Hope, apprehension mix as new leaders move in

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The rotary telephones at South Shore High are more than a nuisance to those who must use them. They are a symbol of long overdue change.

Sixteen years ago, a CBS-TV documentary shone a glaring light on the school’s failures. Students could not read. Teachers could not write.

The community rallied and formed a new organization—Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore (CIESS)—to work with neighborhood schools. CIESS made headway with area elementary schools, but little changed at South Shore High.

“It’s such a devastated high school,” says Pam Clarke of Leadership for Quality Education, a civic group based in the Loop. “We’ve been working with CIESS for two years to try and turn things around at South Shore. CIESS was making progress with the elementary schools, but no one wanted to send their kids to the local high school.”

Last spring, CIESS and LQE met with schools chief Paul Vallas. They offered their support if the board would step in to make changes at the school. In July, South Shore was one of five high schools placed on intervention—the board’s most severe penalty imposed on poorly performing schools.

Intervention allows the board wide-sweeping control, including the power to fire teachers and other employees for poor performance and disband non-functioning local school councils.

Improving South Shore is a daunting challenge. But the school has some things working in its favor. Unlike the other four intervention high schools, South Shore is located in a middle-class neighborhood. Community groups, such as CIESS, and local businesses are eager and able to share their resources. In fact, the board selected CIESS, LQE and National-Louis University to serve as external partners to South Shore.

“We never sought out being an external partner, says CIESS president Marie Cobb. “All we wanted to do was have a voice [in South Shore’s future]. It’s too early to say exactly what role we’ll play but we all want change to happen. I think intervention is going to work differently here, because we have the community behind us.”

Another reason for hope at South Shore is new principal, Larry Thomas. South Shore has had three principals during the last year. Frank Horton, who was hired by the LSC in 1995, retired last fall. Associate Principal W. Lee Miller served a short stint before the board replaced him with interim principal Major Armstead, who had been lured out of retirement.

External partners searched neighborhood schools for candidates to recommend to the board. Thomas had been principal at nearby Coles Elementary for eight years. During his tenure, standardized test scores doubled (38 percent at or above national norms in reading, 45 percent in math).

On the other hand, South Shore has been on probation for four years, its test scores stuck below the 20 percent threshold—last year, 14 percent at or above in reading, and 18 percent in math. Still, Thomas is confident. “Every year, scores at Coles went up four, five, six points,” Thomas says. “I know we can do that here.”

Thomas has reason to be optimistic. “I only took this job after [principals at neighborhood elementary schools] agreed they’d help by channeling students here. The feeder schools are going to be sending us some of their top kids.”

Some already are arriving. By mid-September, 470 freshmen were enrolled at South Shore—one of the biggest classes the school has started in years. Total enrollment is about 1,100 students, up from 900 last year.

On the downside, Thomas will have to find a way to serve more students with less money. Last year, an administrator neglected to turn in the students’ free- and reduced-school lunch forms. That cost South Shore hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal Title I poverty funding. By writing proposals and letters, the school has been able to recoup some of it. But much of it is earmarked for technology, Thomas says.

Despite the complications, Thomas is savvy enough to make things work, says Clarke, an associate director at LQE. “Larry Thomas is a really good listener and he has a good rapport with the kids. He knows how to work the system and get things done. He’s got his work cut out for him, but we see a lot of exciting changes taking place at South Shore.”

One of the first exciting changes on Thomas’ list: Replacing those old rotary phones.

Wednesday Aug. 9

Community support

About 100 people show up for a 7 p.m. community meeting about intervention. Not many are parents. Most of those seated in South Shore’s library work for the board’s central office. When the floor is opened for questions, no one asks one. If anyone is against South Shore’s intervention, they remain silent.

“No parents have opposed intervention once I explained it to them,” Thomas says. “They worried about … all the teachers [being] fired. I explained that isn’t going to happen.”

After a few words from Ald. Lorraine Dixon, Thomas concludes the meeting. “I welcome this intervention team wholeheartedly. I accept this challenge. We will get through this.”

Friday Aug. 18

Teacher vacancies

Thomas is enthusiastic as he greets teachers for the second day of inservice before school officially opens. “You’re still smiling. That’s a good sign.”

He wants to set a tone for support, not punishment, he says. As principal of an intervention school, Thomas will spend much of his time evaluating teachers. A five-member intervention team will be on hand to observe teachers in classrooms and offer support.

So far, the meetings have left a positive impression, says Alameta Harrison, a special education teacher who has worked at South Shore for 22 years. “Everyone was upbeat after [meeting the intervention team]. Evaluations don’t bother me. If I’m doing something wrong, tell me.”

