Probation begins to push teachers in new directions

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After sputtering for a year, probation has gotten in gear at Schurz High School, but tensions remain high.

Father Robert Carroll, principal of Carmel High in Mundelein, replaced Region 1 Education Officer Eva Nickolich as probation manager and electrified the faculty in a speech last fall. “You should stop school and read, just read,” he later recalls telling them.

Hopeful changes followed, though none as radical as Carroll suggests. The once-tentative relationship between Schurz and its external partner, Northeastern Illinois University, has improved. “I believe we have an open dialogue, and we trust each other,” says Principal Sharon Rae Bender.

The school has chosen to focus on bilingual freshmen with low reading scores. About 300 such students have been placed in tutorials, but attendance has been poor because the classes are not mandatory.

In January, the lack of a quorum at the local school council meeting put on hold Bender’s bid to make tutorials mandatory. Meanwhile, teachers and LSC members addressed another pressing need, better communication.

NOV 12 New probation manager makes waves.

This afternoon, the probation team meets in spacious Room 131, known as the “social room” and site of many important functions. On hand is Father Robert Carroll, principal of Carmel High, who became probation manager at Schurz after his previous charge, Amundsen High, got off probation.

“It was decided REOs should not be probation managers in the region where they supervise the principal,” explains Region 1 Education Officer Eva Nickolich, who had been Schurz’s probation manager. Of her own experience, she says, “It was very difficult to have that dual role.”

Some Schurz teachers believe Carroll’s presence is a wake-up call. “Last year we had an external person [Nickolich] who was a friend of the principal,” says one. “This year we have an external person who has nothing whatsoever to do with the principal, who crunches numbers. They’re making sure we toe the line.”

The probation meeting begins with a point-by-point rundown of Schurz’s efforts to improve reading. Carroll interrupts with a broader question. “Can I ask what you think the mood of teachers would be with reading across the curriculum?” He mentions encountering an advanced chemistry teacher who insisted her students did not need supplemental reading instruction.

Teachers respond with their parts of the puzzle: the math department is setting aside time to read in class, the reading task force is training teachers in different reading strategies, and so forth. But English Department Chair Mary McNeal tells an anecdote that best answers the question. Last week, her department had “a down-home chat” about teaching reading. “I think we have the mind-set now of what we should do,” she says, making clear it didn’t come easy.

At one point, McNeal recalls, a colleague pleaded: “Oh, Mary, what are you saying? Are you saying we should just stop and teach reading?”

McNeal’s response was an unequivocal yes, but she added, “We are not going to forget Hamlet and Macbeth and all those guys.”

Later, Carroll asks reading lab coordinator Mary Ann Wright-Casey for the bottom line. “Can I put you on the spot? Are you happy with your progress?”

Wright-Casey says yes, but adds, “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to get a quantitative reading of progress.”

Near the end of the meeting, Carroll repeatedly urges the team to consider more drastic measures to improve reading. “Why aren’t students at 5th stanine or below taking an extra reading class? … If the identifiable problem is the kids can’t read at level, then why isn’t there something stronger in the curriculum? … Are you willing to use some of your Title I money to hire reading teachers?”

NOV 18 State of the school address.

Tonight, about 50 chairs are set up in the social room for the local school council’s biannual report. This is the first year the School Board insisted LSCs follow this legal mandate. Five minutes before the meeting starts, about half the chairs are occupied. Later in the meeting, when teacher rep Gerri Baginski asks how many parents are in the audience, two people raise their hands.

Everyone in the room receives a yellow, spiral-bound booklet that contains the school’s improvement plan, budget, probation corrective action plan and school report cards for the years 1993-1997.

During her principal’s report, Bender reiterates a long-standing complaint: New lockers, part of the interior renovation, still haven’t arrived. “Our lockers are nowhere to be found. … We were promised lockers for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I don’t see any lockers, do you?”

When it’s time for committee reports, there are none. Baginski, who agreed last summer to push the bilingual committee and the Professional Personnel Advisory Committee to submit reports, says she requested them to no avail. She also says she was working on a teacher newsletter, which took energy away from pursuing the committee reports.

