Probation program sluggish, advisory proposal rejected

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For the last year or so, Carl Schurz High School in the Northwest Side’s Avondale neighborhood has basked in the glow of a stunning physical transformation. Designed by Dwight Perkins in 1908, the massive, Prairie Style structure was designated an historic landmark in 1979, but it had fallen into disrepair. Beginning in 1989, the Public Building Commission and board spent over $12 million to fix the school’s leaking roof, restore its unique orange tiles and install new windows, among other repairs.

“It’s the biggest boost we’ve had,” says Betty Durbin, a longtime city PTA leader who has been on Schurz’s local school council from the start. “You couldn’t ever weigh that in money. The community views this school now as a showplace.”

That’s not yet the view from inside, however. Lead abatement, underway for three years, is not complete. And with the cafeteria kitchen down all last year for a complete overhaul, food was delivered daily from Lane Tech, dubbed the “Addison Street Cafe” by Schurz Principal Sharon Rae Bender.

Meanwhile, educational improvement is arriving still more slowly at this school of 3,155 students, third largest in the system. After declining for six years straight, reading scores at Schurz increased slightly last spring, but not enough to get the school off probation. Probation itself has brought more stress than help to teachers and students, though there are glimmers of hope for fall. Over the summer, Schurz teachers began to develop a task force on reading similar to the one that spelled success for Amundsen High School. (See CATALYST/Chronicles, June 1997.)

Like high schools throughout the city, Schurz hosted its largest summer school in memory—a mix of catch-up classes for low-scoring students and paying summer jobs that ranged from designing home kitchens to planting trees. Thanks to a boost in federal funding, the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training more than doubled the number of summer youth jobs available in the Chicago public schools.

JUN 7 Learning to take tests: in a word, boring.

Even though the school year is winding down, classwork looms large at a cafeteria table full of freshmen. This year the Summer Bridge Program’s largest component will be 13,973 freshmen who scored below 8th-grade levels in math and/or reading on the nationally standardized Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, TAP for short.

“I’m in summer school for math,” says freshman Barbara Kneeland. “I’m kinda happy I have to go, even though there goes my vacation. It helps you stay on track.” This summer, Barbara plans to tutor at a local grammar school in the morning, bone up on math in the afternoon in Schurz’s Bridge program, and study at night with her mother using GED preparation materials.

While Barbara’s big worry is math, the school’s big worry is reading. TAP scores in reading rose slightly this year, but with only 12 percent of students at or above national norms, the school is still under the shadow of probation. “The school did not raise its reading scores to 15 percent. It will have to this year, or the school will be reconstituted the following year,” says Eva Nickolich, the school’s probation manager and Region 1 education officer.

Debby Pope, a bilingual history teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate, says “not a whole lot” changed educationally this year as a result of probation. The big push was teaching kids how to take tests, she says.

“Boring,” junior Ann Mills gravely calls the test preparation. And ineffective. When the test days came, says Ann, “people didn’t take it seriously. The main thing was, don’t leave blanks, so people would just fill in anything.”

Assistant Principal Carline Williams-Strong is not much happier about probation. Most initiatives didn’t get off the ground until well into second semester. “To be quite honest, it managed to demoralize, to put people under such stress and pressure …” she says, trailing off in thought. “I don’t think we felt any sense of relief this year.”

Although Williams-Strong appreciates the efforts of Northeastern Illinois University, the school’s external partner, some teachers express dissatisfaction with the university’s inservice programs. “I think people were frustrated with Northeastern,” says biology teacher Gail Slowinski, because inservices focused on team building, not teaching per se. “The staff felt our problem isn’t working together, it’s getting strategies” to increase student learning.

Chuck Pistorio, associate professor of counselor education at Northeastern, arrived at Schurz in late February as head of a three-person team. With the TAP and IGAP tests less than a month away, he says he immediately recognized “we’re not gonna get impact on reading and math.” So instead of pushing those areas, he chose to “learn the lay of the land” and focus on building relationships with the school’s 180 teachers. In some workshops, he found that teachers who had been at the school for years had never before said much more than hello to each other.

