Faculty, staff, students ‘desperately’ seek leadership

Print More

The principal’s office at Collins High could use a revolving door. Over the past two years, four people have held the job at the North Lawndale school. After Principal Clement Smith retired in January 1999, the board sent John West, a central office administrator, to serve as interim.

A few months later, Collins’ local school council awarded a contract to Luvenia Williams, an assistant principal at Tesla Alternative High. Their decision riled teachers who had hoped Assistant Principal Learna Brewer-Baker would get the job.

“[Brewer-Baker] was the driving force in getting the school off probation,” says Barbara Sizemore, a retired DePaul University School of Education dean who created School Achievement Structure (SAS), a method of school improvement. SAS has been Collins’ external partner since 1996.

(In 1999, Collins’ TAP scores more than doubled to 27 percent at or above national norms in reading and 40 percent in math. But last year, in the midst of continuing principal turnover, they dropped back down to 11 percent in reading, 27 percent in math.)

Sizemore says despite Brewer-Baker’s charisma, her enemies made sure the school would get a new principal.

After the council approved Williams as principal, a group of teachers protested. Some wore black on certain days. Others wrote letters. “I’ve got copies of 35 to 40 letters they wrote to Paul Vallas and Gery Chico and anyone else who would listen,” says Sizemore. “Those teachers [who supported Brewer-Baker] would not give up. [Williams] never had a chance.”

According to Sizemore, many of Collins’ teachers never warmed up to Williams. “Unfortunately, they interpreted her reserve as arrogance.”

Less than a year after her appointment, Williams left. (Williams, who now works at central office in the curriculum and instruction department, says she requested the transfer and was not forced out, as some speculate.)

John West returned for a brief stint until last winter, when the board appointed Loretta Lawrence, then principal of Jefferson Elementary.

But Lawrence didn’t last either. She held the job until July, when the board placed Collins and four other schools on intervention, the most severe school restructuring process. The board decided to install new principals at each school. The board’s pick was Diane Dyer-Dawson, who had recently resigned after an eight-year stint as principal of Proviso East High School in Maywood.

“I decided to leave Proviso East because, after eight years, you’ve effected as much change as you’re going to,” says Dawson. “I was thinking in terms of teaching at the college level but when [Collins] was offered, I thought I’d give it a try.”

Dawson did not have much time to plot a strategy. She was hired Aug. 7 and started working the week before classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 22. Immediately, she recognized the challenge: to overcome organizational disarray and the school’s troubled past. “These teachers are looking for leadership,” she says.

So far, the demands of the job are far exceeding Dawson’s expectations. Principals at intervention schools are required to observe and evaluate every school employee five times by April. Dawson already missed the Oct. 6 deadline for turning in two evaluations of each teacher. At least one other intervention principal missed the deadline, too.

Intervention principals are paying a price for spending so much time doing classroom visits, says Sizemore. “A principal has to develop relationships with the staff and students, give her staff her vision for the school. [Dawson’s] trying to figure out how in the world to get the time to do that.”

This fall, Dawson’s time is consumed by chronic discipline, security, truancy and tardiness problems, as well as a constant stream of intervention paperwork. Even the smallest details of Dawson’s ongoing contact with Jerlyn Maloy, Collins intervention team leader, must be logged.

CPS Intervention Officer JoAnn Roberts, who oversees intervention efforts at all five schools, has asked them to track the times of each meeting and describe what they talked about.

Meanwhile, teachers already are feeling the strain of intervention. “There is so much pressure in this building, it is overwhelming,” says Howard Gold, an English teacher who has spent 16 years at Collins.

Some, though, express a guarded optimism. “We were floundering here,” says another veteran teacher. “There’s been no stability. I hope this works. I want it to work.”

The teacher’s comments echo those of the new principal. “This is a school that’s desperately looking for leadership.”

Monday, Sept. 18 Forging ties to community

Tonight, a community meeting about intervention is to be convened at Collins. One problem: The community didn’t show up. The cavernous auditorium is nearly empty.

The board has hired teams of outreach workers at all five intervention schools to combat truancy and identify prospective community partners. The workers report to two CPS central office administrators: James Deanes, director of school and community relations, and Rev. Janette Wilson, director of human relations and community outreach.

“If [community residents] partner with the school, the kids won’t be hanging out at the local grocery when school is in session,” Wilson explains. “We want the local business people to help us make sure the kids are focused on school. We also want them to be part of our celebrations. In the suburbs, everyone is involved in the schools.”

Wilson and Deanes are hitting the pavement, too. They are making the rounds through intervention school neighborhoods, talking with nearby business owners and church ministers, and asking them to attend school football games, show up for LSC meetings and act as mentors for students.