Biology teacher Ruth Williams is not as optimistic. “It seems like it would be quite stressful having someone stand over you. But it’s what we have to do, given the condition the school is in.”

A five-member intervention team has been assigned to every intervention school. South Shore’s intervention team leader is Barbara Martin, a former principal of Hoyne Elementary. Martin’s team members include specialists in English, math, science and social studies. This afternoon, they meet with teachers to review new paperwork.

Science specialist Jewel Kohnke, who used to teach at Curie High, passes out forms to South Shore’s five science teachers. Lesson plans, department meeting forms and classroom observation forms. “We have to have documentation for everything we do,” she explains.

Next week’s lesson plans are due today, so teachers spend most of the meeting filling them out. Lesson plans must be completed and turned in every two weeks.

When the intervention team arrived at South Shore in late July, its first task was to review textbooks and replace anything more than five years old. New textbooks were ordered for all core subjects. None have arrived yet.

Meanwhile, Kohnke wishes the science department could order teachers as easily as new books. The school needs teachers for chemistry and physics. The shortage of science teachers is “a problem all over the city,” she says.

South Shore has a number of other vacancies, including a librarian and teachers for social studies, math, Spanish, art and special education. A month later, many of the teaching positions remain unfilled.

Tuesday Aug 22

‘The new South Shore’

It’s 8 a.m. and Thomas is standing outside, introducing himself to students as they arrive for the first day of class. Many return his handshake with a surprised grin. Thomas’ personal greeting impressed sophomore Octavia Stitts. “It seems like things have improved here.”

Indeed, inside, school staff are greeting telephone callers with the phrase, “This is the new South Shore.”

Meanwhile, intervention team leader Martin is in a huddle with her four specialists. Set up observation times with every teacher in your department, she instructs. And keep a paper trail of all observations and department meetings, she adds. “We have to use the materials … approved by the legal department. We don’t want a teacher saying, ‘Nobody ever told me about this.'”

Intervention Officer JoAnn Roberts, who oversees all five intervention schools, has directed team specialists to spend most of their day observing and assisting in classrooms. “You are observing, not evaluating,” Martin points out. “You can team teach, you can even model a lesson, but please, please don’t use the term ‘evaluating.’ We want to … be partners with the staff.”

Teacher evaluations are Thomas’ primary responsibility. Roberts told intervention school principals that doing evaluations will occupy 90 percent of their time. Martin will handle decisions about day-to-day operations while the principal is in classrooms.

Division of authority between herself and Thomas will not be an issue, says Martin. “This will be a collaboration.”

Hundreds of freshmen and sophomores are jammed into the library and auditorium in the south building, waiting to register. (South Shore’s campus has two buildings, separated by 76th Street. Underclassmen use the south facility; juniors and seniors are housed in the north building.)

Despite the confusion, first-day activities are actually better organized than the previous two years, observes Spanish teacher Margarita Bermeo. “It’s a lot calmer,” says Bermeo, who’s beginning a third year at South Shore. “We have our paperwork. Our schedules are here. We have our attendance books. Last year, I didn’t have all this the first day. This is a good sign.”

What Bermeo doesn’t have is students. Only six show up for her first-period class and only 10, out of 31 who registered, arrive for second-period Spanish. Total first-day attendance at South Shore is 350 students —- about a third of the school’s total enrollment.

It usually takes until September for them to come back, says Bermeo.

Friday Aug. 25

Who’s in charge?

By the end of the first week, hope has been replaced by confusion. Many teachers and school staff are asking the same questions: Who’s in charge at South Shore? The principal? The intervention team? JoAnne Roberts and the central Office of Intervention?

“We need to see who’s running the show,” says one veteran teacher. “You can feel the chaos around here.”

Some say trouble was brewing on the day school opened. A representative from the central Office of Intervention stood watch over the faculty sign-in sheet and reprimanded anyone who arrived after 8 a.m. Later that day, the staffer scolded other school employees.

“The whole time she was here, she didn’t have a positive thing to say to anyone,” says one South Shore administrator. “I didn’t come here to be treated like a child. The intervention people are treating us like we’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

The intervention team also got off on the wrong foot with teachers by proposing a new bell schedule that would require them to start the day 30 minutes earlier for professional development. Chicago Teachers Union delegate Jon Hawkins says teachers approved the current schedule last spring; they won’t vote again for a new bell schedule this fall.

Sidney Brooks, community LSC member, has been monitoring the mood at South Shore all week. A CTA bus driver, Brooks is well-known at the school and in the community as a booster for South Shore who’s anxious for change. He is a past president of the LSC and his wife, Stella, was voted president this fall. He attended South Shore, but did not graduate. His step-daughter is currently a freshman.