“We didn’t want to come in and say ‘Oh, you need this, this or that when [we’re] outsiders,” he adds.

JUN 17 Teachers reject advisory waiver.

Like other Chicago high schools, Schurz is struggling to fit a 25-minute advisory period into the school day for all freshmen and sophomores, as mandated by central office. Even without advisory, some students barely have time to fulfill all their graduation requirements under the current schedule of seven periods a day, 50 minutes each; since the board is bumping up math and science requirements to three years of each, that problem will only get worse.

Everyone at Schurz assumes that adding advisory will mean changing the shape of the school day for all students, not just freshmen and sophomores. And because the teachers union contract spells out the shape of the school day, any change has to be voted up or down by the faculty.

Today, the Schurz staff will hear Principal Bender’s pitch for a proposal floated last week by a teacher-run Restructuring Committee to shorten each class period by two minutes. The extra minutes would be added to the current minutes allotted to division (home-room), to make a 25-minute advisory.

Teacher sentiment is running against the proposal, because it would require all teachers to take responsibility for an extra class—the new advisory—without getting any extra pay. The school administration already has vetoed as too expensive a proposal that some teachers prefer, switching to eight 45-minute periods and paying teachers to take on another full-period class.

Union delegate Debby Pope, who sits on the restructuring committee, has sent a letter to teachers arguing against the administration’s proposal. Finding the money to pay teachers for advisory, she says, is simply a matter of priorities.

Teachers seem to agree. Yesterday, 104 of them met with Pope to discuss the advisory issue, in what she describes as “the most empowering meeting of the year.” The large turnout sent a strong signal of discontent, given that Schurz teachers often shy away from meetings, partly from fear of drawing the administration’s fire.

In today’s meeting, Bender opens a long monologue with a by-the-book stance. “You are required to sign in because this is a meeting which I have to call according to the union contract. The reason we are here is as follows,” she says, going on to quote the contract: “The principal shall meet with school faculty during the day to discuss any procedure that requires a departure from the agreement [between the union and the School Board].”

Later, Bender adopts a more personal approach, appealing to teachers’ sympathy and sense of professionalism. “I know some of you are adamantly opposed to restructuring anything,” she says. To remind her listeners that she was once in their shoes, she talks about the benefits of division which she hopes would increase under the advisory system. “A division is not [just] 10 minutes. You develop a rapport with them,” she says, reminiscing about her own former division students. “I feel like their grandmother; they bring their kids to me.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she continues. “As you know, I’m a former union delegate, and now I’m a principal. Twenty-five minutes of so-called advisory was not my idea. I have been instructed by Mr. Vallas and the board to prepare for this in September.”

Taking up Pope’s letter, Bender says, “I will not address the tone of this letter, because that would take too long. The last paragraph of this letter says, ‘We will not be intimidated.'”

“Let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen,” says Bender. “Is Mr. Vallas going to come down and yell at us? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I believe you are professionals, and being professional is different from punching a time clock in a factory. … I’m not asking you to give blood. I really believe that this doesn’t really faze most of you.”

Apparently, she’s wrong. In a vote the following week, teachers reject the waiver 122-10. And for now, there is no plan B.

JUL 1 Summer school opens: untold hundreds served.

It’s the second day of summer school. By 9 a.m., counselor Sol Rodriguez has finished straightening out the last student schedule problem.

Teachers and administrators say this is the largest summer school Schurz has ever had. But numbers are hard to come by, because so many students are involved in more than one program.

Jackie Meeks, who tracks enrollment for Schurz, comes up with 1,023 class registrations: 151 students in Bridge Program reading classes, 142 in Bridge Program math classes, 287 taking a core subject they failed during the regular school year, 243 in federally funded classes, and nearly 200 in English as a second language and special education extension classes. However, this tally does not account for students who are enrolled in more than one class and, thus, overstates the number of students participating.