Assistant Principal Susan Kukla and Operations Manager Vicky Hansen have prepared a computer graphics presentation featuring data from the five years of report cards. During this time, enrollment dropped slightly to 2,918, attendance improved to 85 percent, and the average ACT composite score held steady at 15, three points below the city average and six below the state average.

Last spring, scores on the state’s IGAP social studies test dropped significantly. Community resident Linda Pudlow wants to know why. Bender and bilingual social studies teacher Debby Pope say the test included much more economics and that Schurz’s courses didn’t reflect that.

“Do they let you know when they switch the test from one area to another?” asks English teacher Dale Berman.

People laugh as Bender says, “No, oh no.” She adds, “Before we can say, ‘Oh, they’re not doing well,’ let’s know what they were tested on.”

Aida Montijo, LSC liaison for Region 1, takes the floor near the end of the meeting to commend the presentation. She goes on to ask everyone to call legislators and urge them to support the current push in Springfield for increased school funding. “We’ve prepared a little speech type of thing,” she says. “We ask the teachers also to make calls. By tomorrow we’ll have the list of legislators who voted no [previously].”

Bender, Pope and LSC community rep Betty Durbin are energized by Montijo’s request. Pope, a Chicago Teachers Union delegate, recalls a postcard campaign co-sponsored by the union and the principals’ association earlier this fall, and suggests asking students to write letters. The LSC briefly follows that tangent.

“Shorter is better,” says Durbin.

“Give us the money we deserve,” suggests Bender.

“Show me the money,” jokes programmer Linda Gutmann.

NOV 25 Students put in their 2 cents.

At 6:30 a.m., 14 teachers and 14 students meet over juice and sweet rolls to exchange ideas about how to boost reading achievement. Most of the students are upperclassmen who participate in school activities.

The room is set up in three circles, each with butcher paper and a separate starter question: “Who is responsible for improving reading test scores?” “Is reading really so important?” “How can Schurz improve its reading test scores?” Although each group has a teacher facilitator, teachers and students interact as equals. As they unfold, the conversations give teachers a rare glimpse into students’ views of the school.

“Hey, why do you think our reading scores are so low?” Rosemary Hegener, a physical education teacher, asks her circle.

“Because most of us don’t read,” says one student, prompting nods from the others.

Some kids don’t see any value in the tests and don’t try, adds senior Leticia Taylor.

In English teacher Dale Berman’s circle, senior Joaquin Stephenson says teachers need to make students read more. “A lot of teachers, even English teachers, don’t require you to read in class,” he says.

Berman suggests Schurz open a small bookstore, carrying mostly magazines, but some books as well. “They ate [the idea] up,” she says afterward, and offers to take charge of organizing it, pending administrative approval.

“Do you like this school? Is it part of your life?” asks Hegener, herself a Schurz grad. Students say no and shake their heads as she continues, “When I went here, I loved it—my whole life revolved around this place.”

In Berman’s circle, Debby Pope asks, “Does anybody discuss books with their friends?” Only one student says yes.

Joaquin teases the girl, asking, “So you sit around in Borders with a cappuccino?” Everyone in the group chuckles, and the girl adds that she has less time now than she once had for reading. Other students say jobs limit their reading time.

A bell rings at 7:10, but everyone ignores it and keeps talking. The circles agree that the discussion was worthwhile, and the group commits to meet next semester. Mary Ann Wright-Casey will summarize the discussion and present it to the probation manager, administration and department chairs.

Afterward, Joaquin suggests they broaden the base of students participating. “A good idea would be to invite freshmen next time. That would make them a lot more comfortable,” he says.

Two other efforts are underway at Schurz to pick students’ brains. Bender lunches with students every other week, and Chuck Pistorio of Northeastern Illinois University, the school’s probation partner, is planning to hold student focus groups in January.

DEC 3 Character education a tough sell, Reader’s Digest a hit.