Engaging the community is going to be tough. Nestled in the midst of Douglas Park, Collins is isolated from neighborhood residents. “It’s a major problem,” says Wilson. “It’s just going to take us a while [to cultivate community involvement]. At schools like South Shore, we’ve had much larger representation at meetings. They’re more organized.”

Wilson tells the handful of people at tonight’s meeting that six outreach workers, including Deborah Michael and Eddie Williams, had made 181 phone calls and 29 home visits to track down truants. So far, 42 students have been re-instated. “Give us the information on your kids who need to be found,” says Williams, “and we’ll go find them. No matter where we have to go, we’ll find them.”

Thursday, Sept 21 ‘Endless busywork’

Clipboard in hand, Jerlyn Maloy, Collins’ intervention team leader, is making her rounds this morning. She visits one classroom after another, spending just a minute or two in each. First, she makes sure the objective of today’s lesson is posted on the blackboard. Next, she listens to the teacher’s instruction, to verify that it coincides with the objective. Then, Maloy checks off the teacher’s name, jots down her observations and moves on.

“I keep my log and discuss what I’ve seen with the intervention team members,” says Maloy, who previously was assistant principal at Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn for six years. “I get to as many classrooms as I can each day, maybe three-quarters of them.”

Maloy’s team includes four full-time core subject specialists, who are also observing as many classes as they can each day. Teachers are also being observed by central intervention staffers and an SAS coordinator.

Several teachers say they don’t mind the steady stream of observers as much as they object to what one calls “endless busywork.” A month later, many say they are overwhelmed by the demands of intervention. For instance, the intervention team has asked teachers to call the parents of any student who is absent, tardy or misbehaving, and track their efforts in a log. For each student who is failing, teachers must fill out and submit a form detailing their efforts to prevent the student’s failure.

Says English teacher Gold: “If I were five people, I doubt I could do everything that’s expected of me at a quality level.”

Wednesday, Sept. 27 Crackdown on truants

Starting today, Collins is cracking down on tardy students. Between 50 to 80 students are late for class every day, says Dawson. Some stroll in at 10 a.m.

After each period begins, security guards escort late students into the auditorium. Their I.D cards are confiscated, and their names are added to a list of students whose parents will be called.

Students who are chronically late will meet individually with an outreach worker. They also will be required to have their teachers sign a form that says the student was in class and on time. The sheets must be turned in to the attendance office at the end of the day.

Outreach workers Deborah Michael and Eddie Williams spend the morning compiling lists, meeting with students and calling parents.

“A lot of times, you can’t reach the homes by phone,” says Michael. “The number has been disconnected or someone will say ‘I don’t speak to that person anymore’ or the child will answer and say their parents aren’t home.”

If the parents can’t be reached by phone, Michael and Williams visit the students’ homes. Four outreach workers assigned from central office help them keep on top of a regimen of 15 to 20 home visits per day.

But reaching a parent is no guarantee of support, says Michael. The initial response from many parents is: “I can’t do anything with my child,” she says. “I look at them and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t do anything with them?’ I let them know that if they don’t get their child in school, their public assistance can be cut off.”

Later this morning, Williams meets with a student in the attendance office. “I have you on two lists,” Williams tells the 16-year-old. One for chronic absences, the other for chronic tardiness.

“I’ll be just a few minutes late [after 8 a.m.] and they won’t let me in,” the student complains. Williams isn’t buying the excuse. You’ve been missing second period classes, too, he chides.

Williams, who used to teach conflict resolution at public housing developments, offers to help the student. He is supposed to be a junior but failed most of his sophomore classes. He was a good student in elementary school but was distracted by girls last year, he claims. Now, he tells Williams, he wants to get his education back on track.

Williams agrees to help the boy enroll in evening school to make up credits. The boy promises to attend school regularly and be on time. “I’ll be looking for you every morning,” Williams warns him.

“You do that Mr. Williams,” says the student, appearing earnest. “I don’t want to fail.” A week later, the attendance office books show that the student, so far, has been coming to school on time each day.

Enrollment at Collins is 820. Attendance hovered around 80 percent last year. (The citywide average for high schools is 83.5 percent). This year, with the efforts of the outreach workers, the rate has climbed to 86 percent, says Wilson.

Thursday, Oct. 5 Bolstering security

The intervention team is trying something new. Team members are giving students free spiral notebooks if they sign contracts agreeing to take notes each day in class.

During class observations, the team noticed that many students were not taking notes. Thelma Johnson, the team’s science specialist, says some students who do take notes use a single notebook for all their classes, compiling notes for one subject on top of another. “So the notes are disjointed,” she says. “How do you go home and study like that?”