Brooks says he will support intervention if it improves South Shore. But he is wary of the blurred lines of authority. “You can’t have a principal and not give him the power to do his job,” Brooks says. ” I’m hearing … that [one] person says one thing and another person says something else. I’m hearing most of the problems are coming from downtown.”

So Brooks heads downtown to board offices without an appointment to talk to whomever will listen

Tuesday Aug. 29

Making peace

Brooks’ personal touch made an impression. Today, the board’s chief officer of high school development, Wilfredo Ortiz, is meeting with Brooks, Principal Thomas, assistant principals and the external partners at South Shore.

At the meeting, Ortiz was reminded that external partners had supported Thomas’ selection as principal because they trusted his leadership. “They don’t want the intervention team running the school,” says a source who attended the meeting. “The intervention team is supposed to be our support, not our bosses.”

Intervention team leader Martin says that’s been her view all along. “Dr. Thomas is in charge of the school. I’ve tried to make that very clear from the start. He’s the one who has to sign off on everything. We’re only here for a year. He’s here for the long haul.”

Still, negative elements, such as the central office intervention staffer who reprimanded teachers, stunt the growth of effective relationships. Ortiz listens, then makes a quick fix: The offending administrator will not be allowed to come back to South Shore.

A few weeks later, after a telephone conversation with Roberts, Thomas agrees to allow the administrator to return to South Shore, Thomas says, under one condition. “As long as she can come in a positive vein, that’s fine.”

Betty Hammond was planning to teach1 math at Fenger High this fall. But one week before schools opened, she was asked to join South Shore’s intervention team as the math specialist. Hammond accepted.

Hammond’s day started with a two-hour meeting with administrators and the intervention team. Later, she visits an algebra class, where a substitute eagerly accepts Hammond’s offer to teach. “I don’t want to just sit and watch,” she says. “I want to work with the teachers on lesson plans and work with the students in the classroom. I don’t know what the teachers are saying behind the scenes, but to my face, they’ve been very positive.”

So far, “the teachers on the intervention team have been very good,” says Hawkins. “They’ve been cooperative and want to help. They ordered books for us and told us to let them know if we need any kind of supplies.”

After lunch, Hammond visits two geometry classes. In one class, the teacher spends the first 10 minutes solving an algebraic equation. When do students learn geometry? Hammond wonders. The other class is reviewing geometry vocabulary words that the teacher taught the day before. Hammond thinks the students are ready for a new lesson and leaves some sample lesson plans on the teacher’s desk.

Hammond tells both teachers they can discuss her observations during tomorrow’s planning period. She goes back to her office to fill out observation forms for each visit.

The south building library is still bustling with new students registering for classes. “We’ll need more teachers,” says Thomas in a voice that hints more excitement than worry. “People are trying to get in here because they hear it’s the ‘new’ South Shore. They’re hearing this school is on the way up.”

Timothy Bridgmon lives six blocks from South Shore. Size and location played a part in his decision to send his 14-year-old daughter, Tahonee, to South Shore. But what really attracted him to the school was intervention and its promise of change. “[Intervention] makes me feel better because there’ll be a stronger [academic] focus on the school,” he says. “Because of intervention, I think security will be good here.”

Wednesday Sept. 6

No money for books

Social studies specialist Kenneth Hirdler is at his desk this morning, and that’s where he’ll spend much of the day. Intervention Officer Roberts wants a financial status report on the new textbooks for South Shore. The job has fallen to Hirdler.

New textbooks are costing South Shore about $250,000. The central Office of Intervention has asked South Shore to figure out how much it could contribute to pay for textbooks out of this year’s budget. But so far, repeated line-by-line analysis of the budget has turned up only $63,000, says Hirdler.

The central Office of Intervention has written letters to book publishers, asking them to deliver books before they receive payment. Some publishers have accepted the deal and sent books to schools; others are waiting for the money, says Hirdler.

South Shore’s intervention team was told in August there would be money for books. “They said they would find a way to pay for books,” says English specialist Mary Sullivan.

As Catalyst went to press, Roberts says $528,779 has been spent so far on books for intervention schools. They need another $450,000 to pay for the rest of the core subject books. Books for non-core subjects will have to wait.

Hirdler and Sullivan, both 30-year teaching veterans, are frustrated about spending so much time writing reports. They would rather use their time working with teachers.

Finding common planning time for teachers is another issue. The intervention team dropped its original plan because teachers did not want to vote again on a new bell schedule.

JoAnn Roberts has an idea. She calls South Shore this morning and suggests dropping 9th period classes and using those 50 minutes for staff development and planning. Students already registered for a 9th-period class would be moved into the same classes earlier in the day.