Even so, Schurz needed more teachers to staff summer school than it has in the past and had a hard time recruiting them. “It was like pulling teeth,” Williams-Strong told CATALYST. “With some of them, there was that personal plea, ‘We need you, we need you.'” In the end, Schurz had to bring in three teachers from outside its faculty.

“Poison—Lead Hazard—No loitering in this hallway,” reads the sign on the door of Room 123. School engineer David Hartnett says about 60 to 65 percent of the school’s lead abatement work has been completed. Although the abatement process in the cafeteria is done, workers are still repainting. For the first week of summer school, students eat bag lunches in their classrooms.

JUL 8 A day in the life of Room 131.

9:30 a.m. About 100 young people working at Schurz and four nearby grammar schools are gathered in Room 131 to take part in a landscape design “charrette,” or planning session. They are part of the Environmental Schools Initiative/Greencorps, a joint project of the city’s Department of Environment and the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training (MET). The 23 Schurz students employed for the summer in the Greencorps program were recruited by biology teacher Eloise Roche during the regular school year.

Each school’s Greencorps team is planning improvements to its school’s grounds, with help from landscape architects Terry Ryan and Rob Sperl. Students hear brief presentations from the professionals about their own career paths and jobs in the industry, then get to work.

Earlier this summer, each school team drew maps of the grounds, measuring distances between objects and showing trees, walkways, benches and other features. During the daylong program, subgroups of about 10 students each brainstorm the kinds of improvements they want to make, draw “bubble diagrams” that clarify which items fit in the overall scheme, and add the agreed-upon improvements to their base maps. “We had to put everything together, look at how it fit. We had to see what goes with what,” explains Schurz student Vicky Torres.

Finally, each group presents its new maps and explains the landscaping plan. “What we did was just the north part, because our school is so big. … This will be our evergreen area,” says Carla Ortiz, pointing at the map her group of Schurz students drew. “We already have two trees there, but it’s not enough.” Though she modestly says the revised plan is “not a big difference,” her group receives sustained applause.

Greencorps is just one of six MET-sponsored programs employing 88 Schurz students this summer. Last summer, Schurz only had one program, Clean and Green, that employed about 20 students. Thanks to a $5 million increase in federal Job Training Partnership Act funds, MET has hired 15,000 young people citywide for six-week summer jobs; 7,500 of them are working or pursuing vocational training in the Chicago public schools.

6:55 p.m. Tonight the local school council also meets in Room 131, but the turnout is a lot smaller than this morning’s. As the meeting starts, seven of 12 LSC members are present, including Bender and the newly elected student representative. One additional member arrives within 20 minutes. A total of 12 spectators, mainly teachers, show up for at least part of the meeting. After approving the minutes from May and June, the council invites public comment.

“I came here to defend our after-school academy, which was scrutinized by Ms. Baginski,” says physical education teacher Ray Smith, who believes that LSC teacher rep Gerri Baginski is challenging the program. The after-school and Saturday program offers classes of interest to students and community residents, including computers, auto repair, etc.

Smith and Baginski exchange heated words for a few minutes before Bender steps in. “Maybe I could help clarify the issue,” she says, and reads from a letter Baginski sent to LSC chair Carol Alba. “Both committee reports and budget dispersals were not made available to the council. I would like to see the list of activities and participants from the school and the community in our Saturday school, so we can tell how well our funds are being used.”

Smith takes the floor again, brandishing a stack of papers. “Here are the class rosters and attendance. I don’t appreciate your attacking my integrity,” he says to Baginski.

“That was not meant to be an attack,” Baginski replies, saying she heard from students that one of the classes had only two students. “Are we keeping classes like that going, when we only have an attendance of two? This has nothing to do with anyone personally. I have a real fiscal responsibility. It is not meant to be taken as a personal attack. If it was, I must apologize.”

“There were more than two people in the class,” asserts Smith. “Flyers were sent. If we don’t fill the classes—and we try—then we try harder next time, that’s all. … Any classes that did not reach the required number [about 10], we dropped.” Though the academy issue seems to be resolved, the tension lingers.