Every Wednesday afternoon, teachers spend an hour and a half in “flextime,” staff development sessions that fill the gap between the number of minutes teachers teach each week and the number they are required to be in school.

Half of today’s flextime is a presentation on the character education program the School Board developed and is promoting. It will be a tough sell.

Teachers leave department meetings at 3 p.m. and file into the auditorium, where they receive a three-ring binder of character education materials. They center around 10 values, one for each month of the school year: caring, courage, courtesy, honesty and truthfulness, fairness, family pride, kindness and helpfulness, respect, responsibility, and work ethic.

Teachers flip through the binders while Operations Manager Vicky Hansen introduces Mary McPherson of the board’s Teachers’ Academy for Professional Growth.

The binder isn’t making a great first impression. “This is the stuff you teach your children from the age of 2 to the age of 7, right?” one teacher asks another.

On the second try, the front rows respond to McPherson’s “good afternoon” at an acceptable volume, and she starts her pitch. “Over 100 CPS schools already have character education programs,” she says but goes on to note that the new systemwide initiative is unique. “People from Boston and Washington, D.C. are already begging for our masterpiece. … We’re making history.”

Later in her opening remarks, McPherson appeals to teachers’ self-interest. “We have an investment,” she says. “The babies that we teach today, these high school students, do you know they are going to be taking care of us tomorrow?”

Toward the back of the auditorium, two teachers break into smiles and guffaws at this statement.

Next, Hansen turns on a video titled “See Dick and Jane Lie, Cheat and Steal: Teaching Morality to Kids.” The point of the video, produced by Aims Multimedia, can best be summarized in narrator Tom Selleck’s comment: “It’s not safe to assume our kids know right from wrong.” Crime statistics and interviews with incarcerated teens and young adults are presented to support his assertion.

The acoustics in Schurz’s auditorium are designed to enhance organ reverberations; as a result, spoken words, especially from a video, are difficult to make out. Although most teachers appear to be listening, there is a low buzz of talk in the back of the room.

McPherson stops the video before it ends because time is short. After a brief anecdote from her days teaching at Jones Metropolitan High School, she says, “If we as educators don’t buy into [this program], the students will know.”

Most teachers remain unsold. “I hate to be negative … but it’s a crock,” says one. “If you don’t have family pride by the time you’re in high school, you aren’t going to get it from English class.”

English teachers are to take primary responsibility for promoting the 10 values. (Later, McPherson tells a reporter that other teachers are doing it as well.)

“If you’re already doing character education in your classroom, make the connections from this [binder],” says McPherson. “Let those [activities] be integrated into what you already are doing.” She gives them her phone number and encourages them to call with constructive comments.

It’s 3:30. Teachers sit up in their seats, thinking McPherson is finished. But she’s not. She puts a series of inspirational quotes on the overhead projector and proceeds to discuss them. A thin but steady stream of teachers begins trickling out the back doors. Debby Pope walks over to Bender’s seat in the audience, and they speak briefly.

A few minutes later, teachers applaud McPherson, thinking that now she’s finished. But she isn’t. Her last overhead is a poem adapted from the R. Kelly hit song “I Believe I Can Fly,” which she reads aloud. It begins, “I use [sic] to think scores could not go up. …”

“Oh, God,” someone moans.

“It’s not even grammatically correct,” chides another teacher.

Finally, it’s over. Bender comes on stage and takes McPherson’s hand to thank her for coming. “I know you’ve stayed late,” Bender acknowledges to the faculty, but asks their patience with a couple of announcements. Teachers then politely applaud McPherson and leave.

At least 15 teachers stick around and head up to room 335, a computer lab, for a reading task force meeting. At first the meetings were held during flextime, but in mid-October they were pushed after regular hours so task force members could also attend department meetings. Five teachers quit the task force even though teachers continue to be paid at regular rates for attending.

Teachers bring sustenance—today it’s a small smorgasbord of homemade cookies, cheese and crackers, and chips and salsa.

Northeastern reading consultant Pam Mayers has them read a passage to themselves, then form groups of three. Each group must write a multiple-choice vocabulary question based on a word in the text.

