Last-minute decisions keep Fenger on its toes

Print More

Enrollment at Fenger Academy for African American Studies in the Roseland neighborhood has been steadily falling for years. In the mid-70’s, several thousand students attended two branches. By 1995, student rolls were down to 1,100. This fall, enrollment is about 715.

Some neighborhood teens are opting for more selective schools, such as Morgan Park, or newer facilities, such as Percy Julian. “People have a misconception of who we are—just a school sitting over there not doing anything for its students,” says Assistant Principal Patricia Nichols. “But that’s not so. We offer so many good things in this building.”

Enrollment at Fenger Academy for African American Studies in the Roseland neighborhood has been steadily falling for years. In the mid-70’s, several thousand students attended two branches. By 1995, student rolls were down to 1,100. This fall, enrollment is about 715.

Some neighborhood teens are opting for more selective schools, such as Morgan Park, or newer facilities, such as Percy Julian. “People have a misconception of who we are—just a school sitting over there not doing anything for its students,” says Assistant Principal Patricia Nichols. “But that’s not so. We offer so many good things in this building.”

Last spring, Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas added a couple more “good things” to Fenger’s offerings.

First, he called Principal Janice Ollarvia and asked if Fenger would become one of the city’s seven Math, Science and Technology Academies, essentially a school-within-a-school that offers intensive math and science courses to select students. Later, Vallas called back to find out if she was interested in a $525,000 grant to install a NASA science lab. The project would make Fenger the only high school in the country with such a lab; other labs have been built at colleges.

Ollarvia said yes to both. “I jumped on it with no hesitation.”

Vallas, who spent part of his own high school years at Fenger, had been the school’s Principal For a Day earlier in the spring. Ollarvia does not know whether those experiences influenced Vallas’ choice, “but it sure couldn’t have hurt,” she says.

At the June 21 dedication ceremony for the NASA lab, Vallas congratulated Fenger for being “a neighborhood school that is really making strides,” a reference, in part, to the school’s big jump in TAP scores that nearly lifted it off three years of probation. Many at Fenger are hoping that the new math and science resources—and the higher test scores—will attract more students.

“It will take a while, but I think it’s going to help,” says Assistant Principal Eugene Henry. “Our freshmen and sophomore classes seem to be holding up, so if we can keep them four years, then we can get back up to 900 or so.”

Ollarvia isn’t interested in building much beyond 900, though. She wants to stay small, but not too small. The downside of being at 700, she says, “is that it’s hard to offer a wide range of classes. We have trouble now maintaining classes [such as journalism] that only a few students want.”

MAY 11 Block schedule vote.

Ollarvia holds a 10-minute staff meeting today to answer questions about the proposed block schedule for next year. This is the latest in a series of meetings on the schedule, and Ollarvia is anxious to get a vote taken in the next few days.

The vote will get delayed several times over the next couple of weeks, though, as the union calls more of its own meetings. When the central office calls because Fenger is late turning in its 1999-00 schedule, business manager Estelle Dobbins says she has to report that no decision has been made, “and there’s nothing we [the administration] can do about it.” Fenger Assistant Principal Henry, who has been responsible for scheduling, says the delay has created a problem for his office. The proposed schedule calls for eight, 45-minute periods; and the default plan has seven, 50-minute periods. With the number of class periods up in the air, students don’t know how many courses to sign up for. Faculty advise them to register for eight periods.

“If the proposal doesn’t go through, they’ll have to decide which class to take out,” says Henry, who is turning over scheduling duties to new programmer Tyree Wooley in June. Ollarvia wants to free up more of Henry’s time for things like classroom observations. “This [voting on a schedule] really should have been done long ago. We need to do a dry run. This has held up everything. Wooley will have to do extra duty over the summer to get this done.”

On May 28, Fenger teachers vote to approve next fall’s eight-period block schedule.

MAY 12 Questionable partner.

After school lets out, 11 English and math teachers head up to the third floor for two professional development workshops. Fenger’s external partner, Washington D.C.-based America’s Choice, is conducting the sessions.

