Focus on literacy pays off in the long run

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Three years ago, Pablo Casals Elementary set out on a mission to boost literacy.

Teachers in primary grades began using Direct Instruction (DI), a scripted, phonics-based reading program. Middle-grade teachers opted to use basal readers. Everyone picked up the Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) program, a 20-minute daily reading regimen. The focus on basics and highly structured curricula had teachers on a strict pacing schedule that told them what skills to teach each week.

At the time, Principal John Mazurek believed literacy would pave the school’s way to higher test scores and student achievement. He gave the new strategies two years to show results. (See Catalyst, October 1996.) He has not been disappointed.

This past spring, reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills jumped to 29 percent at or above grade level from 17 percent in 1996. Math scores improved as well, to 43 percent at or above from 14 percent two years ago.

“I’m so proud of this school,” says Mazurek. He has been principal at this West Humboldt Park school since it opened in 1989.

“Three years ago, we started doing these things with no extra money. We had 3rd-and 4th- graders who couldn’t read. Now, we have 3rd- and 4th-graders who are reading above grade level, and we’re having to refine the reading plan so we can take care of those kids.”

With an enrollment of 820 students, half African American and half Hispanic, Casals has been on a year-round schedule since 1995 to relieve overcrowding. Students and teachers are divided into four tracks; each holds classes for three months, then takes a month off. It’s a confusing schedule, but most teachers say they like the long breaks and the smaller class sizes.

Some teachers privately express concerns, though, that the board wants to do away with year-round schools. The board has promised a new school for this bustling neighborhood, where there are three other overcrowded schools within five blocks of Casals.

“Mr. [Paul] Vallas has said he’s still committed to year-round schools in places that are overcrowded,” says Mazurek. “He’s pushing hard to solve the overcrowding problem because he’d like to have all schools on the same schedule. His contention is that the right way to educate children is on a regular schedule with a summer Bridge program to address at-risk students.

“So far, there’s been a commitment for a new school, but there’s no site. Without tearing down a factory or a block of homes, there’s no space here.”

SEPT 10 Janitor shortage.

On the agenda at today’s 8:20 a.m. staff meeting is a problem with the custodial staff. Mazurek explains to teachers why some classrooms weren’t cleaned last night. Casals has a full-time engineer, Gary Dehne, plus three custodial workers from a private company. One of the two overnight custodial workers couldn’t do his job last night because he didn’t have his required paperwork on file, says Mazurek.

“Hopefully, they’ll send a sub today,” says Mazurek. “Sometimes they send good workers, sometimes not so good, and sometimes they try hard but don’t get into the routine of things here.”

Casals has been assigned three custodial companies in the last two years. The last one was dismissed over the summer, says Dehne, because they weren’t doing an adequate job. Ernie Terrell, Inc. replaced them.

Dehne isn’t completely satisfied with Terrell either. Terrell has not devoted enough manpower to Casals, says Dehne, who admits he is “picky” about the cleanliness at the school. At least once a week, one member of the custodial crew assigned to Casals does not show up for work. “And then we have to play catch-up,” he says.

Next Wednesday, though, a man from a company called East Lake pays Casals an unexpected visit. He is a liaison between the board and the custodial companies and he’s here to do an audit of Casals’ custodial needs. Mazurek walks him around the building.

“He was concerned about what you could call the second level of cleaning, like dusting, baseboards,” says Mazurek. “His recommendation was that we get an extra part-time person.” The auditor says he’ll make that recommendation, and he asks Mazurek to write a letter to the board supporting his finding.

SEPT 20 LSC gets quorum.

When the Casals Local School Council meets in the teacher’s lounge at 4 p.m., the first topic of discussion is the shortage of LSC members.

Before school let out last June, three parents and one community rep had resigned from the council. One moved and the other three said they didn’t have time for the LSC. A fourth parent has been visiting in the Dominican Republic for months, and no one knows when he’ll be back. That leaves six members—not a sufficient number for a quorum.

The six members here today say they have tried everything short of tying up people and dragging them in. Chair Beatrice Rodriguez says she has “begged” people at Casals’ monthly parent meetings to get involved with the LSC, without any success. But at 4:30 p.m., two of Rodriguez’ recruits arrive.

