A principal’s risk: ‘This year, everyone’s doing it my way’

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continues, the agency can withhold part of the family’s public aid money. Casals is trying to join the program.

In Chicago, 109 schools have signed with social service agencies. As of mid-September, over 400 parents of truants have been referred, and none have lost public aid money.

After the meeting, it’s time for Direct Instruction in the primary grades. The lessons are completely scripted, so they vary from one teacher to the next only by tone of voice and pacing. Paula Lucas employs a playful, sing-song cadence: “Say the whole thing about what we are doing,” is her refrain. In another kindergarten classroom, Chris Richter keeps her students attentive by making a game out of the the simple actions the students are directed to take. “I’m gonna getcha,” she says, with a wink. “Everybody touch your … chair.”

Richter is impressed with DI so far. “It’s amazing what they’ve picked up,” she says. “This is week three for me, and they’re speaking in complete sentences. I’ve tried a lot of programs, and none of them have really worked, but we’ll see.”

Richter’s room is filled with leftovers from Casals’ old federal Title I program, which funded Richter’s classes until this year. Scattered about are a small copier, a TV set, two up-to-date computers, several of the older computers that were in Lucas’ lab last year and a poster-making machine, which Richter calls “the last hurrah” from the old program. Casals bought it only a few months ago.

Now, the school plans to charge teachers for the computer-generated posters: $2 a foot for laminated banners, $1 for non-laminated.

Teachers get only $50 a year from the board to buy supplies. Richter contrasts that with the lavish budgets of her federally funded program. “[We] were very spoiled,” she acknowledges. “You can see why other teachers might be jealous.”

When Richter first came to Casals, she got $40,000 to open a new kindergarten. “You know how hard it is to spend $40,000 on pencils, crayons, little things like that?” she asks. “I bought computers, TVs, the works.”

At the time, Richter was newly arrived from Chicago’s Catholic school system—she had come for the better pay. “All my tricks went out the window,” Richter recalls. Kids in public schools are more unruly, she says, “but they need love.” And that makes the work satisfying. “They need love in the Catholic schools too,” Richter adds, “but they don’t hug you.”

“Now I know what the real world is like,” she says. “My ex-principal, her eyes would pop wide open after one day here.”

SEP 3 Teaching from basals means less reading.

Denyse Ffrench is going over the “words of the week” with her 6th-graders. Drawn from math, reading, science and social studies lessons, they include “bar graph,” “trait,” “martyr” and “pandemonium.”

The last two words are “literal” and “inferential”—concepts they will need to know when they take standardized tests next spring, she explains. “There are questions in the Iowa that won’t be literal,” she says. “You won’t be able to just look at the reading and find the answer; you’ll have to take the information that the author gave you and figure it out for yourself.”

Standardized tests have become ever-present in the class that Ffrench co-teaches with Julie Engel. “We talk about it constantly,” says Engel. “It’s always, ‘On the Iowa this,’ and ‘On the IGAP that.’ We’re kind of nervous, because we’re being held accountable now. There’s a lot of pressure on us. Our scores go in the newspaper, and if our students don’t pass the tests, they can get held back.”

After the vocabulary lesson, Ffrench coaches students through a review for tomorrow’s test on the novel they’ve been reading for the last month. Then, the day after tomorrow, it will be good-bye to novels for several months. Ffrench and Engel will grit their teeth and start teaching with recently arrived basal readers.

These particular basals offer pieces of real books, but Engel still isn’t sold. “They call it a literature-based textbook. That means that they’ve got one chapter out of a novel, and to me, that’s like, ugh. I know the books they’re coming out of, and they’re great novels. But maybe they’ll read the chapter and want to read the book. That’s what I hope.”

For students, basals mean less required reading than before. According to the curriculum for 6th grade, students will only read one eight- to 10-page chapter from the basal reader each week. When Ffrench and Engel teach novels, they typically assign that much reading as homework every night.

For herself, Ffrench sees more work ahead, not less. She intends to create IGAP-style and Iowa-style questions for each reading. “Basically, it’s teaching to the test. I’ll try to get in as much critical-thinking stuff as I can, but that’s not really tested on the Iowa. And that’s what we structured our whole classroom around last year.”

But she’s suspending judgment. “Is this really testing reading, or is it testing test-taking? I’m curious to find out myself,” she says. This isn’t the kind of teaching she learned in college, but “not everything you learn in college works with absolutely every type of child. So maybe this will work.”