Fenger and America’s Choice have been paired since the school was placed on probation three years ago. Test scores have yet to show much improvement, however. Only 10 percent of students score at or above national norms in reading and math.

As planned, the Reform Board has withdrawn its financial support of Fenger’s external partner, and the school is paying for the extra help itself. For $50,000, two America’s Choice consultants spend six days during the school year observing teachers in class, modeling lessons and leading after-school workshops. The fee also covers the purchase of curriculum materials and fees for English and math teachers to attend seminars, including one last year at Daley College.

In addition, Fenger is paying $25,000 to have two staffers from the Office of Accountability help set up a schoolwide reading improvement program. Mary Dunne, a reading specialist from Marist, a South Side parochial high school, and Ronald Browne, formerly a teacher at Kelvyn Park High School, met with Fenger staff at the start of the year to develop a reading plan.

Last year, the program had three reading specialists working with six high schools. Those schools posted an average gain of 4.7 on TAP reading tests. This year, four reading specialists are working with 11 high schools, says Dunne.

“We looked at the best practices of 13 high schools that did pretty well on the TAP in 1998,” says Dunne, “and then developed a plan.” At Fenger, that plan includes Dunne and Browne teaching reading classes to freshmen and juniors with low reading test scores, implementing a schoolwide vocabulary improvement plan, and holding teacher inservices that cover teaching reading skills such as skimming.

At today’s America’s Choice workshops, English teachers will work on ways to improve student writing. Math teachers get a lesson on probability and then review practice questions for the Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE), which will be given in two weeks. A couple of math teachers sitting together in the back of the room are not paying attention. They’re supposed to select an exam question to look at, but they don’t until the consultant comes over and asks what they’re working on.

Still, one of the math teachers says later that this year’s math consultant is an improvement over the ones America’s Choice sent last year. Those were a waste of time, the teacher says. “This has been better, but we probably could have used more concrete help with which strategies work, which don’t.”

America’s Choice has not made a good impression on the faculty from the start, says Assistant Principal Nichols. “They were not what the board thought they were, and a lot of teachers didn’t like them from day one.” One teacher says the external partner consultants were viewed as spies. Another teacher questions the amount of money the partner has received and wonders why the organization has been invited back each year.

Ollarvia, though, is surprised to hear that staffers have negative opinions of America’s Choice. In an anonymous staff survey earlier this spring, teachers gave America’s Choice satisfactory to very satisfactory ratings, she says.

MAY 20 TAP scores up.

Today should have been a day for celebrating. The board released TAP scores yesterday afternoon, and Fenger’s have shot up. Reading scores rose to 18.5 percent at or above national norms from 10.1; math increased to 23.1 from 13.4.

But around 9:30 a.m., students on the first floor start coughing and complaining of dizziness, nausea and burning throats. The culprits: two students with canisters of pepper spray. The school building is evacuated, and more than 40 students and staff members are taken to seven area hospitals. All were treated and released. By 11:30 a.m., the building is again open, but all the students have gone home.

The incident preempted the opportunity for teachers and students to relish the test score boost, says Science Department Chair Mary Greer. But she admits her own enthusiasm is not dulled. “I’m elated,” she says. “The last two years, the scores haven’t gone up, they haven’t gone down. The Office of Accountability really helped us out this year.”

Greer points to several new tools as being effective. Her favorite is timed reading. Students begin every class—even physical education—with five minutes of silent reading. Then, they have to answer a question about what they’ve read.

Greer also likes the word-of-the-day program, where teachers introduce a new word every day and the students have incentives, such as free lunch with the principal, for doing well on monthly tests. Nine of the words chosen actually appeared on the TAP test. “So we did hit on some of them,” says Dunne.

Pinpointing what’s behind the rise in math scores is more elusive. Math teacher Marty Block says he’s not sure why scores went up, but he’s been optimistic. It’s an ongoing struggle working with students who lack the basic math skills they need to understand more advanced work, he says. Still, “I’ve been pushing my students harder and they’ve been doing great work for me,” he says.

MAY 26 New promotion policy.