Both are mothers of Casals students. Neither speaks English, so Martha Perez, Casals’ former LSC chair, who has come to listen to today’s meeting, accompanies them to places at the council table. She will serve as their translator.

As council members begin questioning the two prospective LSC members, chairwoman Rodriguez speaks in Spanish to the only other parent left in the audience. She asks her if she would be willing to become an LSC member. The woman, who has a son in kindergarten at Casals, says she only has come to the meeting to bring up a concern, but soon she, too, is seated at the table fielding questions.

How many children do you have in school? Why do you want to be on the LSC? Can you consistently come to one, two-hour meeting a month?

Next, Casals kindergarten teacher and LSC rep Christina Richter asks if they could attend 12 hours of training. Maybe, answers one. Probably not, say the other two.

Mazurek points out that new LSC members have six months in which to take the training classes, and by then it will be April, time for LSC elections. “We only need them for six months,” adds Rodriguez. “We could vote them in and then have six months [to find others to run for permanent LSC spots]. We need a full council now.”

But Richter counters that the council knows nothing about these people. She wonders whether they’ll have the dedication to regularly show up at meetings. “I’m not comfortable with voting people in just to have a full council,” she says.

At 5 p.m., she’s the lone dissenting vote when the council votes 5-1 to accept these three women onto the LSC.

“Congratulations,” says Mazurek. “You’re all part of the council.”

The new members smile weakly. They look a little scared and unsure of what they’ve just gotten themselves into.

It’s the first quorum Casals LSC has cobbled together in months. For the next 20 minutes, members cast their votes on four pressing items that have been languishing for lack of a quorum. Mazurek explains what each vote is about, pausing frequently so the translator can repeat everything in Spanish.

The LSC was supposed to have been elected a new chairperson in July. Rodriguez unofficially has continued in that role. It’s about to become official. After Mazurek asks if anyone else wants the job—and no one does—Rodriguez is unanimously re-elected.

Next, Mazurek needs approval to spend $25,000 in federal e-rate money to get Casals wired for the Internet, or the school will lose $250,000 in federal funding. After a quick explanation, the vote passes unanimously. The council also approves spending a $12,500 State Quality Review grant on staff development and technology.

Finally, Mazurek wants the council to approve funding a teacher position. It’s a precaution, he explains, in case the board cuts one of his bilingual positions. He doesn’t currently have enough bilingual students to justify his four-and-a half positions. “They might change their minds or they might say cut a position next week,” Mazurek says. “I don’t want to lose a position. We do have the money in state rollovers, so I’d like to be able to use that to fund a position.”

The council votes “yes” on this request, too.

At 5:30 p.m., one of the new council members tells the translator she has to go home. She didn’t know she would be elected to the LSC today and wasn’t planning on staying this long. She has children at the meeting whom she has to bring home. The meeting is adjourned.

“Although it may have appeared a little hectic, this was true democracy in action,” says Mazurek several days later. “We are really trying hard to get more parents involved.”

Within one week, one of the new LSC members has resigned. After being told she has to have a social security number and has to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check, she turns in a letter of resignation.

Rodriguez worries that the other two also might not return. “I commend them [for joining] but I’m concerned because of the language barrier and because of the kids, it might be hard [for the new members] to get to the meetings.”

SEPT 29 Parent patrol.

Mary Padilla is one of three Parent Attendance Officers at Casals. She’s paid $8 an hour and works four hours a day. (She’s also paid $5.50 an hour for two hours of lunchroom duty each day.) Her primary PAO duty is to stand at the corner of Potomac and Central Park avenues to make sure the children get to and from school safely.

For the last two mornings, children have thrown eggs out of the window of a yellow school bus that passes her corner, aiming at Casals children, none of whom ride the school bus.

“I tried to get a look at the bus [to see what school it serviced] but it was too fast. I couldn’t see,” says Padilla. The egg throwers didn’t return in October.

Eggs, though, are a comparatively minor concern.

“This is a gang-invested area,” Padilla says. “Just two weeks ago, a 23-year-old was shot in my alley. We need to be out there to protect the kids.”

