Probation promotes collaboration at Riis, Harper

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With their students heading home, the teachers of Riis Elementary School gather in a 5th-grade classroom for their monthly probation meeting. Chatting amiably, they first stop by a table stocked with pizzas and soda, sustenance for what likely will be a three-hour session.

Joining them are Principal Susan Milojevic; Daniel Laubacher of Northeastern Illinois University, the school’s external partner; and probation manager JoAnn Roberts, a former Chicago public schools administrator who now is superintendent of the Hazel Crest School District.

This is the group’s second meeting, and the conversation, while still halting, has improved. Also, there is still some lingering unease from the first meeting, where, teachers say, Roberts told them she could have them all fired.

“I didn’t say anything about them being fired,” Roberts insists. “I said the school would be declared in crisis if it didn’t show improvement, and that we could recommend that. I think Riis has a good, hard-working staff. Everyone really worked hard to complete the school’s correction action plan.”

Roberts’ brusk manner also rubbed some teachers the wrong way. Says Roberts: “I see myself as a coach. I am not here to criticize. I am only here to help.”

At today’s meeting, Roberts quickly takes charge, proving herself to be a demanding coach.

First up: peer coaching.

“What do we need to do to help you with peer coaching?” she asks, surveying the room.

“We’re choosing our own peer coaches,” a teacher responds, letting Roberts know that teachers have been working on this.

“OK,” says Roberts, who appears satisfied with that decision. “But let’s agree that by the next meeting … everyone will give Lewis the meeting dates, so we can keep track that everyone is meeting with their peer coach.” Teacher Lewis Dickey sits on the school’s staff development committee.

Next come committee reports—on parent leadership training, on teacher observations, on teaching reading. Each area is one that was singled out by the probation assessment team that visited the school in November.

As the discussion about reading gets under way, a teacher distributes a list of ideas from the Links to Literacy program on ways to motivate students to read. Glancing over them, teachers nod their approval. But Roberts isn’t satisfied.

“If we do all this stuff on this paper, will we be successful?” she asks.

Silence. Some teachers seem stunned by the question and aren’t quite sure where Roberts is heading.

“We want to do something well,” says Roberts, her voice underlining the “well.” She pauses for emphasis. “What we do we must do very well.” Pause. “We can’t do all of these things well.”

“We walked, talked and breathed Accelerated Reading,” says a reading committee member, sounding frustrated. “What are we going to do to motivate our kids to read?”

“Well, I don’t think it really works,” says another, referring to Links to Literary. “My kids look around the room and pick a book and write it down saying they’ve read it, and I know they haven’t read it.”

The discussion quickly moves to requiring students to read a certain number of books each month. One teacher says she’s not comfortable with a mandate, explaining that she doesn’t want her students to look on reading as a chore.

“OK, you want your kids to do what?” says Roberts, straightening in her chair.

Teachers glance at each other in silence.

“What?” prods Roberts. “Go on, say it. What do you want them to do?”

Finally, a teacher offers: “I want them to become life-long readers.”

“Good,” says Roberts, smiling, her voice softening. “So you have to decide as a group that your students will read at least two books or some other number of books a month. This is to be non-negotiable.”

Then she startles the group by rising from her seat and saying: “Come on everyone, stand up and link arms together. Come on, stand up.”

Reluctantly, teachers push back their chairs and stand up. Some giggle; a few look annoyed.

“We link arms together,” says Roberts. “You have to stand firm as a group and agree to do this. In schools where kids cut the mustard, you find strong teachers. At the Lab School and others, they expect their students to read, so why shouldn’t you expect your kids to do the same?”

As the meeting continues, Roberts continues to punctuate the conversation with her prodding. What’s next? Am I right? Is this what you want? Say it. Well, tell me if this isn’t what you want.

At meeting’s end, teachers congratulate themselves for having kept it to three hours. They disperse quickly because it has started to rain.

Under probation, staff collaboration has increased markedly, according to 7th-grade teacher Brenda Humphrey. And teachers are looking at how they work together as a unit, she adds.

“I don’t think we became lax,” she continues, “but we needed to put a stronger emphasis on what we were doing.” Chuckling, she adds: “It’s like when you’re making a cake for a special occasion, you pay careful attention to how you’re making it.”

Humphrey says teachers are putting greater demands on students, too. “We’re telling them, ‘Guys, you have to work and work well. We want you to do better because we know you can.’ Maybe in the past, they were doing D work, but we gave them a C. Now a D is a D.”