SEP 5 Stars yesterday, dorks today.

For 7th-grade teacher Chris Beukema, the switch to a heavily IGAP/Iowa-oriented curriculum is a little disconcerting. She and co-teacher Tony Gruba had been held up as model teachers for the student-centered, “inclusion” classroom they co-taught. “Last year, we were like the king and queen of the school,” she says, “and this year, we’re like …”

“Two dorks,” Gruba chimes in.

“Yeah, this year, it’s like, ‘Oh, don’t do that! That’s what we’re trying to get away from!’ I understand the point [of using basals and teaching toward the tests] and why they want it,” she says. “I know I could teach the same skills by using novels, but maybe using the novels doesn’t get the scores up.”

Beukema finds herself in a sometimes losing battle with cynicism. “I understand now that funding and money and politics are what it’s all about,” she says. “I finally got it. And it makes it easier to come to work in the morning. Now I know: I’m not here to make them feel good about themselves. I’m not here to help them enjoy learning. I’m here to raise their test scores.

“I mean, I’m not going to stop encouraging my students to be good people. That’s part of me, it’s what I bring.” She pauses for melodramatic effect and widens her eyes: “But my life depends on the Iowa!”

“Kids get rewarded for being good test-takers, not critical thinkers,” she says. “I don’t think that’s best for kids. It would be OK if the Iowa was a good profile of where you are academically. But all it measures is how good a test-taker you were and how well you did on that day. We had kids in our room last year whose scores dropped by a year and a half. How can you lose a year and a half of learning? It’s impossible.”

Principal Mazurek says he knows that some teachers are unhappy with the new focus on test scores and back-to-basics methods. He respects other approaches, he says, but the important thing this year is to get everybody pulling in the same direction. And that direction comes from above. “Everything that Bill Clinton has asked for, that Mayor Daley has asked for, that Paul Vallas asked for, we’ve done,” says Mazurek.

Even if teachers don’t like everything about the plan, he says, they’re executing it, which means that it will be possible to evaluate its effectiveness. “If what we’ve done here works, you should be able to take it and replicate it anywhere in the city,” he says. “And if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will. We’ve taken a well-researched, well-thought-out program; we’ve provided adequate funding; and we’ve supported it by staff development.”

Mazurek made an important concession to his staff, too: He will support the new program for at least two years, which means breaking his habit of pulling in every new program that appeals to him.

He’s already started to hold up his end of the bargain, he says proudly. “A week or so ago, a guy came to the school, and he wanted to teach architecture as a way of teaching math and history, and—this is the first time I’ve ever done it—I politely referred him to another school. It was a good idea, but we had so many of them.”

“It’s true,” agrees Casals curriculum chief Barbara Cautchon. Before, she says, “Anybody would come in and say, ‘Hey, I got something.’ And we’d see a note in our mailbox: Can you fit this in? We tended to be stretched too thin. The programs were good by themselves, but it disrupted your flow.”

This morning, Mazurek continues, he sent an arts group back to re-tool a proposal to teach geometry through art. “I said, ‘If you can offer me a program that teaches language arts through art, I’ll be a lot more interested.’ Now, they want a copy of our curriculum, so that they can fit their programs to our plans, and not vice-versa.”

SEP 6 New policies rub some parents the wrong way.

About 20 parents have come to this year’s first meeting of the Community Corps. Run by staff from DePaul University, the program teaches parents some academic skill-building exercises they can do at home with their kids. Members of the group also use their new skills volunteering in classrooms.

They have a special guest today: Principal Mazurek, who has come to clear up some misunderstandings. Some parents are asking why they’re being told not to come into classrooms between 9 and 10. Doesn’t the school want parents around?

Mazurek says that, yes, they are wanted in the school but that the first hour is reserved for special reading programs like Direct Instruction. He doesn’t want classes interrupted during that time. He offers to show individual parents what’s going on, if they want to sit quietly and observe one day. And if they want to find a way to help during that hour, even better.

After the meeting, PTA President Sylvia Perez airs a few complaints. For one, she didn’t like Mazurek’s recent letter warning parents that they could face fines or a loss of public aid if their children are truant. “That’s like a threat to us,” she says.