Teachers need time to collaborate, says Sullivan. “Two English teachers told me they were talking on the phone almost every night, taking their own time, because it’s so important. I think the teachers will be happy with this.”

Sophomores in Christine Webb’s 4th-period English class are reading Native American poems from a literature book. One student reads aloud, and the others follow along. Webb corrects them when they stumble over unfamiliar words.

South Shore was attracting “average” students, says Webb, when she started teaching here in 1984. Now many of her students arrive reading at 5th-grade level, she says.

“[The Board doesn’t] have any idea who these kids are,” says Webb, who does not support intervention. “We do help [students] raise their scores but there’s only so much we can do.”

On the blackboard, Webb has written the date, topic of the day’s lesson (Culture of Early America), concepts to be covered (oral interpretation, reading poetry, circle of life theory) and homework assignments.

Teachers have agreed to keep such information posted when they signed the pre-observation conference agreement. They also agreed to hang up copies of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a six-level system of classifying questions, and Madeline Hunter’s Eight Steps to Building an Effective Lesson. Thomas will be checking for such documentation when he observes classes.

“What’s the point of having to post these?” one teacher complains. “It doesn’t benefit the student. It’s for the teachers. A lot of what they’re asking us to do is busy work.”

This afternoon, Assistant Principal William Gerstein is meeting with Larry Hawkins of the University of Chicago. Hawkins wants to rekindle a program he led in the 70s and 80s that allowed public high school students to attend classes at the university’s Lab high school. Talks are in the early stages, says Gerstein says, but the university has expressed a strong interest in working with South Shore. He’s hopeful something will be in place next year.

Bringing corporate and community resources to South Shore is one of Gerstein’s primary roles. He’s also responsible for developing a school technology plan and working with external partners to create at least one small school at South Shore.

Gerstein brings an interesting mix of education and business talents to South Shore. He was a teacher at Englewood and King high schools from 1973 to 1981. Then he left teaching to take over the family business—-Mr. G’s grocery store in Hyde Park. Two years ago, he sold the store and got his Type 75 administrative certification. “I wanted to be part of an effort to create a school that worked for kids. I thought I could put my business experience and entrepreneurial skills to work.”

Gerstein is also working with South Shore Bank and Shorebank Neighborhood Institute to set up a computer lab and launch a teen business project. “We need to have something to sell to the community, to give students a reason to come here,” he says.

Wednesday Sept. 13

So little time, so much paperwork

Principal Thomas is supposed to spend 90 percent of his time doing teacher evaluations. Today, he won’t come close to that.

Sitting in his office this morning, he answers several telephone calls, including one from a student who wants to transfer into South Shore. He corrects an incident report about a scuffle between a teacher and student. Meanwhile, Barbara Martin is in and out of the office to confer with him about a parent meeting and other issues. When she leaves, he begins to compose a letter to Paul Vallas.

First he asks Vallas for help to fund two teacher positions the school is slated to lose. South Shore also needs money to hire more security guards. The board pays for four security officers and the school picks up the cost of an additional eight. But that’s not enough to cover two large buildings, says Thomas.

He finishes the letter then dashes to the auditorium to address an assembly for juniors.

By the end of the day, Thomas will have time to observe one teacher and do two follow-up interviews observations. To keep up with evaluation deadlines, he should be doing as many as five observations a day. Thomas is required to evaluate a total of 120 South Shore employees, 60 of whom are teachers.

At a districtwide meeting for all intervention schools, principals expressed concern about the workload. Roberts told them to focus on teacher observations and postpone observations of educational support staff until later.

Martin will take on more of Thomas’ duties to help him meet an Oct. 6 deadline to turn in two observations of each teacher. “[Martin and I] are working well together,” he says. “We’ve been able to balance things between us.”

Still, Thomas is feeling the full weight of his responsibilities as an intervention school principal. “I thought the time frames would be more realistic. The paper trail is insurmountable.”

Friday Sept. 15

Unleashed energy

Reading specialists from National-Louis University (NLU) and from the central Office of Intervention are leading a half-day inservice for teachers. NLU is working with South Shore as an external partner despite the fact that they do not yet have a signed contract and do not know how much they will be paid.

“All three external partners have submitted a budget to Wilfredo Ortiz,” says Steve Zemelman, director of NLU’s Center for City Schools and a co-founder of Best Practice, a model small high school on the West Side. “We haven’t heard back. It isn’t the best situation, but I think they have a strong moral obligation. I’m encouraged it will work out.”

External partners stayed in the background during the first weeks of school so staff would have time to settle in, says Zemelman. Now everyone seems ready to hunker down and begin the hard work of turning South Shore around. “It’s like there was this energy of good teaching that was being suppressed and now is being unleashed.”