While the groups take turns quizzing each other with the questions they have written, English teacher Barbara Becker asks Mayers whether it would be better to do the exercise with simpler words when working with students.

Mayers advises against watering down the material. “I don’t know that the test constructors are as kind as you are,” she says.

In addition to learning new reading techniques and passing them on to colleagues, the task force is in charge of Schurz’s experiment with sustained silent reading. In October, the plan was to mandate 10 minutes of silent reading daily in every class, using Reader’s Digest, but Mayers and task force members recommended trying out the idea with volunteers, using different lengths of time.

So far, time to read and Reader’s Digest have been a hit with students. Those attending the Nov. 25 breakfast said they liked the magazine, as did every student Catalyst asked who had seen it.

Students in task force member Dale Berman’s English I class liked the uninterrupted reading time so much that she switched from two 25-minute sessions a week to one 50-minute session on Fridays. When she ended reading time after 25 minutes, she says, the classes begged to keep going.

“The word is out that the students like it,” says Mayers in a January interview. “It’s encouraging the teachers to want to try it.”

DEC 5 Few show up for 6:30 a.m. tutoring.

Other probation-inspired initiatives started this year are a tutoring program and incentive rewards for students. About 300 freshman ESL students have been placed in tutoring classes before or after school.

Without a penalty for absence, the classes aren’t drawing many students. Only about 70 arrive at Schurz this morning in time for the 6:30 a.m. classes. Many say they are here for detention or just to eat breakfast.

In teacher Daniel Gajda’s early-morning class, 24 names are on the attendance list, but only 9 students show up. Before returning to a short story they started yesterday, the students are asked by Gajda how many have library cards. Two do. The class spends most of the period reading and discussing the story, taken from an ESL supplementary reading text. Coordinator James Lewis says teachers are free to choose their own materials for the tutorials.

Since today is Friday, it’s payday, of a sort. A new incentive program, named Bulldog Bucks for the school mascot, has begun. For attending the tutorial sessions, students can earn Bulldog Bucks redeemable for in-school rewards, such as extra time to finish homework.

Gajda distributes five Bulldog Bucks to the students who came every day this week. He asks if anyone here has used them; no one has. Aracely says her teachers are not accepting them, but Jackie says hers are.

Even teachers who accept them do so with discretion. One teacher admits she refused to accept Bulldog Bucks from a student who behaved insolently when redeeming them to skip a homework assignment.

“You have to be nice” when redeeming Bulldog Bucks, Gajda advises his students. “Say ‘could I please,’ and then you give them the buck.”

In eighth period, John Newboe’s students perch on stools at their drafting tables, working on presentation drawings of proposed renovations to the buildings along the Six Corners of Milwaukee Avenue, Irving Park Road and Cicero Avenue. Local businesses who want to make the proposed renovations have been offered low-interest loans through LaSalle Bank.

When Catalyst asks Newboe for his opinion of the board’s new character education program, he turns to his class, which is so quiet and focused it appears to be running itself. “Excuse me for interrupting you,” he calls out gently, “but I want to ask a few questions.” Students look up from their work expectantly.

“Do I ever talk to you about work ethic?”

“Yes, all the time,” students chorus, somewhere between a shout and a groan.

“Do I ever talk to you about respect?”

“All the time,” comes the reply.

“I had a nightmare about it last night,” jokes sophomore Wendy Vargas.

Newboe continues through most of the School Board’s character education list. His students say he discusses honesty, fairness, kindness and helpfulness “every now and then.” Courtesy? “Oh, yeah.”

“Caring” draws blank stares at first, but when Newboe suggests caring about doing a good job, the students agree they hear that frequently.

Finally, Newboe asks whether he is the only teacher talking about these values.

“You’re almost the only one,” says Wendy Vargas.

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” Newboe admits. “Don’t teachers notice if you curse?”

“Yes, they tell us not to use that kind of language,” Wendy answers.

With that, Newboe sends them back to drawing.

DEC 6 First-ever open house.