The board began funding this Walking School Bus program about two years ago, after two Chicago Public Schools children were shot outside of school. Parents at 25 schools are being paid.

Five positions were funded at each school last year. This year, it was cut to three. Mazurek has been told the program won’t be board-funded next year. Program director Flavia Hernandez confirmed that. Hernandez, who works in the board’s early childhood office, said it’s very expensive to run, and she’s been told it won’t be back.

Although calling it a good program, Mazurek says he won’t use Casals’ money to fund Walking School Bus. “When you take money out of the education budget for security,” he says, “education suffers.”

Before the program began, parents voluntarily supervised children walking to school. Padilla, for example, says she helped children cross at Hirsch and St. Louis streets for 10 years as a volunteer. Mazurek hopes parents will voluntarily step in next year, as they have in the past.

He adds, “Where does the parental role stop and the government role start? The concept of paying parents gets muddy.”

At the moment, though, no one’s getting paid. Parents have been working without pay since the end of August. “We were told by payroll the money would be late in coming,” says Mazurek. (The first paychecks arrive the second week of October.)

By 9 a.m., the parents are in the building and moving on to the attendance portion of their jobs. All children are checked when they enter Casals to make sure they’re wearing the school uniform: white shirts and blue pants. Today, a boy comes to school with a logo on his pants. That violates the uniform policy. Padilla walks him home so he can change into another pair of pants.

The other PAOs, Luz Ortiz and Christina Santiago, are collecting attendance sheets from teachers. They mark absences on a separate sheet and verify whether any student has been out for five consecutive days. Then, the sheets are passed along to parent advocate Beverly Allen, who either calls the homes, makes personal home visits, or dispatches other parents to students’ homes. No visits are needed today. “It helps having the extra bodies,” says Allen. “We can make more visits and be more consistent.”

Mazurek, though, says attendance hasn’t improved measurably since the parents began helping Allen. It has remained around 93 percent. Next year, Allen will resume attendance duties on her own.

Casals has had guests all week from Ryerson School. Small groups of Ryerson teachers are observing DI and listening to Mazurek tout the program. Apparently, word has spread that Casals’ DI program is working.

Observers are a common occurrence, says Mazurek. Last week, teachers from Funston School were here watching DI instruction. “DI has been a wonderful thing for our school,” Mazurek tells the six Ryerson teachers. Reading scores have almost doubled since DI was introduced, he tells them, “but this isn’t just about phonics. It’s also about a method of instruction.”

Casals curriculum coordinator Barbara Phipps adds that DI teaches children to focus and pay attention, skills they can use in other classes.

The Ryerson teachers go to Marinellys Rodriguez’ 2nd-grade classroom. Two teachers sit at opposite ends of the room, working with groups of eight to 10 students. “We put a second person in every primary room, anyone who can walk and talk, so they can work in small groups,” says Mazurek.

Today, Rodriguez’ group is working on phonics, while the other group is working on following directions.

“My turn, ‘sh,’ ” says Rodriguez. “Your turn.”

“Sh,” say the students as she points to the letters ‘S-H’ in her book.

Later, two 2nd-grade Casals teachers say DI is effective at teaching phonics and blending, but it’s not the only reason Casals’ Iowa reading test scores last spring for 1st- and 2nd- graders were higher than they’ve ever been. Some classes had 70 and 80 percent of students reading at or above grade level. They praise Casals’ complete reading program.

“We also use the Treasury of Literature book, we read with them and do other language arts in the afternoon, besides the DI in the morning,” says 2nd -grade teacher Emilia Pena,” so it’s a combination of things. It’s not the DI alone.” The Treasury of Literature is a literary anthology for children.

OCT 5 False start.

Mazurek wrote a letter to the board in September of 1998, asking for help in upgrading the landscaping around Casals. About a month ago, a man from d’Escoto, Inc., a private construction management firm, unexpectedly showed up and asked what work Mazurek wanted done.

“I asked him what it would cost me, and he said the board was paying,” recalls Mazurek, who gave the man a blueprint he had created with suggested improvements such as flowerbeds, a new “Casals” sign, trees, a refurbished play area and a new fence.

Work is supposed to begin this week, so today Mazurek calls d’Escoto to make sure everything’s on schedule.