The team has 800 notebooks to distribute. The first stop is Carol Giles’ freshman earth science class. Most students already have a notebook, but Giles encourages them to use the free one for science class. Fourteen of the 17 students sign up. Johnson tells them she will be back to make sure the students are taking notes

Later, the intervention team meets with representatives from external partner SAS. Security and discipline dominate the discussion: Too many students are wandering the hallways. More security guards are needed. A small group of 10 hard-to-control students cause a disproportionate amount of trouble.

“Do you know where the kids are hiding?” asks SAS Director Kymara Chase.

“In the washrooms and in the empty classrooms,” responds team leader Maloy.

Chase suggests installing gates to close off some washrooms and locking empty classrooms. A glut of 64 exterior doors presents another problem at Collins. They are locked on the outside, but students can open them from the inside to let someone in. Students frequently use these exits to skip out on 8th and 9th period classes.

Sizemore has a solution. “You have to get more security on the floors.” (Two weeks later, Dawson finds money in her budget to hire two more part-time security guards.)

Tuesday, Oct. 10 Violence triggers fears

Back in her office after a three-day weekend, Principal Dawson takes a few minutes to reflect on last week’s stressful events. News of an alleged gang leader’s murder near a Lawndale elementary school caught Collins off guard. Extra police officers were dispatched to Collins to patrol outside the school and calm residents’ fears of escalating violence.

“I think it affected the students a lot,” says Dawson. “I had a lot of parents calling to get early dismissal for their children or coming to school to get their children. Friday afternoon, we had classes as small as three students. I saw real fear. Those here at the end of the day, when the bell rang, they flew from this school.

“The police were very cooperative. They came in and let us know where they were going to be, and we didn’t have any problems around the school, but there was real fear and that affects the students.”

Dawson hopes the fear has waned after a long weekend. “This is homecoming week. We’re trying to have normal school.”

But three days later, fears that violence will erupt at Collins prompts a request from Schools and Regions Chief Blondean Davis to cancel the Homecoming parade and dance.

Monday, Oct. 30 Tougher intervention policies

The principals and team leaders from all five intervention schools are holding their monthly meeting at Orr High this afternoon. JoAnn Roberts introduces two new staff members, who will be working with principals to write strategic plans. The plans are the final phase of the three-step intervention process. (Assessing teachers and reorganizing the school are the other two.)

Collins wants to forge partnerships with nearby medical schools and hospitals. Roberts uses the idea as a model for other schools to follow. “You all need a hook to give students a reason to come to your school,” she says.

Next, the principals get self-assessment forms. A consultant is working with the board on evaluating intervention principals, whose jobs are not guaranteed past this year. “After you assess the staff, a determination will be made on principals,” she says. “Everyone is on notice in this process.”

Roberts then shares some good news. This morning, she learned that the Illinois State Board of Education had approved a $375,000 grant to the intervention office. Roberts knows already how the money will be spent. “We need curriculum alignment and assessment data to address the number of student failures.”

Five representatives of Kinney & Associates enter the room. The Oak Brook-based firm will be reviewing textbooks at intervention schools to align the curriculum with questions on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency. Kinney will test students every six weeks, run staff development programs and provide tutorial test software.

Since Kinney will be working with all intervention schools, DuSable and Orr can no longer retain the firm as an external partner. Roberts suggests they begin to search for a replacement.

Roberts also conveys a couple new intervention policy initiatives. First, intervention school teachers will no longer be allowed to transfer to other CPS schools during the academic year. Second, chronic truants should be encouraged to transfer into night school programs.

Finally, Roberts reminds them that teachers at intervention schools should conduct 600 minutes of reading per week, in daily two-hour installments. “In science, you can read articles,” she suggests, “In math, you can read about Pythagorus. You have to document this.”

Wednesday, Nov. 1 Truant teachers

Intervention team leader Maloy is meeting with Assistant Principal Jerry Sutton to refine discipline and tardy procedures. Collins instituted hall sweeps this week. After each period begins, students who are in the hallways are rounded up and taken to a holding area. Names are recorded. Parents will be called. In some cases, students meet with counselors.

Collins is also asking teachers to confiscate hats and earrings worn by boys. Students can retrieve such items at the end of the school year. Students were forewarned of the crackdown; the news was announced in division and broadcast over the school’s public address system.

At present, Collins does not have a policy for detention or in-school suspension. But both are needed, says Maloy. First, she has to find staff to oversee two holding areas, one for students who are serving detention or awaiting suspension, and another for students who are late for class or loitering in the halls. Maloy and Sutton review a master list of staff schedules, looking for anyone with a free period. They find enough to cover eight periods. Intervention team specialists will also pitch in on holding area coverage, at least for now.

