Reading program brings probation’s end in sight

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Fenger Academy for African-American Studies is in its fourth year of probation. The staff has its collective fingers crossed that this will be the school’s last year in the academic doghouse. “We’re feeling fairly good about it, partly because of how close we were before,” says Principal Janice Ollarvia. Fenger’s reading score on the TAP last spring rose to 18.5 percent at or above national norms, and its math score was 23.1 percent. CPS’ Office of Accountability has set the bar at 20 percent for schools already on probation, and Ollarvia feels the goal is within reach. Next year, the probation cutoff rises to 25 percent.

Fenger has shed one of last year’s external partners—Washington D.C.-based America’s Choice. The School Board dropped America’s Choice from its external partner list for not delivering on its contract. Many Fenger teachers were not sorry to see them go. Fenger is still working with the group Ollarvia has dubbed the school’s “internal external partner,” the Office of Accountability’s reading team, which is also working with 10 other public schools.

“Fenger made such good gains last year, the spark has been lit,” says Pamela Drymiller, a central office reading specialist who has been working at Fenger about once a week. “The teachers seem motivated and cooperative, and when I’ve ducked into classrooms, I’ve seen them working on word-of-the-day and timed reading.” These are literacy initiatives that the Office of Accountability reading team started last year.

But Fenger, which is in the Roseland neighborhood on the Far South Side, is battling both indifference in the community and disorder in its hallways as it seeks to get over the hump this year. The local school council rarely has enough members for a quorum. The board’s promise to pay for more security guards has not been fulfilled. And requests for parents to volunteer to help keep hallways and street corners safe have gone unanswered.

Ollarvia was so distressed over students fighting in school during one turbulent week this winter that she couldn’t sleep. She got up at 3:30 a.m. to compose a letter to staff, imploring them to be more vigilant in monitoring students when they’re outside the classroom.

A few days later, Ollarvia, who is ar 4th-year principal, is relieved to have a moment’s respite. “Thank goodness, it’s been quiet so far today. I hope it stays that way.”

DEC 22 Test schedule conflict.

Ollarvia and Assistant Principal Eugene Henry are in their offices today while students are home on the holiday break. They’re trying to figure out a way to schedule the CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Exams), which will begin on Jan. 6.

The board has advised all high schools they must give the same CASE tests on the same days, so, for example, every school must give the math and English constructed-response tests Jan. 6. Since Fenger is on a block schedule and doesn’t have all classes on all days, it looks impossible to Ollarvia to mesh Fenger’s schedule with the test schedule.

“I have Mr. Henry working on it,” says Ollarvia, “and if he can’t figure it out, you know it’s difficult.”

Ollarvia has heard the board wants a uniform test schedule so no information can leak out about a test before another school has taken it. Carole Perlman, in the CPS assessment office, confirms this. “We don’t want students at one school telling friends at other schools the questions, or posting them on the Internet,” she says. “We heard some complaints about that.”

Ollarvia has other concerns, too. The CASE is supposed to test what has been covered during the semester, but it’s being given two-and-a-half weeks before the semester is over.

“And we don’t turn them in to get scored until Jan. 20, so why do we have to give them so soon after the break?” she asks. “They haven’t covered all of the material yet.”

The administrators go home today without completing their testing schedule.

JAN 3 Glitchless Y2K.

No Y2K bugs when school reopens this morning after the holiday, but the test scheduling problem remains to be solved. Ollarvia spoke to Perlman over the break and was given a waiver to spread the testing over five days instead of four, if she needs to. Perlman says a handful of other high schools also got waivers. “It couldn’t be done any other way,” says Ollarvia, who again will spend part of her afternoon working on the testing schedule.

One of the pieces she’s juggling is division. She’s moving it to the first period of the day, so that if kids are late to school, they’ll miss division instead of a test. This is necessary, she says, “because we do still struggle with tardiness.”

Even when students are in the building, they don’t always make it to class. Ollarvia has been trying to hire several more security guards, not just to make the building safer but also to clear the halls of loitering students and get them into their classes.