Later that morning, 4th-grade teacher Jennifer Redus looks over her students’ poor scores on today’s social studies test. “I’m going to have to teach latitude and longitude again,” she says. “They’re going to be repeated in later grades, and it’s going to be on the standardized tests in the spring.

“If I had my druthers, I’d spend the time on things that are important for life. Is this a life-skill that everybody’s going to need—compared to reading a map scale? That’s a pretty complex skill, and it’s something they’ll have to do over and over again.” She’ll teach both, but the standardized-test focus requires her to give first priority to longitude because it’s on the test.

SEP 10 Poor attendance at LSC training.

Casals hosts an LSC training session for several neighborhood schools, but only three members of the Casals LSC, all parents, show up. (Principal Mazurek is in the Smoky Mountains this week, taking his first vacation in two years.)

Jorge Morales leads an English-language group on one side of the Casals community room, while Norberto Paredes leads a training in Spanish on the other. This is lesson No. 2 of 6: collaboration for effective management. “There has to be a relationship of trust and collaboration for real effectiveness to take place,” he says.

It seems to be an apt topic for Casals. Early in the discussion, Casals’ newly elected LSC chair, Beatrice Rodriguez, says that she’s not happy with her relationship with the Casals staff on the council. “I feel intimidated at times. I feel like they undermine my intelligence. I don’t like feeling put down because maybe I don’t have the same educational level that they do. I’m an individual just like they are, and I deserve to be treated with respect.”

With the two other Casals LSC members in the Spanish-language group, her complaint gets no discussion.

Later, Rodriguez says she ran for the council “because there were things that I didn’t like at the school. For one, we need more security. Also, I grew up in Florida, and we have excellent schools there. I was shocked by how far behind they are here.”

She gives the training a positive review. “I look forward to these classes. I’m getting to know my responsibilities and rights that I have. For instance, I didn’t know that, by law, we’re supposed to have a PPAC [professional personnel advisory committee]. I don’t know if we have one, but I’m going to find out.” (Casals does have one.)

She goes through a few pros and cons. “I love the uniforms. I don’t like year-round, because kids don’t get a summer vacation. I don’t like the fact that we have no security personnel in the school. I’ve seen guys who are known gang-bangers walking in and out of the school, and nobody stops them. And as a parent, I’ve been questioned when I come to the school.”

Later, at the end of the school day, 6th-grade teacher Barbara Phips puts in a good word for basal readers. Phips has been teaching in Casals’ West Humboldt Park neighborhood since before some of her fellow teachers were born. “If students are already reading for pleasure, novels are great,” she says. “But if reading is a chore for them, or they lack basic skills, then basals are better.”

Unlike novels, the textbook “has the skills in it that students need,” she says. Students need “survival skills” like using reference books and practicing alphabetizing. “The basals are designed to cover those basics,” says Phips. Besides, her class’s basal reader includes a whole novel, she adds.

Some Casals teachers were happy to create their own skills materials to supplement novels, but not everyone would do it, says Assistant Principal Maria Guerrero. “Some teachers develop wonderful units; they could be published,” she says. “And the teachers who are most against the basals are the ones who do a wonderful job with the novels.”

SEP 12 Scrubbing scuffmarks

Eddie Irizarri still doesn’t have time to talk—he’s vigorously erasing scuff marks from hallway floors. His boss is in the building and already has complained that Irizarri’s section isn’t clean enough.

Meanwhile, a parent volunteer ribs him for working so hard. “Some husband you’d make,” she says. “You’d drive me crazy.”

“At least the house would be clean, though,” he responds.

Irizarri is getting $7.50 an hour, but he won’t see the promised fringe benefits for another two months. LBR’s company policy is that workers don’t qualify for benefits until they’ve worked for the company for at least 90 days.

SEP 16 No LSC quorum.

Beatrice Rodriguez brings up her concerns about security at today’s local school council meeting, and comes away with good news and bad news.

The good news: Members present come up with a proposal they all like— instead of hiring full-time guards, the school can give parents small stipends to organize themselves as school monitors. As parents, they know who belongs in the school and who doesn’t, she says. “And we’re here anyway.”

The bad news: There’s no quorum—five parent members, one teacher and one community representative are absent—and no parents show up to observe. Rodriguez says later that she still feels that staff on the council don’t give her concerns enough weight. Further, parents she talks to the next day aren’t happy with the parent-monitor idea. Rodriguez advises them to show up at the next council meeting and promises to pressure school officials to publicize the meeting.