He is told the man overseeing this project has just been promoted. The person taking over wants to start from scratch. “We’re back to square one,” sighs Mazurek. “It’s kind of frustrating. Now they say they’re not sure what they’ll be able to do. I’m sure something will be done but probably not on the same scale.”

OCT 6 Special ed squeeze.

The 15 special education students in Vivian Shane’s self-contained classroom are supposed to be sitting at their desks with their heads down. They’ve just come back from lunch and they were noisy going through the halls. She wants them to take a short, quiet break.

Within seconds, though, a 1st-grader is on the floor, under his desk, with his shoes off, making circular motions through the air with his hands. The boy has been at Casals for a few months. It didn’t take long for Shane to suspect he might be autistic. She called for a board team to evaluate him. They determined he is, indeed, autistic. It will take another month before they decide how best to provide for him.

In early November, Shane is told that the recommendation is to place the boy in a self-contained, cross-categorical class, with his own full-time aide. She doesn’t know yet if that means he’ll be left in her class, or be sent to a special ed class at another school. Shane has one full-time aide in her class, working with all 15 of the students.

“It’s very distracting having him in here,” says Shane, who has been at Casals for 10 years. “He needs constant monitoring, one-on-one attention, or he’s just on the floor all day.”

Shane’s 1st- through 4th-graders are cross-category, representing several disabilities. Some are operating cognitively at a 3-year-old level, while others are doing 3rd-grade work. Shane and several other teachers believe there are many more students at Casals who need to be in a special ed classroom all day, but there are no extra rooms at Casals, and there’s not enough manpower to evaluate and follow so many special ed students. “We could fill two classrooms like this,” says Shane, “if we had the space and the resources.”

Shane prefers not to take any more children in her room, feeling she has too many as it is. Legally, she can take up to 17, but she balks at having more than 15. When a cousin in New Jersey complains about having eight students in her special education classroom, Shane groans thinking of her 15.

“In my opinion,” says Shane, “putting all of these cross-category children in the same classroom is a way to save money. I suppose the board is trying to do the best they can with the money available, but there’s not enough money made available for special education in Illinois.

“When four or five of my kids are absent, the whole atmosphere in the room changes. We have a whole different kind of day, a calmer day. If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be more than 10 in the class, with a full-time aide.”

First-grade teacher Jane Liao agrees that there are students now in regular classes who probably would be better served in a self-contained, special ed class. “I have several kids who need to have case studies done, and they would likely need a special ed class,” says 2nd- year teacher Liao. “But, unfortunately, there’s a long waiting list to get the case studies done.”

Other special ed students are either in the pullout program, going to resource rooms for reading and math, or are in inclusion classes. There’s one inclusion class for each grade from 5th through 8th. These classes are team taught by both a special ed teacher and regular teacher.

“Inclusion works,” says Ellen West, who has been a special ed teacher for 34 years. This year she’s working in the resource room. “They get to be with their peers, which they enjoy, and they still get the services they need.”

Maurissa Wheaton and Stacy Strelzin team teach the 5th-grade inclusion class, which has 25 students. Nine of those are special ed students. Wheaton is the designated special ed teacher in this room, but Strelzin also happens to be certified in special ed. “Fortunately, we get along very well, and we both came out of the special ed program at DePaul, so we have similar training,” says Wheaton.

Both teachers work with all of the students. Wheaton teaches science and social studies. Strelzin teaches math and language arts. Wheaton pulls aside the special ed students for group lessons or more individualized help when necessary.

Before lunch today, Strelzin takes a group of regular students out of the class (into an empty room across the hall) to read a story about Jackie Robinson from the book, Treasury of Literature. The students take turns reading aloud and discussing the story.

Wheaton stays in the classroom and gives spelling tests to some of the special ed students. Others work on a map at their desks.

“I think the inclusion really works,” says Wheaton. “Between the two of us, we can give the kids the help they need.”

OCT 8 In-house volunteers.

Jennifer Goris, a Casals 7th-grader, is on intersession this month, but she’s spending two weeks at the school grading papers, reading one-on-one with primary students and assisting teachers in their classrooms. Goris is part of the Student Service Corps. These 7th-and 8th graders must get referrals from teachers and be doing well in their own schoolwork to be selected for the Corps.

