really positive,” Spain says, although he, like just about everyone else Catalyst interviewed, says it was tough going at first.

Assistant Principal Ken Hunter praises Freshman Academy for boosting attendance and slightly lowering Amundsen’s first-semester failure rate for freshmen.

But some teachers say the price was too high. “I would never do this again,” says drama and special ed teacher Shoffner while his students work on the career survey. “Last year I directed four plays. This was not for pay—I did it for free. This year I did not one. I like to be a team player, and I’m glad for the increase in test scores. But personally and professionally, I think my skills would be better employed in another area.”

“This year was hell,” agrees Janet Fennerty. “This year had physical effects on people.” Since freshmen social studies and science teachers are on a late schedule, moving Freshman Academy to first period meant Fennerty had to put in two extra hours but was paid for only one of them.

She also says that teachers did not get the time they were promised “to discuss student progress and the implementation of the curriculum.” She fears a repeat next year as high school restructuring continues. “I’m not saying it’s not necessary, but it has to be done in a way that is more consistent, more planned, not thrown in on top of us.”

Tonight the local school council meets in the library; a small group of staff and one parent observe. Klunk announces that Amundsen is one of the two Region 1 high schools approved to start an International Baccalaureate, an elite honors program, next fall. At least one-third of the students must come from Amundsen’s feeder elementary schools, but the rest can come from elsewhere in the region. “This will instantly infuse academic talent in here over the next few years,” says Klunk.

At a faculty meeting next week, Klunk will discuss the need to attract students from the immediate neighborhood, Lincoln Square. “Six hundred and twenty-seven kids in this neighborhood go to Lane,” he says. “If 627 of them went here, this would be an entirely different school. If 12 to 15 percent came here, our scores would be more like 40 percent [at grade level] than 20 percent.”

May 19 “Power to the people.”

The date for the vote on the contract waiver has been set for May 27. At this week’s faculty meeting, Klunk offers a new deal on the advisory and schedule questions. He brings in an overhead projector to show a weekly plan involving three different bell schedules. This plan would provide eight 45-minute periods, add advisory twice a week, and end the day 25 minutes early on Friday. “If we go to this schedule, everyone gets 25 minutes free,” says Klunk.

Klunk also suggests distributing the $80,000 in expected extended-day salaries for Junior Academy teachers among the entire faculty—in return for everyone taking an advisory. “Wouldn’t it be more equitable to pay every teacher this money than to pay 22 or 23 teachers that money? We could set up the training [in advisory] so the whole faculty is paid.”

Teachers look confused. “So you’re saying we’d teach advisory for free and get paid to get trained in how to do it?” asks Charlie Vanover.

Klunk reminds him that they would have to teach 25 minutes less per week. “You get to go home Friday a little bit earlier. It may be a lot [to you], it may not be a lot. If the union and the board come to an agreement, that has precedent over everything we do.”

“I hope so,” interjects Tom Hunter, hoping they reach an agreement.

“Me too,” says Klunk. “I wish the union would come out and say in writing that every teacher should refuse to teach advisory until we settle this issue. We shouldn’t have this kind of dichotomy amongst us. I don’t even know how my superiors” are going to react to today’s proposals.

“I’m in a crazy position,” he adds. “I’m the middleman. The board tells me they want us to do [advisory] every day, and I’m the one who has to implement it. We’ve had great morale this year. We’re on a roll with the test scores, and I surely don’t want to see that destroyed.”

Later in the meeting Judy Pollock asks what will happen to advisory if teachers vote down the waiver. Klunk tells her it would probably be put at the beginning of the day. In an interview last week, he said that under those circumstances, it would have to be limited to freshmen and sophomores.

A few minutes later, Klunk cites a surprising source in support of his cause. “The April issue of Substance says 45-minute periods are a good idea because they save jobs. It’s on page six or seven.” Klunk has long been at odds with Substance editor George Schmidt, who once taught at Amundsen.

“You read Substance?” Tom Hunter asks wryly. The room dissolves in laughter.

“I don’t always read it, but someone showed it to me,” Klunk admits as the laughter subsides. “I’m just looking for a compromise so we can go forward. We don’t need to hold the school back, the kids back, over this little issue.”

“It’s not so little,” someone murmurs.

Vanover summarizes the situation as he sees it. “The board, instead of trying to negotiate with the union, is trying to have you negotiate with us,” he says. “If the board wants advisory, they should pay for it.”

“But that’s what they want to do,” insists assistant principal Sherwin Bulmash, who earlier made the case that the extended day money shared among teachers is a step in the right direction.

“Charlie’s right,” says Klunk. “There’s two sides. They’re butting heads, and they’re making individual schools deal with the consequences.” He urges the faculty to call the board and the union to urge them to resolve the issue, otherwise “they are gonna force negative consequences.”

This gets a response from the crowd, especially from teachers who have been silent during the meeting. “That’s right,” says one. “Amen,” calls another.

It’s a few minutes before 4 p.m. Without formal closure, the bulk of the faculty rises as one and starts heading for the doors. Everyone is talking excitedly. Fine arts chair Bettie Barnes looks over her shoulder at a reporter and says matter-of-factly, “Power to the people.”