During the principal’s report, Bender announces she has received a letter from Paul Vallas granting exemplary program status to three of the school’s vocational programs: architectural drafting, woodworking and automotive. “We will be able to continue these programs without any kind of hampering,” she says. Three other programs— computer technology, horticulture and graphic arts—were granted conditional approval, meaning that Schurz staff will have to work with Pershing Road officials to improve them. One program, business technology, was not approved and likely will be phased out.

Michael Sailes, a manager in the Department of Vocational/Technical Education, says 31 of 38 schools whose vocational education programs applied for exemplary status had at least one program approved. A complete breakdown of accepted programs was not available.

After the principal’s report, it’s time for committee reports. There are none, which is typical. “Ms. Baginski, at last meeting you said you would like the members of various committees to come and report to us,” says Bender.

“Dr. Bender, it’s summertime,” she replies. “I actually was hoping more of our summer school teachers were here.”

The discussion shifts to the lack of input from the professional personnel advisory committee. Longtime LSC member Betty Durbin alludes to “the many complaints that come” from teachers, but laments “we don’t have an active [PPAC] committee that meets.” Baginski promises to meet with both the PPAC and the bilingual committee and encourage them to bring reports to the September LSC meeting.

Finally, Baginski raises a question about teacher schedules for the fall: “We have received a program with advisory,” she notes. “If we voted it down, why is it there?

“It will not be every single day for 25 minutes,” Bender replies.

“What will it be?” asks Baginski.

“I’m working on it,” says Bender, going on to describe the ever-changing nature of advisory. “I went to a meeting last Friday and was told that the advisory period will have no credit. The guidelines and curriculum have not been finalized. Some schools are having 25 minutes or a half-hour once a week.”

The meeting ends at 8:30, with only five spectators left.

JUL 9 Kids as landscapers, teachers as students.

About 10 Greencorps members are weeding Schurz’s prairie garden along the northeast edge of the grounds. Teachers Eloise Roche and Rosemary Hegener are considering adding signs so people will know what this strip of ground is. “I’m getting pretty good at telling what’s a weed and what’s not,” says Hegener.

Roche doesn’t let the students take chances. “If you have a question about the weed, ladies and gentlemen, just ask.” While she examines questionable weeds, four male Greencorps members and summer intern Mike Lynch stroll around the corner, carrying shovels and pitchforks.

“You got the tree out?” Roche asks in jest.

“Yeah,” they chorus, to her surprise.

“You did?”

“Yep,” replies Lynch.

Roche runs for her camera, delighted at their efficiency.

LSC member Betty Durbin stops by to meet with Bender today. She is warmly greeted by the main office staff, who are happy to see her on her feet again after a recent stroke. Durbin says the council’s priorities for the upcoming school year are “to get more parents involved and make sure we stay on track with our reading program.”

Another goal is reaching out to parents, especially bilingual parents. “Parent Academy goes hand-in-hand with our Junior Academy,” says Williams-Strong. Parents of incoming freshmen will attend an orientation of their own.

This afternoon, 15 of the 34 teachers who have volunteered to sit on Schurz’s embryonic reading task force are meeting upstairs with board consultant Mary Dunne and Ken Hunter, assistant principal at Amundsen High School. Dunne and Hunter are offering a two-day crash course in the reading strategies Amundsen used last school year to boost its TAP scores. (See Catalyst, June 1997.)

“I’m not here to give you any type of lecture,” says Dunne. “I’m not saying this is the be-all and end-all, but it seems to have helped their reading scores. I went [to visit] in May—they’re walking their talk. They have given the kids seven or eight really concrete study skills.”

Dunne proceeds to have the teachers practice the Cornell method of note-taking, using an article about the wreck of the Titanic. Although this skill was not part of Amundsen’s package, the method has been used successfully with students from Cornell undergraduates to returning dropouts at Chicago’s Prologue Alternative High School.