It’s 10 a.m. Saturday morning, and at least 150 people are visiting Schurz’s first-ever open house. Along the hall by the auditorium, about 75 students staff tables advertising sports and clubs. Inside, the school orchestra is previewing its winter concert. Parents and prospective students are welcome to tour the school, including the pool area, where girls’ swimming coach Helena Coupaud is leading make-up swim classes and recruiting swim team prospects. Bender, sporting a Schurz sweatshirt, mingles with the crowd.

The event has already been running for two hours, so it’s hard to gauge how many visitors have stopped in. Later, guidance counselor Elizabeth Pilarski says she received about 50 enrollment applications on the spot.

Pilarski sent flyers to 60 elementary schools, and publicized the event at Lane Tech’s and Prosser Vocational’s school fairs.

Teresita Diaz and her father, Anselmo, like what they’ve seen, if only because this is the first high school they’ve visited. Teresita plans to attend Schurz or Prosser. “Everything was OK,” she says. “I liked ROTC. Right now I would want to come here because I haven’t gone to the others.”

One Schurz grad who asked that her name not be used brought her husband and 8th-grade son more for old time’s sake than for her child’s future. She expects her son to attend Lane or Von Steuben.

Although she appreciated the strong showing from student clubs and activities, she’s disappointed with Schurz. “You want my honest opinion? They need new lockers,” she says, echoing Bender’s complaint. “This hallway looks terrible,” she adds, pointing to a windowsill where the plaster has fallen away and exposed brick. “It brings back old memories, but it wasn’t like this when I was here.”

DEC 10 Worst-ever fire alarm evacuation?

Today’s classes are interrupted by a fire alarm. In January, Bender will report that a wiring malfunction caused the alarms to sound, but at the time it’s unclear whether the alarm signals a drill, a false alarm or a real fire.

A teacher who has been at Schurz for many years says afterward she’s never seen an evacuation like today’s.

When the alarm goes off, teachers in the faculty lunchroom stop talking but sit still. There’s wet snow, not quite sleet, falling outside. Soon a voice comes over the PA system: “Please follow fire drill procedures. Please evacuate.”

Now teachers start moving. “I can’t believe we’re being thrown in the snow,” grumbles one. One section of the school takes the stairwell near the cafeteria to exit via the Addison Street doors. Students shriek in the stairwell for the sheer fun of making noise, a violation of posted fire drill procedures, which require silence.

Outside the Addison Street doors, chaos ensues. A snowball fight has the emerging crowd at a near standstill. Some students try to avoid the cross-fire by re-entering the building, only to be sent out again. A teacher urges the crowd to walk toward the street, but few want to risk getting hit.

After a short time, the crowd surges forward, and the snowballs subside to an occasional lob. In January, Bender says all students had left the building in less than three minutes.

The long parade of students circles the block, then waits en masse in front of the wheelchair-access entrance at Waveland and Kildare. Increasing snowballs reflect students’ rising impatience. When the doors open, hundreds of shivering, soggy teens race forward, some jumping the ramp’s metal railing. The crowd is so thick it’s easy to see how people are trampled at stadium concerts. A snowball slams into the wall inside, narrowly missing heads.

After the worst of the crush, a male teacher enters the building, red-faced from the cold and the effort of keeping the crowd barely under control. He clutches three ID tags. “Wish I’d got more,” he says, frustrated. Once students are inside, the scene calms down.

Upstairs, a voice on the loudspeaker tells everyone to go to their 7th-period class. “If there are any available teachers, please help clear the hallways.” Sixteen teachers are in their lunchroom. No one moves.

The veteran teacher is among them. “I’ve never known any [evacuations] this bad,” she says. “I’ve never seen this stuff with snowballs.”

Reading task force members had been scheduled to train the department this afternoon to develop vocabulary questions like the ones they themselves created last week. But today’s department meetings have been canceled to give teachers more time in the 12 committees responding to topics in the state’s quality review—”the state’s assessment of the progress of a school in meeting its own goals,” as Wright-Casey explains.