New this year is a remediation plan for each child who is failing. Children and their parents must sign contracts setting forth specific behaviors for the children, such as being punctual.

The school also is offering incentives for punctuality and attendance, such as board-game socials on Friday afternoons and recognition at assemblies.

In the tough cases, school staff or volunteers make home visits, asking parents to attend sessions on parenting skills.

The school also is offering new incentives to parents, such as swim and bowling nights at nearby facilities and tickets to University of Illinois at Chicago sporting events. And parents can take computer and GED classes at the school.

“I think we’re a lot more focused on what we need to do,” says Milojevic. “For instance, I used to visit classrooms, but not on any kind of schedule. Now I post a schedule of classrooms I plan to visit every two weeks.”

Milojevic is none too happy, though, about the recommendations on school maintenance. “Five of our ‘weaknesses’ were related to the building—the heating system is messed up, the bathrooms need repairs, rooms need to be painted and cleaned,” she says.

“The local school council and I have been trying to tackle the building and maintenance problems since January of last year,” she says, shaking her head.

Milojevic says the administration last year allocated $25,000 for repairs but that the money hasn’t been released yet.

“So far, being on probation has not shaken that money loose. JoAnn is working on getting that money released and will talk to the folks at central office.”

But Milojevic appreciates the extra educational resources that probation has brought.

Faculty from Northeastern helped teachers set up their probation committees and trained teachers and students to prepare for the state IGAP tests. A Northeastern reading specialist works with teachers one day a week. In the works are reading and study skills training for parents.

Northeastern also plans to work with teachers who have shortcomings in some area of teaching. Laubacher says Northeastern views its role as giving Riis teachers what they say they need.

Harper High

Every Tuesday, a couple dozen teachers at Harper High School meet at 3:30 p.m. to report progress on the school’s corrective action plan.

All volunteers, they are among the school’s most vocal and energetic teachers, says Principal Richard Parker. Energizing the entire faculty is one of Parker’s goals for probation.

“I wasn’t surprised when we were placed on probation,” he tells a reporter. “I was actually happy about it because I think it will give us the shot in the arm we need. We had been trying to boost student achievement, but nothing has been enough to raise test scores.”

Before probation, Harper had created four small schools and brought in a Sylvan Learning Center to tutor students on reading. “But still …,” Parker shrugs. “We weren’t getting the job done, so the pressure has been positive.”

The reports at today’s meeting suggest that some of the core group’s energy may be spreading.

For example, a math teacher tells the group his colleagues are beginning to share ideas. In the past, he says, dialog among math teachers often was strained because each thought he or she knew how best to teach. “They’re just like that,” he laughs.

And an English teacher says her colleagues have been sharing ideas on getting students to write. Recently, a poet was asked to work with teachers and then with students on writing poetry.

“Now that I’ve seen what she does, I’ll use it to get my kids to write,” she reports happily. “And I think people are pleasantly surprised, as we’ve been taking risks” trying new techniques.

Throughout the two-hour probation meeting, probation manager Frank Gardner has been quietly taking notes. (Gardner is a former School Board president and former district superintendent.) He brings the meeting to a close with a message that some find discomforting: The Office of Accountability is now requiring a monthly report on probation progress, which it will use to keep the Reform Board up to date.

“What does that mean?” a teacher asks.

“It means we look at our corrective action plan, list the work plan item, what we plan to do and the due date,” says Gardner.

Later, Gardner tells Catalyst he is pleased with the group and is impressed by their commitment. “Look at them, you heard them say they’ve never met like this before, but they are here and working to get their school off probation,” he notes.

Parker gives high marks to Gardner, too. “When Dr. Gardner came in, he helped us clarify and define what we were going to do, but he also warned us that what we said we were going to do, we would do,” says Parker. “He has been watchful, tough, but fair.”

In addition to staff rejuvenation, a major goal for Parker and his team is getting students to want to come to school. Northeastern is exploring ways to hook students on learning, he notes. In the meantime, the school is offering material rewards for attendance and good grades. They include CD players, radios and music, dance, sports, acting and rap programs.

Plus, Parker says his staff has been working diligently to get students from one class to the next on time. “They don’t move until you tell them to get out of the hall and to class,” he says. “But we’ve been staying on them.”

Northeastern also is providing specialists to help teachers improve instruction.

“I think probation will work,” says librarian Mary Spiller. “It will just take time.”

Already, says Spiller, more students are coming to the library for research projects and recreational reading.

“Still, I think it is unfair to base everything on test scores,” she adds. “We have a lot of good programs here and good teachers. The test scores don’t reflect that.”