In this method, note-takers leave a left-hand column blank while writing down the main ideas and supporting details of a passage or lecture. The empty column, known as the “recall” section, can be filled in only after all the material has been presented. Then the note-taker adds drawings, key words or other memory joggers to keep each main idea clear. “No two notes look exactly the same,” says Dunne. “Everybody has some ownership.”

“But you don’t want the recall column to turn into a bunch of doodles,” objects teacher Barbara Berman.

“But it’s OK if they doodle,” Dunne insists.

Later on, Ken Hunter has the teachers try “K-W-L” using the Titanic article. K-W-L stands for “Know-Want-Learned,” shorthand for a reading strategy that was a big hit at Amundsen: Before reading, write down a column of what you already know about the topic and another column of what you want to know. After reading, write down what you learned and see if it matches the want column.

The teachers appear to find the workshop useful for individual professional development, but it’s not yet clear how they will organize themselves into a task force. At one point, Hunter looks to two teachers, asking, “Is this your reading task force?” They look at him without answering, uncertainty clouding their faces.

Although CTU delegate Debby Pope is not part of the task force, she saw Amundsen’s presentation to the entire faculty in June. “I liked what I saw when Amundsen came to visit,” says Pope, “but the relationships [among teachers and between teachers and administration] are obviously very different there. It’s a smaller school, and that makes a difference.”

Eva Nickolich puts it more bluntly. “There has to be more of a trust given to the staff to make decisions about how students can learn reading. That has to be done at Schurz,” she says. “If [teachers] can’t buy into the program, I don’t care if you spend $50,000 on it, it won’t fly.”

JUL 15 Exemplary voc-ed programs: architecture and auto shop.

In the drafting room, 24 Schurz students are clustered in pairs or small groups around computer work stations, transforming their pen-and-ink renderings of kitchen floor plans into computer-assisted drawings.

“These kids are being paid an hourly wage for learning architecture,” says drafting teacher John Newboe. Newboe has taught summer classes for Gallery 37 and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, but this is the first time Schurz has offered its own summer drafting program, which, like Greencorps, is funded through MET.

Though the summer students all have at least one year of drafting under their belts, their levels of skill and experience vary. Newboe chose to focus the summer’s work around kitchen design because it would be new for all of them. Besides, he says, “Everybody’s going to have a kitchen someday.”

During the six-week program, students will take their kitchen ideas all the way from a brainstormed list to architectural models. “It’s fun,” says rising junior Solinay Falcon, who has had two years of drafting classes. “My mom wants to see what I’ve done so far. She wants me to design the kitchen [at home]—she’s gonna keep pushing for that one.”

“I’ve never really had a real job,” says fellow junior Mylynna Alvarado. “It’s experience for me, for later.” Her pen-and-ink drawing of a house and yard hangs on the wall. It could as easily be hung in a studio art class. “It’s the same, actually,” she says of art and architecture. “You have to make something look how it’s supposed to be— it’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Competitions offer another outlet for student work. Last school year, 19 Schurz students won awards in the annual Newhouse Architectural Competition. “My big stress is not winning competitions, but architecture is a competitive business,” says Newboe. “I’m really a taskmaster with these kids, too, but in a friendly way. My good kids produce a lot of work.”

About 225 students are involved in drafting at Schurz. “Almost all our kids go off to college,” says Newboe. “Sometimes I have to kind of hit them over the head to get them to go, but they go.” Schurz recently entered a 2+2+2 program with Triton College and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Marek Adamcyzk could be among its first participants. His goal is to attend IIT for engineering.

It’s easy to see why the Schurz drafting program is exemplary. But did schools know what the central office evaluation teams were looking for? “Yes, to a degree,” says Newboe, displaying a file half an inch thick. “That’s the amount of paperwork this generated for us.”

But how all that paper would be judged was unclear to some teachers. Asked if he knew the criteria, auto shop teacher Tim Kalvelage says, “No, not that I’m aware. They handed us paperwork that was very general.”