In the teachers’ cafeteria, Dale Berman asks Pam Mayers when the reading task force will meet again. “It means something to me,” she says.

“We don’t do anything ’til the 14th of January,” Mayers tells her, but adds that today “we’ll meet after school and talk SSR [sustained silent reading].”

DEC 17 School funding bill leads to Schurz fracas.

Events in Springfield have led to surprising repercussions at Schurz. CTU delegate Pope and Principal Bender, who both supported the education funding bill in November, found themselves at odds over it in December. Changes in the bill regarding teacher recertification and the use of pension funds caused the Chicago Teachers Union to withdraw its support, while the School Reform Board continued to push for its passage.

Catalyst obtained a copy of a form letter on Schurz stationery dated Dec. 1. The letter asks legislators to support House Bill 452 and illustrates the need for funds with examples from the school, such as its antiquated boilers and science labs. Teachers say they were told via the public address system to come to the main office at the end of the day, and that operations manager Vicky Hansen was distributing copies of this letter for them to sign.

English teacher Barbara Becker says Pope was also in the main office telling teachers the union opposed the bill. “Debby was speaking hurriedly,” she says in a January interview. “I hear that a few minutes later Dr. Bender came out, but I don’t know anything of what was said.” No one CATALYST contacted would publicly discuss their interchange.

This morning, Pope and CTU field rep Marge Lebrecht are in Bender’s office for a predisciplinary hearing. The School Reform Board’s personnel policy states that an administrator must hold such a hearing “whenever discipline greater than a reprimand is being considered against an employee.” The purpose of the hearing is to explain the charges and proposed disciplinary action. The employee may present his or her side of the story and may bring a union representative or an attorney.

During the hearing, a teacher walks the tables in the faculty lunchroom, garnering signatures on a petition supporting Pope. “If you agree with it and you want to sign it, sign it. If you don’t, don’t,” he says. “I’m not trying to pressure anybody.” Some sign, some don’t.

The petition itself delicately balances criticism of the administration with a concession that Pope may not have chosen the best possible response. A bolded sentence declares: “Many union members felt pressured to sign” letters supporting the bill.

But the final statement strikes a more conciliatory note. “Although the situation may not have been handled in the best manner possible by both parties, Ms. Pope was acting in the interests of the union.”

In January, Bender says she never received any petitions regarding Pope. LSC teacher rep Gerri Baginski says a written reprimand was placed in Pope’s record as a result of the incident.

JAN 13 Making connections

Although there are only five LSC members at tonight’s meeting—too few for a quorum—the sense of urgency that has sent shock waves through the school is beginning to seep into the council as well.

ESL tutoring coordinator James Lewis pleads for the council to make the sessions mandatory. “We need help from the local school council and from parents in getting students to come,” he says. “Because it’s not mandatory, we have no leverage.”

Bender tells Lewis and the council she has with her a formal motion to do that, and wants to give students a quarter of a credit for taking the class.

Later in the meeting, LSC teacher rep Cliff Pierce tells the council that support exists among the faculty to switch from a school day of seven 50-minute periods to eight 45-minute periods, which might permit the tutorials to be held during the regular day. He is a member of the quality review committee charged with determining the feasibility of a restructured day.

Lewis, a member of the parent advisory committee, wants to explore the idea. “Mr. Pierce, I think our two committees could work well together,” he says. At the end of this meeting Pierce, Lewis and LSC Chair Edward Johnson set a tentative meeting for later in the month, after Wednesday flextime.

Bender reminds everyone of the challenges involved. “It would necessitate an entire new master schedule,” she says. She is doubtful that even in a building Schurz’s size, enough classrooms can be found, especially while interior renovations continue.

Johnson asks Pierce whether his committee has a timeline for its plans. Pierce says it’s hard to have a timeline when the committee frequently hears “we can’t do that” in response to suggestions to change the schedule.

“I didn’t say you couldn’t do it,” Bender answers. “I’m just telling you what it necessitates.”

“It takes a lot of work by a lot of people,” says Pierce. “We understand that.”