Students received their individual TAP scores this morning. The news sent more than a dozen freshmen whose reading scores were below 8.0 scurrying to counselor Sandra Slone. The question of the day: Will they have to go to summer school to be promoted? Parents also have been calling.

The School Reform Board decided in September 1998 to discontinue the summer school requirement for freshmen who fail to meet test-score targets. Slone says she wants to confirm this, as well as the overall promotion policy. “I’ve been calling around all morning. Now, they’ve passed me along to Schools and Regions. Someone is supposed to call me back. These kids are concerned about being promoted.”

As far as she knows, the freshman promotion policy has three requirements: scoring at least 8.0 in reading on the TAP, passing at least five courses, and an 80 percent attendance rate. Two days later, Slone says Schools and Regions still hasn’t called back, but she has heard that promotion will be based solely on attendance and credits. The test score goals will not be mandatory, and there won’t be any summer school. That’s what she is telling students.

“That’s as of today, but things can change in a hurry,” says Slone, who also has been hearing from students and parents at the other end of the spectrum the last few days. A bunch of students are walking around with their TAP test scores in hand, proudly showing them to friends and Slone. “The parents are excited, the kids are excited. I haven’t seen this much excitement around here. These kids are feeling very proud.”

CASE tests will be administered Tuesday through Friday of this week. The students will be dismissed at 12:45 p.m. so teachers can spend afternoons grading the constructed response portion of the tests. Mostly freshmen and sophomores are taking the English, math, social studies and science tests, which are supposed to test what has been covered during the semester.

English teacher Beverly Washington gave her freshmen a list of literary terms as a study guide back in October. She hopes they’ve been reviewing it regularly but says she knows some just crammed before the test. Today, the students are taking the multiple-choice portion of the English test. Washington spreads out her 10 students in desks around the room. “Are we going to start, or are we going to waste our time?” she asks sternly as students continue to chatter. When they settle down, she signals them to begin the test, walking up and down the aisles as they answer the 30 questions.

A half hour later, everyone is finished. These students have been taking tests all morning, and they’ll be going home in a few minutes. “How do you think you did?” asks Washington. “I know you’re tired. You’ve been testing all day, you tested yesterday and you’ll test tomorrow and Friday. Did the [study guide] help you?” Most students nod their heads.

After class, freshman Pierre White, who also took the biology test today, says the English portion wasn’t difficult because they were prepared. “The teacher gave us practice quizzes and study sheets. We’ve been practicing basically all year for all types of tests.”

This is the fourth standardized test that the freshmen have taken in five months: the first-semester CASE in January, Illinois Standards and Achievement Tests in February and TAP in May. Despite the assessment deluge, White says he didn’t take his second CASE lightly. “It still affects your grade, so you have to take it seriously.”

Ollarvia says she encouraged teachers to use CASE as the final exam, since it covered much of the same material. Still, Washington believes the testing schedule is too heavy. “They’re being overtested. I try to keep my spirits up so I can keep theirs up. There isn’t enough time to prepare for all the tests.”

Four English teachers meet in Washington’s room to discuss CASE after the students are dismissed. They have a couple of complaints. For instance, they want to know why there was a test question on Nathaniel Hawthorne, since Hawthorne was not in the curriculum this year. “It was a sneak punch,” says English teacher Richard Trout.

Trout observes that attendance in his classes is up this week. “I’ve had students out 20, 30 days, students I haven’t seen in a week, who showed up,” he says. “One reason is that the building is more secure, so the kids are more obvious if they’re in the halls this week. I think some have delusions of grandeur, thinking they can just show up for the exam. Plus, they find it easier to come to school when they know they’re going to get out so early.”

JUNE 2 Promotion confusion.

Ollarvia has been on the phone the last few days with Schools and Regions, trying to get money to fund summer school classes for freshmen. The board isn’t funding a summer Bridge program for them, but it is making some money available for summer school. Ollarvia wants some of it for Fenger. Several students have asked her if they can go to summer school to try to improve their TAP scores. “I have kids who actually want to go to summer school,” says Ollarvia. “I have to find a way to take advantage of that.”