“I don’t want to be at home doing nothing,” says Goris. “This is more fun. It doesn’t matter that we’re not getting paid.”

Adds Casals 7th-grader Osvaldo Mendez, “It makes you feel good about yourself” to be volunteering.

They report to Casals every morning and work all day. At the end of the two weeks, the six to eight students are taken out to lunch or thrown a small party at school. Some work in classrooms. Others choose to report to engineer Gary Dehne, who had them painting a bathroom and cleaning carpets this week.

“I try to show them the different tools and tell them what their names are, and teach them to do different jobs, so that they’re learning something,” says Dehne. “I keep an eye on them but they’re very responsible.”

OCT 14 Techno lesson plans.

After Catherine Whiting’s 6th-grade social studies students take their seats this morning, they turn to page 91 in their textbooks. They take turns reading about Alexander the Great. Then she helps them work through a ditto identifying the territory he ruled.

A long paragraph in Whiting’s thick lesson plan book spelled out what the students would be doing, what she wanted them to learn from the lesson and how she planned to assess the lesson.

Every teacher at Casals fills out daily lesson plans for each class. Mazurek checks them periodically, making comments on a separate page and sometimes meeting with teachers if the plans are not to his liking.

“There’s a lot of detail involved,” says Whiting, a 2nd-year teacher. “If you’ve been teaching for a while, you might not really need to do it, but I think when you’re first starting out, it’s a good tool to have.”

Even several of Casals’ long-time teachers, though, describe the plans as helping them stay organized and focused.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Casals teachers and administrators worked for several months developing pacing charts for every subject at every grade, aligned with state and board goals. Teachers use that framework to plan lessons.

This year, Casals teachers will have more help in writing lesson plans. Casals has hired Oak Brook-based Kinney & Associates to install its TIE2000 planning and assessment program. Kinney is working in about 80 Chicago Public Schools and 10 suburban school districts this year. Casals is paying Kinney $15,000 for the year, a discounted rate because six other Humboldt Park area schools signed up together. Casals will be the hub where training takes place.

TIE2000 is a computerized system that aligns a school’s curriculum with state and board goals and with the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. It includes computerized lesson planning, assessment tests for teachers to track whether students are learning what’s being taught and a catalog of school resources.

“TIE2000 will show us what the Iowa’s are testing,” says Mazurek, “so we can better prepare, but I’m not saying, and I don’t want you to imply, that we’re teaching to the test. We do recognize, though, what items are being tested and we want to make sure the students have those skills mastered.”

It typically takes a year for Kinney to set up the program in a new school. But since Casals already had pacing charts with the curriculum laid out in detail, it’s only going to take a couple of months to install software and train teachers. The system is expected to be operational by December.

Teachers don’t sound overly excited about TIE2000, but are taking a wait-and-see attitude. A few complain that all the new technology — like their computerized gradebooks — actually make more work for them, not less.

While Casals worked this fall to set up TIE2000, the board sent its new “Structured Curriculum” books to the school. These detailed lesson plans tell teachers at each grade what to teach, and how to teach it. Assistant Principal Maritza Gallegos says she had reviewed some of the guides (Mazurek hadn’t seen them yet) but didn’t think they would be used much at Casals.

“We were told it was up to us if we wanted to use them or not,” says Gallegos, “because our curriculum is laid out already. But we’ll go through the 3rd- and 6th-grade material and see if there’s anything we can use, maybe for the Lighthouse after-school program, if not for the regular classroom.”

OCT 18 Bilingual needs grow.

The 4 p.m. LSC meeting begins with four members (Mazurek, two teachers and community rep Bobby Hunter). At 4:20 p.m., one of the new parent representatives, Alma Rosa Alvarez, arrives. Mazurek remembers that she speaks no English. No one else in the room speaks Spanish. Luckily, Assistant Principal Gallegos is working in the school’s front office. She comes to the faculty lounge to translate for Alvarez.

At 4:25 p.m., parent rep Rolando Escobar arrives. This is his first meeting in four months. He has been in the Dominican Republic. The council is short of a quorum but no votes need to be taken today.