Fenger had four security guards last year. Business manager Estelle Dobbins says Fenger was promised funding for more guards in September after a shooting incident that occurred one block from school. Two students were shot and wounded as they walked home. One new guard was hired two weeks ago, and now Ollarvia is waiting for the funding to come through for two more. She has been told the positions have been approved, but she can’t let people start working until the board finds the money to pay them. “I’d hoped the two people I’ve identified could start today, but I’m still waiting,” says Ollarvia.

Fenger has one security guard at the front door, one on each of the three floors, and a fifth guard is a roamer. “But it’s just not enough,” Ollarvia says, especially during the lunch periods when two guards go to the lunch room. The extra guards are needed to patrol the sprawling, three-story building.

There also are two Chicago police officers in the school full-time, and four officers who moonlight part-time at the school.

Ollarvia would like two guards on each floor. “We don’t have a huge problem, but we have kids who don’t want to go to class or don’t want to get there on time. We need to get the halls covered better,” she says.

One change that has helped clear Fenger’s halls this year was moving the vending machines out of the hallways and into a locked area that’s open only during lunch periods. “That’s been a big improvement,” says Martin Witt, administrative assistant in charge of discipline.

Security guard Allen Simpson is roaming the first floor this morning, checking the side hallways where students are more likely to loiter. He finds several students at both ends of the building, and asks them for their hall passes. None of them has a pass, but each has some excuse for not being in class. Simpson doesn’t buy any of it, though, and sends the students off in the direction of their classes.

“Kids will hide in the blind areas [where they can’t be seen],” says Simpson. “Some will spend the whole class period walking. They’re getting more exercise than I am. We’re doing what we can to get them into class, but we need help. This is a very big building with a lot of ground to cover.

“The last couple days, they’ve pulled the fire alarm two times. If we could get parents to volunteer with hall monitoring, that would be a big plus. We don’t have any [volunteers] right now.”

JAN 4 LSC lacks quorum.

The local school council is supposed to meet the first Wednesday of each month, but Fenger’s LSC hasn’t had a quorum for about a year, says teacher representative Lewis Collins, who also directs Fenger’s band and athletic activities. Often, he says, only four or five members show up. Seven are needed for a quorum. Tonight’s meeting is canceled because the members who sometimes come can’t make it, says Ollarvia, who adds she’ll just meet briefly with her two teacher reps.

The council started with a deficit. Two parent reps never appeared after they were elected two years ago. Ollarvia doesn’t know why they ran and then never came to a meeting. She heard one of them moved out of town.

“So we were behind from the very start,” she says. “I’m hearing about LSC problems at other schools, too. It seems to be more of a problem at the high schools, where parents tend to be less involved.”

James Deanes, CPS School and Community Relations Officer, says schools are supposed to report to his office if they don’t have enough LSC members for a quorum. He has nine schools on that list, but adds he can’t be sure if all schools without quorums are reporting in.

Deanes also says that schools on probation that don’t have LSC quorums can pass budgets and get approval on other issues by having their probation manager sign off on them. Father Peter Heidenrich, who was Fenger’s probation manager last year, says he was asked to sign off on several budget decisions last year.

Chairwoman Cleeta Ryles declined to comment on the Fenger LSC’s tenuous record.

LSC elections will be held in April. The marquee outside Fenger tells passersby that prospective candidates have until Feb. 29 to apply to run. Freshmen counselor Sandra Slone tries to recruit parents to run for the council when she meets with them on other matters. Two moms have expressed an interest. She walked with them to the main office for more information, but she doesn’t know if they’ll actually run. “I try to encourage them and let them know how important this is.”

Ollarvia has two views of the LSC dilemma. “I am concerned about not getting enough people [to run] in the sense that I don’t want to keep talking to central office and getting asked how come I don’t have enough people. But in the sense of running the school, it’s not a big issue for me.”

JAN 11 Mandatory tutoring.

Six people gather in Ollarvia’s office for a probation meeting, including Charles Vietzen, Fenger’s new probation manager and the former principal of Hubbard High. First on the agenda: CASE testing, which is continuing today.