With less than two weeks left in the school year, Fenger gets the funding. “There was some kind of communication problem,” says Ollarvia. “I think the intention of the board at first was that we fund this ourselves. Then somebody rethought it, and the money became available.”

There will be a math class and a reading class for students who want to attend and for those whom counselors suggest need the extra support, says Ollarvia. Letters are quickly dispatched to alert parents that their children should attend summer school. Each class will have 12 to 15 students and will meet three hours a day.

JUNE 14 NASA lands.

A project team from NASA arrives at Fenger this morning to begin constructing an Aeronautical Education Laboratory in a shuttered room that had been a plastics lab more than a decade ago. But they find the room is not ready for them to begin work.

Ollarvia says she was on pins and needles all weekend. The board was supposed to send a crew to install wiring, new lighting and flooring—preparations necessary for the NASA workstations. But the work has not been done, and only one week remains until a scheduled press conference and public dedication of the new lab.

The $525,000 grant includes $200,000 to outfit the lab and $325,000 to staff it over the next two years. Ollarvia must hire a full-time director and a part-time program facilitator, plus pay stipends to the teachers who will work on Saturdays. After reviewing a sample budget, she sees a way to stretch the $325,000 beyond two years.

The first priority, though, is getting the lab construction work done. At 11 a.m., NASA systems engineer Brent Pace is sitting in the hallway outside the lab assembling a weather station, while several board contractors are inside the room installing electricity. The two crews will work side-by-side most of the week.

“This is going to be pretty tight, getting it ready on time,” says Pace. “We expected there’d be electricity in the room when we got here, but we’ll do the best we can. We’ll see how far we can get.”

This is a teacher institute day, and one of the morning meetings is for teachers who will be part of the new Math, Science and Technology Academy. Fenger didn’t know about this opportunity until late in the spring, and pulling it all together before school starts in August is not going to be easy.

First, Fenger was instructed to enroll 24 freshmen in the program. But later, math teacher Brenda Taylor, who is coordinating MSTA, says she was directed to increase the number to 48. “The board wants two groups of 24,” she says. “I was hoping to work with just one group the first year, to work out the bugs, but they want two. This is really being thrown together without a lot of time.”

Taylor tells the other three teachers at her meeting that the Fenger counselors haven’t selected students for the program yet. There was little time to get the word out to 8th-graders about the program. “I assumed the advanced honors students would be in it, but that’s not necessarily the case. There will be some overlap, though,” says Taylor.

The requirements for entry into the program won’t be too rigorous. Assistant Principal Nichols says average or better test scores and an interest in math, science or computers will do it. Parents and students also must sign a contract stating their commitment to the program.

In addition to the high school students, 7th- and 8th-graders at four feeder schools will take advanced classes, such as algebra, at Fenger’s new academy so they will have a leg up before starting high school. Because of the additional courses, MSTA students will end up with more credits than they need to graduate.

MSTA teachers are supposed to complete at least two professional development courses over the summer. They spend much of this meeting looking over course listings. Still, they’re rushing to catch up. The registration deadline for many classes has passed or is imminent. The group picks two workshops. Taylor says she’ll register everyone if it’s not too late.

JUNE 21 Big turnout.

It’s standing room only in Fenger’s foyer today for the 1 p.m. NASA lab dedication ceremony. “Isn’t this something,” says Ollarvia as she surveys the crowd. “I thought 60 chairs would be enough.” But it’s an overflow crowd, so she dispatches a few students to set up two more rows of chairs for the teachers, community members and media (four TV stations showed up) who have gathered.

Among the featured speakers are Vallas, astronaut Joan Higginbotham and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Fenger is in Jackson’s 2nd District, and it was he who engineered the grant award to Fenger.

Construction on the lab was completed in time for the ceremony. The only hitch: Ollarvia did not know NASA wanted to have an oversized, mock $525,000 check made up for photo purposes. She quickly uses a copy machine to print the numbers on a sheet of white paper. “This will have to do,” she says.

JUNE 29 Slow start.

