Probation brings focus, accountability

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As part of our ongoing coverage of probation, Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams solicited the opinions of four principals whose schools are on probation. Here is an edited transcript.

Robert Gutter

Wright Elementary

Principal for 8 years

Neighborhood: Humboldt Park

Enrollment: 365

Poverty level: 95 percent

Mobility rate: 40 percent

Race/ethnicity: 100 percent African American

What has been good about probation? First, I don’t have to twist my staff’s arms, and I can demand more from them. We know we are all being held accountable, and my staff has gotten behind the process and is working hard. Also the change in the state law has given principals more leeway to do certain things. For instance, the process has been shortened to get rid of bad staff. Before, it took so much time. Now principals have the support of the law.

Still, probation needs to include dealing with parents and students. Somehow parents have to be made accountable. For instance, we can’t teach if our students don’t come to school. Some of our parents haven’t realized the seriousness of probation and student achievement. In terms of the students, no more social promotion has been a good thing because it affects them directly.

There have been no set guidelines to follow to get off probation. There is no cut-and-dried answer except reading scores have to rise. But I wish we had been given specific goals to work toward like: You have to show 3 or 4 percent gains each year. I think this is a downfall of probation.

Also, other factors should have been taken into consideration, like the mobility rate.

In addition, while I realize that 15 percent is low and I’d like to see my students well beyond that, we have made gains over the past year. [Editor: The trigger for probation was having less than 15 percent of students at or above national norms in reading.] In 3rd grade, my kids made a l.1-year gain in overall grades. My 6th-graders made a 9-month gain. So we are making progress, but it will take time. I wish central office had given us more input on showing what our kids know. Some of our kids don’t test well, but we believe we have to measure and teach them, and every kid should show some gains.

I don’t think reconstitution is the answer. I think if principals are given time, about 90 percent of them can turn their schools around.

I also have some concerns about the role of the probation manager. We are being evaluated by our probation manager, who determines whether we should stay on probation. One of the problems is our probation manager comes from a school with a different student population, and I think she has a lack of understanding of what’s involved when you have a school like mine. Our kids aren’t coming from brick bungalows, middle-class neighborhoods. For instance, I get calls and visits from the Department of Children and Family Services regarding custody cases. I have two kids who had to be admitted to the hospital because of psychological problems. We had to get rid of two local school council members who were selling dope. I told our probation manager, “This is how it is around here.”

If probation works, I welcome it. But it won’t happen overnight. My school is in a socially disadvantaged area, and it may take more time to turn things around than at some other schools.

Freddie McGee

Ross Elementary

Principal for 3 years

Neighborhood: Washington Park

Enrollment: 676

Poverty rate: 97 percent

Mobility rate: 42 percent

Race/ethnicity: 100 percent African American

Probation has really focused our staff; we are all on the same page. Still, I think it has also taken away pride from the staff and the students. Probation says you are a non-performing school. But each school is unique, and there are certain things that distinguish each school.

From year to year, our kids’ scores have increased. In 1995, our ITBS reading scores were 9 percent at or above average; in ’96, they were 14.1 percent. But, I don’t think the ITBS test scores are enough to see if a school is progressing. Other factors like mobility should be taken into account. Our mobility rate last year was 41.9 percent. Now I’m not using this as an excuse, but poverty also affects kids.

So, what we’ve been doing is, teachers are explaining to students the seriousness of test scores. We started practicing in September on reading and math. Teachers have scheduled about an hour three times a week to work on IGAP skills so students can become familiar with test taking and with the content.

We’re not sure what we need to do to get off probation; we know it’s more than the test scores, but we don’t know what.

I don’t think reconstitution is necessary. But I think where schools refuse to accept the seriousness of the program, they will get reconstituted.

Doris Scott

Medill Primary

Principal for 11 years

Neighborhood: Near West Side

Enrollment: 432

Poverty rate: 97 percent

Mobility rate: 32 percent

Race/ethnicity: 100 percent African American

We have a good probation manager who gives us good advice. Her school had similar problems to ours, like attendance. So some of the techniques she used and found successful, we’re using.

Also we’re getting extra money to buy things we need, like books for our library. Our kids lost a lot of them, and many were simply outdated. The board also paid for our after-school program. Also, probation has given us an opportunity to sit and figure out how we should get things going. It has made us real serious.

The down side to probation is, it has made everyone paranoid, and teacher morale has gone down, although morale is now picking up.

And while I don’t think the board was unreasonable about this, it doesn’t track increasing student achievement, I don’t think it looked at what made our students so low achieving in the first place. For example, our cream-of-the-crop kids were siphoned away to other schools.

We don’t know what we have to do to get off probation. We have been told that raising test scores above 15 percent is not the only thing we have to do. Still, teachers are concentrating on test-taking skills. We started using Direct Instruction, and while our kids’ decoding skills have improved, they are not taking tests well.

In regards to reconstitution, I don’t think it’s the right answer. Top-notch teachers and experienced principals are not going to want to step into schools that have been reconstituted.

John Garvey

Foreman High School

Principal for 10 years

Neighborhood: Portage Park

Enrollment: 2,031

Poverty rate: 77 percent

Mobility rate: 24

Race/ethnicity: 33 percent white, 22 percent African American, 43 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian

Probation is such a harsh term. When we were first placed on probation, it was very stressful to everyone. But my teachers and I have really cooperated and have gotten involved in what we need to do to raise student achievement. It has made us much more focused.

We’ve been taking advantage of our external partner, Northeastern University, and have been involved with reading across the curriculum; and our teachers have been learning different teaching strategies.

We’ve also talked to our students about probation, and since then we’ve had a good increase in our test scores. Our kids were very pleased.

We know the problem is student achievement, and I think that some of the new changes will make a big difference in it, like the new promotion policy and restructuring high schools.

And what do I think about reconstitution? It’s good for orange juice. No, seriously, the board should avoid doing this if they can, or only do a small number.

Under the law, teachers can be bumped to other schools but not dismissed, which will disrupt classrooms. It’s a risky move, but this administration takes risks.