Angeline Corsale, an academic resource teacher, says she’s hearing teachers complain that they haven’t finished the last one or two units in their curriculum. “There are probably four or five multiple-choice questions on those units, and maybe an essay question, so I think the system could be setting up the students to fail,”she says.

Next, Corsale reports on the new board-mandated tutoring. Students who are failing a course are required to attend after-school tutoring until they lift their grades. Teachers get paid for the extra hours—the expense is split equally by the board and Fenger. It’s difficult finding enough teachers to lead all of the tutoring sessions, Corsale says.

But so far she has each class covered. More than 50 students are attending the tutoring each week, Corsale says, and some are coming, even though they aren’t failing a course.

“The feedback from teachers has been very positive,” says Corsale, a new teacher at Fenger. “They’re saying the tutoring has really helped students pass the course. Even students who aren’t mandated to come are coming to the algebra and calculus to get help before the ACT test.”

However, the students who need the most help are the ones least likely to show up at tutoring, report several teachers. “Not enough kids are going,” says English teacher Brenda Huerter. “My key kids, like one boy who’s getting B’s, he’s there all the time. The ones who need to go but don’t—I keep talking to them about it.”

An informal survey of students in the lunchroom today finds several who received letters telling them they had to go to tutoring, but who had never gone. One girl says she baby-sits, and another says she goes to Bible study. A third, a junior who works at a fast food restaurant, says there’s no penalty so far for not attending tutoring sessions. “They just keep sending me more letters,” she says.

Tutoring also is mandatory this year for athletes who fall below a cumulative 2.0 grade-point average or who are failing any course. Teachers are supposed to sign weekly grade sheets with a P or an F for all athletes. Those who are failing or are below the 2.0 sign contracts committing them to a specific number of tutoring hours per week. If they don’t go to tutoring or if they continue to get F’s on their grade sheets, they’re not supposed to be allowed to play on their team.

During first semester, athletes attended tutoring in the afternoons with everyone else, but not enough were showing up, in part because it conflicted with their team practices. Second semester, athletes will have their own tutoring session from 6:50 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. They also will be monitored more closely by teachers.

“Before, we left it up to coaches to enforce it,” says Corsale. “Now, there’s more paperwork. Teachers and coaches have attendance sheets, and if the athlete is supposed to go to tutoring and isn’t showing up, the coach is not to let them play.”

Ollarvia says coaches are not thrilled with all the new paperwork, but Fenger’s athletic director is in support of the program.

“It has been a problem keeping athletes eligible in the past,” Collins says. “That’s why I’m glad to see this. Athletes have always had to keep their grades up to play. … But what’s new now is the tutoring. I think this will help them stay eligible.”

Senior Arthur Hoskins found out the hard way that Fenger coaches are taking this seriously. He was tossed off the wrestling team last week because he hadn’t been going to tutoring. “Perhaps this will send a message,” says wrestling coach Allen Simpson. “I think he was surprised when I told him.”

Hoskins admits he was surprised. He blames a part-time job for his spotty tutoring session attendance. Getting kicked off the team has not discouraged him. “I’m going to go to tutoring from now on,” he says, “because I want to graduate.”

Attendance is also on the agenda at today’s probation meeting. Business Manager Dobbins reports that she is recruiting parents and community residents for part-time jobs as attendance and lunchroom monitors at Fenger. Their duties will be to make attendance phone calls, monitor the lunchroom and patrol the halls. THe pay is $9 per hour. So far, she has received 25 applications. Her hiring budget is just over $21,000.

Fenger’s attendance rate is about 84 percent. The school has one person on staff to make phone calls and work on attendance. “It’s not enough,” Dobbins says. She hopes to hire four people in the next few weeks.

JAN 15 Feeder school program.

This morning, 7th- and 8th-graders from 10 feeder schools are beginning an eight-week Aeronautical Education program in Fenger’s new NASA lab. The class will meet on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon, to work on computers and learn about aviation. The program culminates in a field trip to Midway Airport, where they will take a short flight.