Mazurek reports getting an unusual call from Schools and Regions, asking how the Chicago Police Department crossing guards are working out. He told the caller he doesn’t have any police crossing guards. Schools and Regions says it will assign two to Casals.

A big chunk of the meeting is spent discussing a demographic shift in Casals Hispanic student population that affects the school’s bilingual program. More kids are coming from rural areas of Mexico, and have had little formal schooling. Some of the new children arrive speaking little or no English.

There’s one bilingual class for each grade in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and a combined 4th-5th-grade bilingual class. There’s no bilingual class for 6th-8th graders. Last year, there was a 6th-grade bilingual class, and two years ago there was an 8th-grade bilingual class, says Gallegos.

“The board decided that the children in the bilingual program should exit after three years,” says Gallegos, who doesn’t have a problem with that philosophy. But, she adds, “The problem is, we get new children to the school who are older but haven’t been in the program, and they need it.”

There are eight 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade students at Casals who are struggling to learn English. Their teachers have told Gallegos they need help. They work with an aide in the mornings on reading and ESL. Recently, they’ve added another hour of intensive English study, “but it’s not enough,” says Gallegos, who has called the Region 2 office and asked for more help.

Gallegos adds that Casals is doing more than enough to be in compliance with board policy, but she’d like to be doing more. “I asked if we could have a teacher who would follow them to classes like math and science and facilitate for them, but the Region said, ‘no.’ “

OCT 26 Learning English.

Aide Martha Perez has brought a 6th-grader and two 7th-graders into a corner of the multipurpose room, where they’ll work on intensive English instruction for almost an hour.

Using a workbook called “English at Your Command,” they’ll work on words that have multiple meanings and words that identify where something is, such as ‘under’ and ‘above.’

Perez begins by speaking in English but frequently has to use her Spanish to be understood, particularly by the 7th-grade boy who has been in the U.S. for six months. When it’s time for the students to write sentences in their workbook using these words, this boy is stumped. The other two, who have been here for one year and three years, are able to construct sentences that make sense.

Next, Perez spends a few minutes talking about words with more than one meaning, such as “country.”

“The United States is a country. If you live on a farm, you live in the country,” she says. The students are watching her but it’s hard to tell how much they understand.

NOV 4 Asthma van.

A long blue and white van is parked next to Casals this morning, with the words “Chicagoland’s Breath Mobile” printed on the side. Classrooms of children are taking tours of the van, which will visit Casals every Thursday to treat children with asthma.

Dr. Aparna Kumar, two nurses and a Casals parent (who has been hired to schedule appointments and be the liaison between the van and the school) are crammed into the van with 18 kindergartners. Dr. Kumar explains that the van is similar to a doctor’s office, except it’s on wheels.

“Who knows what asthma is?” she asks them.

“It’s when you can’t breathe,” says one child.

“It’s when you be coughing and you need your spray,” says another.

When she asks if anyone has asthma, four children raise their hands. Others say they have relatives with asthma.

“Asthma is the most common chronic condition of childhood,” Kumar later tells a visitor. “And Chicago has one of the highest asthma mortality rates in the country.”

Kumar says asthma is more common in poor neighborhoods, perhaps because of indoor air pollutants like molds or lead. She says 10 to 15 percent of Chicago’s school children have asthma and many of them go untreated. The purpose of the van is to do preventative medicine and keep the kids from missing school.

Flyers have been sent home to parents. Children will be referred to the van by parents or teachers. They’ll receive free medication, ongoing treatment and family education.

Kumar says the board recommended Casals and Riis schools as the first sites for the program, with plans to add three more schools later in the year.

The van is operated by the Mobile CARE (Children’s Asthma Research and Education) Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in 1997 by two Evanston doctors.

The sound of jack hammers can be heard outside the Breath Mobile this morning. About a dozen workers are replacing sidewalks and ripping out the old fence to make way for a new one. The work began at noon yesterday.

“I’m very pleased,” says Mazurek, who expects the landscaping will take about a week. “There’s a big difference between this and when the board used to do the work itself. With privatizing, the construction company comes in with all the equipment, all the men and the job gets done in a timely fashion. This is going to be very nice.”