A new summer school program for advanced honors freshmen is one week into its four-week cycle. Students meet daily from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to learn study skills, take field trips and hear what will be expected from them in the fall. English teacher Beverly Washington and counselor Patricia Turner are teaching the class.

The board began the advanced honors program two years ago to better prepare underclassmen for Advanced Placement classes when they’re juniors and seniors.

Advanced honors freshmen and sophomores take separate, more rigorous classes in math and English. “It has been difficult to get the students to understand the intensity at which they’re expected to work,” says Turner.

The first hurdle has been getting students to attend this free, voluntary summer program. About 16 incoming freshmen were invited. Today, five come to class. That’s how it has been through the first six days. Turner is hoping more students will attend when they get back from vacations.

More often, freshmen and sophomores are opting out of summer school in favor of summer job opportunities, says Turner. “[That] is kind of disturbing to us. We wish the younger children would take advantage of summer programs, many of which are free.”

Washington begins the class by asking who completed last night’s homework. Two students have excuses for why they didn’t complete the work. One says she went to the hospital with her grandmother the previous night. The other (the only boy in class today) says he didn’t understand the assignment. When Washington probes a bit more, she learns that he had not finished reading the short story, so he couldn’t answer the questions.

“You had to finish reading it on your own. Do I have to tell you everything?” she asks him quietly.

The class moves on to journal writing, a daily activity. The students read a quote on the blackboard, then write a brief essay and discuss it. Today’s message is, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and help them become what they are capable of being.” This exercise goes well. All five are actively participating, freely sharing personal stories of family and friends.

After class, students express a variety of reasons why they decided to enroll in Fenger and participate in the summer program. “I figured I needed help because I’ve never had honors classes before, and I had nothing else to do,” says 14-year-old Judy McConnell, who lives within walking distance of the school. “It doesn’t matter where you go—it matters if you apply yourself.”

Another student, Sylvia Fenrick, 14, concedes her first choices of schools were Morgan Park and Julian, but neither one accepted her. Sylvia’s mother steered her away from Simeon, so she picked Fenger.

Latonya Robinson, 14, considered Hubbard briefly, but is now glad she’s going to Fenger. “I want to work on computers. I didn’t know the NASA lab was going to be here, but now I’m glad it is and I’m here.”

Turner plans to highlight the NASA lab and the MSTA program when she begins recruiting at grade schools in the fall. “These things absolutely will be a draw for us,” says Turner. “We’ve already had a few calls from parents who read about the NASA lab in the paper and now want their children to come to Fenger.”

AUG 20 Teacher prep rally.

Teachers returned to Fenger yesterday. This morning, they are listening to motivational speaker Darrius Swinton talk for 90 minutes about team building and creating a healthy work environment. He ends the program with a group exercise. The teachers are standing in a big circle, pumping their fists and chanting motivational phrases.

This is our day, to start a new way!

Teachers willingly participate in the pep rally-style exercise. No one asked for more substance.

Next week, teachers will spend part of the day working on this year’s reading improvement plan with the external partners from the Office of Accountability. This partner has been invited back to Fenger for the 1999-00 school year; America’s Choice has not.

The board has dropped America’s Choice from its external partner list because it failed to meet vendor registration deadlines, says Al Foster, director of school intervention. Plus, many schools complained they were not getting the services they needed. “[America’s Choice] had service agreements to provide certain things, and in many schools, they came in below what was agreed upon,” he says.

At 10:30 a.m., teachers head for department meetings. At the social studies meeting, seven teachers discuss the curriculum timeline that Ollarvia has asked them to create for the first five weeks of the school year. “The idea is that if I’m on the Declaration [of Independence] the third week, so is everyone else,” says social studies teacher George Shomody. “We’re all on the same page.”

Social studies teachers will also pay more attention to geography, something the school began to focus on last year. “After looking at test scores, we had to address a weakness in geography,” says teacher Audrey Scott-Kelley. “Now, we’re looking at a weakness in economics, too.”

