‘Now we’re proud’ to go to Englewood

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As seniors tell it, Englewood Technical Preparatory Academy was chaotic when they enrolled. “The school was wild, out of control,” says Jermiya Rudolph. A case in point: “Lights out” was the signal for students to break the tail and head lights on teachers’ cars.

“Our freshman year there were 1,200 students here,” says Mechelle Mathis, who ranks No.1 in the senior class. “Usually after a fire alarm, only a good 300 would come back.”

False fire alarms, food fights and fist fights were commonplace, students say. Younger students were assaulted in bathrooms and dumped into garbage cans, they contend. Fires were started in lockers, and flag poles were cut off at the base. Elevators and bathrooms were vandalized beyond function.

“I used to cry when I’d go home,” says Treshell Wilkins.

Today Treshell and her classmates are smiling, and they have good reason. With the arrival last year of Principal Samuel Williams, Englewood students got some respect. For the most part, they have responded in kind. When they haven’t, they’ve been shown the door or routed to Englewood’s night school or other alternative schools.

“It’s really not the teachers who are so different,” says Marshaun Washington. “It’s the students!”

“Before, we used to tell people, ‘I’m not going to Englewood,'” adds Jermiya. “Now we’re proud we’re going to Englewood.”

While Williams has overseen the introduction of new academic and security measures, he has placed just as much emphasis on getting to know the 900 students who now attend the school, especially those involved in gangs, and setting clear expectations. His message to gang members: “I’m not saying that you can’t be a gang member and get an education here. What I’m saying is that gang activities will not be tolerated on this campus.”

Williams maintains an open-door policy not only for staff but also for students. “Mr. Williams tells us, ‘I don’t holler, I communicate,’ and it’s true,” says Mechelle Mathis.

“The students always like to speak to the boss man, to speak their mind, even if the outcome as far as the discipline is the same,” says James Shelton, director of discipline and security. “I think that has made a big difference.”

Ending food fights

Williams solicits suggestions from students, too. After a food fight last year, he asked for their ideas about discouraging a repeat. They suggested a week-long diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all students in the lunch period that suffered the disruption.

“We checked with the board to make sure we wouldn’t be violating any nutrition requirements, and we weren’t,” Williams says. “We served the sandwiches and a choice of white milk and buttermilk. Before the end of the week, the kids who weren’t responsible for the food fight started putting pressure on those who were. We haven’t had any food fights since.”

As a good-will gesture, Williams had a special meal of fried chicken served at the start of the following week.

Reflecting on the new order at Englewood, Assistant Principal Diane Jackson says, “I would say a calmness has come with the new administration. We don’t react to situations with force. There’s more of a respect.”

Williams also spread discipline responsibilities beyond the disciplinarian to the dean for boys and the dean for girls. “It’s much better now because we have more people involved,” says Shelton. “Together we have a lot more contact with students.”

Shelton notes that at special assemblies for each grade level Williams took time to review the school system’s uniform code of discipline and graduation requirements. “Students know what the penalties are now,” he says. “I believe the behavior is better because what’s expected of them has been clearly spelled out.”

As if on cue, a young man sporting three earrings in his left ear strides up a staircase, crossing Shelton’s path. Confronted by only a stern look and an opened palm, the student hands over the jewelry—for good.

Under the school’s dress code, which encourages neatness and modesty, males may not wear earrings because they often signal gang membership. Mismatched shoe laces are prohibited for the same reason.

Englewood has taken a number of physical precautions. For example, a schoolwide, closed-circuit video system monitors activity in the halls. But Williams still credits improved discipline mainly to improved communication with students. In the case of false fire alarms, he notes, students who see trouble brewing will come to him to ask that classmates be permitted to leave early to avoid confrontation. In the past, gang members sometimes pulled the alarms to flush rivals out of the school.

“We still have false alarms, but not as many,” says Williams. Two years ago, there were about 40; last year, there were four, he reports.

Attendance also has improved markedly. Through a combination of carrots and sticks, the school raised the rate from 67 percent in 1996-97 to 80 percent in 1997-98. So far this year, it has been running in the low 80’s, school officials say.

The carrots include T-shirts, watches and other rewards for outstanding attendance. The sticks include Saturday detentions for students who are tardy three times in a grading period, and calls to parents or home visits for class cuts and absences. Chronic truants who are at least 16 are dropped from enrollment or referred to night school or to alternative schools.

“We haven’t tracked this officially, but I can say from observation that it seems grades and attendance improve for those students who go to the night school,” says Assistant Principal Paulette Kidd. She notes that classes are smaller, and that the hours better accommodate teen moms who are unable to find baby sitters during regular school hours, as well as students who work to support their families or must care for ailing older relatives.

Welcome mat

Both day and night students enjoy a spruced-up school and campus. Corridors have been painted a crisp white, with columns done in purple, the school colors. Graffiti have been replaced with student-painted murals of soaring eagles, the school mascot, and other images that speak to the school’s identity.

Near the front entrance, flower boxes brighten large expanses of concrete. Across the street, vegetable and flower gardens have taken over a vacant lot. This small Eden draws smiles and industrious activity from biology students who learn about plants by tending them.

An old teachers’ lounge is being transformed into a $1 million state-of-the-art science lab; Englewood is one of only six schools selected by the Bureau of Science for such treatment. To the south of the school stands another impressive renovation project, a tall stack of bleachers and a manicured football field and cinder track.

Similarly, a growing number of extracurricular activities tell students that Englewood is interested in them. Only a few years ago, the school virtually closed down only minutes after the last class each day.