Collins students have made a habit out of skipping class, says Mike Lawson, a security officer who worked at the school for eight years. “They just wander around the halls,” he says. The worst time is after lunch, around 1 p.m., when students try to skip afternoon classes by leaving the school.

A week later, Lawson reports the sweeps seem to be working. The halls are quieter. More students are going to class. “It has changed since the beginning of the year,” he says.

Later today, Maloy says it’s frustrating to spend so much time on non-instructional issues. “The process of moving forward isn’t progressing as quickly as I’d like it to. But Collins didn’t become an intervention school overnight, and change isn’t going to happen overnight.

“Kids need to be in class. They need to be in school on time. But [coming late] is part of the culture. Then we try calling parents, and a lot of them don’t have phones. It does get frustrating.”

Today, 30 student council members hold their first meeting of the year to elect officers, brainstorm ideas to raise money and discuss other student concerns.

The latter discussion begins with the universal topic of “terrible” food in the cafeteria but then moves on to more serious, academic concerns.

Junior Cicely Smith complains that her teachers are absent frequently and that the substitutes don’t teach—they just take names and tell the class to talk quietly. “I think my grades and education are being jeopardized,” she says. Another girl claims she had subs for four of her seven classes one day last week.

(Collins’ action plan, written by the intervention team, identifies frequently late and absent teachers as one of the school’s major problems. Letters of reprimand have been sent to them.)

Another junior says she has been programmed back into the same computer class she passed as a freshman, and she can’t get credit for it twice. “Can’t they give you classes you need?” she asks.

Newly elected president Jermaine Moore writes down the complaints. Faculty sponsor DeVita Joy says she’ll look for an administrator to address the group’s concerns.

After the meeting, Moore, a senior, says students are well aware of intervention. Teachers often mention the need “to get scores up,” and visitors are frequently observing their classes. “There’s a lot of people watching over them,” he says, and speculates the attention is making teachers nervous.

Moore and Daneshia Hamilton, a sophomore who was elected corresponding secretary, both feel intervention has actually hurt Collins by chasing away talented faculty. “A lot of good teachers from last year didn’t come back,” says Moore. “I’m afraid more are going to leave.”

Collins recently lost another veteran English teacher, says Hamilton. Freddie Cooksey transferred to Tilden several weeks ago. “My education is in jeopardy if teachers keep leaving,” she says.

Collins was successful in filling its teacher vacancies by the start of school, but since then has lost at least seven teachers for reasons ranging from medical leave to lack of proper credentials to low enrollment.

Wednesday, Nov. 8 Student disconnect

At 10:30 a.m., about 100 students fill the library to listen to a pitch for evening school. Leonard Kenebrew is coordinating tutorials and evening school programs for the five intervention schools.

The students gathered here are all “demotes.” They should be juniors and seniors, but they failed too many courses to be promoted. Evening school gives them an opportunity to make up credits.

“We care, but you have to care more,” Kenebrew tells them. “If you don’t, you’re going to find your options limited.”

Evening school registration is being extended two days to give more students time to register. He asks students who have already registered to raise their hands. About 15 hands go up. To encourage more of them to sign up, he says students from intervention schools don’t have to pay the $25 fee up front; they have until the course is completed to come up with the money.

Spanish teacher Grafton Brown, who has brought his division students to the meeting, believes more will sign up before evening school starts next week. “They’ll do it because they need it, and they want to graduate,” he says.

Intervention team English specialist Lois Ward is at her computer this afternoon, updating a Reading Improvement Plan. Some of the plan has already been implemented. One period a day, for example, all students do silent sustained reading. They also are required to read at least one book on their own each marking period. “That’s the minimum,” says Ward.”We want them to do more.”

The silent sustained reading has been a challenge for some students, says English teacher Helen Cook. “These are very vocal young people,” she says. “They like to talk. It’s hard to get them to sit and read quietly.”

One technique that she has tried with success is to play an audiotape of a book, while the students read along. “That gets them started and gets them into it,” she says; then they’re more motivated to continue reading on their own.

English teacher Rosemary Wilson also says she has trouble getting her students to do reading assignments. When she asks them to answer questions from a reading, they’ll skim for answers but not read the assignment.

Despite the difficulties in creating an environment of readers, Ward says she has noticed an improvement in the English classes. “I see increased interaction in the classes and students participating more,” she says. “I watched a class discuss a short story last week, and the students were very engaged in the discussion. I see us making our reading goals at Collins.”