To address this issue, the teachers discuss possibly adding a unit on economics during the last two weeks of the school year. This also ensures that social studies books can be collected earlier because hand-outs will be used to teach economics. The hope is that extra time to collect books will lead to a higher rate of return. Last year, Shomody says he issued several thousand dollars in book debt slips for his five classes.

Still, the teachers are not sure there are enough books to distribute to students this fall. The alternative is to keep the books in class and require the students to share them. Whether the department decides to issue books will depend on the number of students in each class. And those numbers are not yet available. With only four days until school starts, teachers and students still don’t have schedules.

Teachers don’t know why schedules are delayed, but they’re not happy. “When this happens, we hit the ground tripping, not running,” says one teacher. “I’d like to know what I’ll be teaching, what my schedule looks like. If the adults are frantic, the kids sense that. Everybody’s morale falls.”

AUG 24 Scheduling snafu.

Students arrive for their first day of the new school year without schedules because they weren’t prepared early enough to be mailed home.

Those who had registered and paid fees by last week were assigned to a division. As they enter the building, the students are directed to check the pink papers taped to the hallway for division room numbers, then report to that class.

But many students haven’t registered yet, so they don’t know their division number. They are sent to the auditorium to pay a $45 registration fee, or to fill out forms for a payment plan or fee waiver. “This really irritates me,” says Ollarvia as she walks into the auditorium, where around 100 students and parents are waiting in line at 9 a.m. “All these kids could have done this last week.”

Today and tomorrow, Fenger will begin and end the day with division, “so whatever didn’t work today, we can find out about it and work it out,” says Ollarvia. On Aug. 26, Fenger will begin block scheduling, pairing English with social studies, and math with science. Both blocks meet twice a week, then for single periods on Fridays. There’s a 30-minute advisory once a week and a 10-minute daily division period.

Students are supposed to receive their semester programs in division. Though teachers had received schedules for most students, some schedules were not generated until last night and have yet to be distributed to division teachers. Students with no schedule don’t know where to go after division, so they, too, are sent to the auditorium, where some will sit for hours waiting for their schedules to turn up.

Rooms 117 and 116 are chaotic. Students transferring out of Fenger are meeting in one room; the other is for those transferring in. The latter is overflowing. By 9:30 a.m., more than 30 people pack the space, and Ollarvia tells a staff member to set up chairs in the hallway.

The students and parents wait to meet with one of three counselors. By 11 a.m., Ollarvia is helping the counselors sign up the new students for classes. She is also recruiting freshmen to enroll in the new Academy. She’s targeting students whose grades are above average and who are hard workers. Ollarvia cannot afford to be too picky. Fenger is about 20 students short of the board’s target of 48 students for this year. About a half dozen more freshmen join the program today.

Meanwhile, 15 of the MSTA students wait outside a second-floor classroom for an Algebra I teacher to show up for their 10:15 a.m. class. Five minutes later, teacher Marty Block arrives. A mix-up on his schedule sent him to a classroom on the third floor for this period. His schedule also has him assigned to teach seven classes instead of five. He’ll have to teach all of them today.

New programmer Tyree Wooley refers all questions about scheduling mix-ups to the principal. Ollarvia says several factors contributed to the late schedules, including one mistake last spring.

Instead of helping every student select courses last spring, a few division teachers sent registration papers home with students. The papers were never returned to school. “I hate that this didn’t go smoothly,” says Ollarvia. “We’ve all been taking notes, and when the dust settles, we’ll get together and see what needs to be done.”

In the midst of a hectic first-day, Vallas arrives at 12:15 p.m. for a surprise visit. He spends 15 minutes walking around with Ollarvia to see how things are going. He asks her whether new windows and lockers have been installed in the swimming pool and boys’ locker rooms—building improvements he promised Fenger last spring.Ollarvia reports that she has gotten an estimate on the windows, but she hasn’t heard anything about the lockers. Vallas tells her to call the central office again on Monday.

Vallas also asks about enrollment. Are the numbers up? Are students coming in with better grades and test scores?

Some unexpected walk-ins arrived this morning, Ollarvia responds, and entering freshman test scores are slightly higher. “I think MSTA is attracting some applicants we might not have had a couple of years ago,” she says.