By any standard, Schurz’s auto shop program also excels. In the three years of its existence, the program has gone “from really nothing to an exemplary program,” he says. Although he doesn’t have many graduates yet, he’s kept track of where some of them go. “Our kids tested into the second semester [of Triton College’s automotive program], so they can go right into computer diagnostic. Some of the first students we’ve had are just getting out in the field, getting jobs. We have some dealership technicians out there.” Ultimately, he wants to develop a four-year training program designed by the National Automotive Technicians Educational Foundation; the program would offer students the chance to become nationally certified mechanics by graduation.

As a result, he’s not unhappy about the effort to find good programs and weed out others. “I don’t think there was this big plot to get rid of voc ed. It’s more a matter of holding people accountable,” he says. “Coming from industry, I’ve always had to be accountable. I was surprised there weren’t more ways to be held accountable [in teaching].”

JUL 16 What about advisory?

If you’re trying to reach Linda Gutmann, Schurz’s programmer, it’s best to come early in the morning, before the line of students and parents has a chance to form outside her office. She’s there by 6:30 a.m., even in July.

Gutmann says no plan has yet been developed to incorporate advisory into the schedule. “The board has no ideas, at least they didn’t at our last meeting of programmers. They thought everybody would just accept [advisory], but they were wrong. The board needs to do some contract negotiations with the union.” (At press time, neither union officials nor School Board officials were able to say how many schools had approved waivers for the advisory program.)

“If all else fails, for the Junior Academy we might make an extended division [which would shorten academic classes on certain days],” she says. “At this point, we don’t know.”

The Summer Bridge Program, where students must post certain test scores to be promoted, also creates uncertainty. Although Schurz will get scores of its soon-to-be 10th-graders in mid-August, Gutmann does not expect the Bridge 8th-graders’ scores until a bit later. “By then, I’ll already have run the schedule. We’ll just be doing a lot of program changes in September.”

JUL 21 Day-by-day Bridge curriculum: pluses and minuses.

Today, a Summer Bridge reading teacher who requested anonymity invites Catalyst to take a look at the program’s curriculum. Before the summer started, 9th-grade Bridge Program teachers like this one attended a two-day training session and received a three-ring binder containing the daily lesson plans for both the reading and math classes.

An item analysis of the TAP, included in the teacher’s guide, was used to allot time to each topic in the curriculum. For example, because about one-quarter of the items in the reading test require students to infer ideas and draw conclusions from the material presented, teachers will spend seven days of the six-week session practicing those techniques with their students.

In the curriculum, Bridge classes are assumed to last two hours, but in real life they are one and one-half hours. “We thought we had more time,” says Bridge Project Manager Mattie Claybrook- Williams. The teachers selected by the board to plan the curriculum “went with the greatest amount of time” in planning lessons so their colleagues would never find themselves without something to do.

The planned class period includes three sub-sections: 50 minutes of teacher-directed time, a 50-minute “tutorial” during which students are to practice new skills and receive individual attention, and 10 minutes at the end to explain homework and start it with the whole class before they leave. The only variation in the plan is that on Fridays, reading classes are to spend tutorial time in silent, recreational reading.

The guide tries to push teachers to work more interactively with students. Tutorial time “requires teachers to circulate among the students to monitor individual progress, provide encouragement, and maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning.”

How well does the curriculum work in practice? The Schurz teacher thinks it’s a good start but fears the poorest readers lose out because of the breakneck pace. Of the inference lessons, she says, “Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. [Students reading at] 7.6, 7.8 [grade level], they get it, but the ones who read at 4.5, they’re not getting it.”

AUG 8 Finishing touches.

At 1 p.m. about 40 people gather outside, near the Schurz prairie garden. It’s the last day of the MET summer programs, and Schurz is hosting a closing ceremony for the Greencorps crew, complete with garden tours for visitors.

Among the many special guests, one stands out: Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James, who is wearing an elegant black dress and a wrist corsage. Betty Durbin presents her with a Schurz T-shirt. Pleasantly surprised, St. James says, “I will wear it with pride.”