Now, the City of Chicago operates an after-school program called Youthnet, and the school hosts several other activities, including a boys club, a girls club, basketball, volley ball, softball, band and choir. An English teacher is working to establish a drama club. And the newly renovated swimming pool has been opened to the community.

Robert Saddler, Englewood’s probation manager, believes this increased community presence has contributed to improved student behavior.

The new administration has encouraged the continued involvement of the Council of Elders at the nearby Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Last year, 100 men and women from the church did volunteer work at the school. The church also permits students to park in its parking lot, and graduation ceremonies were held in its sanctuary last year.

The school also has recruited parent volunteers to patrol corridors and visit the homes of students with severe attendance problems.

Coming together

The professional development of faculty is kicking in, too. Last year, the focus was on “the need to bring people together,” says Saddler.

“Here you brought in an array of people from different backgrounds, some with different feelings about those who were leaving [50 percent of the faculty] and those who were coming into the school, and the whole wonderment of reconstitution. We had to spend a lot of time and energy in bringing comfort to people and letting them know this was an improvement mode, versus a punishment mode.”

That done, the focus has switched to instructional strategies, says Saddler.

On a Thursday morning in early October, Earl Jeffrey, coordinator for the School Achievement Structure (SAS) program at Englewood, visits David Mason’s freshman English class. Mason had directed students to read a newspaper article on segregation and share their reactions. About an hour later, Jeffrey shares his observations.

“You spent too much time explaining the bell ringer [a short warm-up assignment],” he tells Mason. “You can get them started, and then you should be taking care of attendance, writing notes. There was a little too much time to do the task, and I think some social conversations broke out. Too, it seemed all the questions were factual in nature, but on the TAP test, only 20 percent of the questions will be factual. Other questions are inferential and about drawing conclusions.”

Jeffrey compliments Mason for selecting material that fits his students’ interests, but he says they likely would have been more engaged in the work if he had asked them more challenging questions, ones that tapped higher-order thinking skills. Jeffrey also points out that students working in groups must share responsibilities for reporting their findings; otherwise, one or two students might do all of the work.

Mason is one of several novice teachers at Englewood who are enrolled in Teachers for Chicago, a program that leads to a master’s degree in education for adults who started in other fields. Formerly a legal clerk for a computer software company, he deeply appreciates Jeffrey’s suggestions.

Mason also sees progress among the faculty as a whole. “Last year, everybody eventually pulled together. The older teachers accepted us more readily than I thought they would, and slowly people started focusing on the good things versus the negatives.”

“I think we’re really benefiting from the materials and help from SAS, too,” he adds.

Student assessment

SAS, a program devised by Barbara Sizemore, the recently retired dean of the DePaul University School of Education, works to get schools to replicate a variety of routines that characterize successful schools. They include relating materials to students’ interests and regularly assessing student progress to identify specific shortcomings.

St. Xavier College is coming on board this school year to help teachers integrate reading instruction in all classrooms.

Math teacher Monique Turner already promotes reading and writing by giving tests that require those skills. “First I ask for definitions of things like parallel lines, or an explanation of why something is a congruent angle,” she explains. “They have to explain this in their own words.” She also requires students to explain their reasoning in solving word problems, not simply show their calculations.

Englewood’s new attention to writing both aggravates and amuses students.

“You could write a comma in a paper, and if it’s in the wrong place, you have to write a paragraph about why it doesn’t belong there,” grouses Mechelle Mathis.

Marshaun Washington laughs but says he thinks it will eventually pay off.

John Horkavy, who teaches biology to freshmen and sophomores, stresses the importance of vocabulary and knowing how to figure out the meaning of strange words. He supplies his students with charts and handouts that explain the meaning of prefixes, suffixes and roots of words used in biology. He gives plenty of spelling and vocabulary tests, too.

“By looking at this chart, students can break the word down, look at the prefix or suffix, see the meaning, look at the root and its meaning, and literally figure out what it means. I see this sort of thing as very important, because biology for the most part is reading and understanding.”

“Other teachers are very good at this too,” he says. “We share these things.”

School facilities have been adapted to promote literacy. A new computer lab features software, aimed at freshmen, that allows students to read along as material is read to them. A new research and writing lab in the library provides computers for word processing and access to the Internet.

Before putting together her materials order, librarian Kassandra Brezill asked teachers what they needed to support the planned coursework. She also arranged to borrow books from the neighboring Kelly Public Library branch and keep them at Englewood for student projects.

Book bags appear

After the fifth week of school, teachers issue progress reports. Walking through the halls, Principal Williams is besieged. Many students approach with smiles, showing off report slips with C’s, B’s, even A’s.

One girl is in tears over an F that marred an otherwise glowing report. Another young man laments the same situation. Williams offers encouragement, pointing out that there is still time to bring up their grades. He also promises to meet with the teachers who assigned the F’s to obtain some insight into what had gone wrong.

Similarly, book bags are proliferating, which the faculty takes as a sign of seriousness about learning.

Staffers also note a heightened level of politeness. A young man pokes his head into the discipline office, where Lolita Clifton, assistant to the director of discipline, is working. “Excuse me,” the young man says. “Is Coach Cruise back in the locker room?”

She responds and then comments to a visitor: “Now see, last year you would have never heard that. ‘Excuse me.’ These kids are so polite. The morale is much better here. These children are appreciative. They’re more interested in coming out for extracurricular activities. They’re more involved overall.”

“Now Englewood is the stuff around here,” says Mechelle Mathis. “People from Simeon, Dunbar, Tilden and Robeson are transferring here. Word is getting out.”