Today, students fill out surveys that measure how much they may already know about aeronautics, then the teachers give a brief lesson on using the NASA computer station. Next week, teachers say, students will work at the stations in teams.

Julian McGowan, a 7th-grader at White Career Academy, says his principal told him about the program. “I like math and reading, and I thought it would be interesting,” he says. At the end of the first session, Julian’s glad he came. “I liked it.”

Fenger hired six elementary school teachers for the feeder-school program. Today, teachers nearly outnumber the students. Computer science teacher Mary Greer hoped each of the 10 feeder schools would send three 7th-graders and three 8th-graders, so there would be two classes of 30. She talked to principals and sent letters and applications to the schools a few weeks ago.

But only 34 students signed up; 11 for the 8th-grade class, 23 for 7th grade. On the first day of class, 15 (five 7th-graders and 10 8th-graders) show up for class.

Elaine Granger, a science teacher from Robert Lawrence School, is one of the teachers hired to lead the 8th-grade group. She says some Lawrence students had a scheduling conflict; the school’s basketball games are played on Saturday mornings. Others, she believes, need more encouragement to sign up for an extra class on the weekend. “Students say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ …[S]omeone needs to go talk to them [and] tell them what they can get out of this.”

Greer plans to follow up with some of the schools this week to make sure applications “are getting into the right hands.” She’s disappointed with today’s attendance but is confident the classes will eventually fill up. Three weeks later, Greer reports 10 more students have enrolled, but attendance is still low. About 25 percent don’t show up.

Meanwhile, Greer is also recruiting 30 Fenger students for another NASA program. This one will meet after school on Tuesdays in another computer lab. NASA provided the curriculum. “They’ll do hands-on experiments like the astronauts do when they’re on the shuttle, to see what happens to objects when there’s no gravity.”

Flyers are posted in the hallways announcing the program, which begins in three days. At first only three students sign up. Two weeks later, Greer has enrolled 17 students, short of the 30 she sought, but enough to continue the program.

Fenger announced a $525,000 grant from NASA last year to build and run the lab. To encourage more African-Americans and Hispanics to enter science professions, NASA has built similar labs at colleges across the country. Fenger is the first high school to get one. But since the lab was dedicated last June, the room has been used infrequently.

“Just a few classes have used the lab so far,” says Greer, who is now the lab’s full-time director. “The problem was a combination of things, including a budget problem.”

About 25 Fenger teachers came in on their own time for NASA lab training last summer. But money to pay for feeder school training was not available until early December, says Greer. The first session for elementary school teachers was held Dec. 11 and the second nearly a month later.

“It was frustrating for awhile because you knew [the lab] existed, but you weren’t sure how to use it,” says math teacher Marty Block, who had training sessions last summer. Block has found that working with smaller groups of students in the lab is more manageable than large classes. He now schedules his lab sessions after school hours. “It’s a great lab but it’s a challenge figuring out times and ways to use it.

JAN 21 CASE scores fall short.

Teacher institute day begins with a general staff meeting, where Ollarvia announces that scores on the CASE exams, particularly the algebra test, are not going to be great. Both the staff and the students thought the algebra questions were extremely difficult. On all the tests, students struggled with constructed-response answers, which require them to name and explain the answer to a question.

“They still want to make lists and not elaborate,” says Ollarvia. English teachers have been working on constructed response with students, but now Ollarvia is instructing science, math and social studies teachers to do so as well. Students do not know how to transfer to other subjects what they have learned in English about writing constructed-response answers, Ollarvia says. “So [core subject] teachers need to model how to write that kind of response,” she adds.

At a Reading Task Force meeting later this morning, Academic Resource Teacher Angeline Corsale says part of the problem with standardized testing is that the students don’t understand some of the words. The teachers decide to work on this by using Fenger’s word-of-the-day program. Each day, a word and its definition are announced over the public address system and students discuss the word in class. Then, they take a quiz on the words every month; those who get all of the words correct receive small prizes.

Today, the task force is selecting words of the day for February. They choose words they believe will help students understand test questions. ‘Affect’ is the word for Feb. 1; ‘summarize’ for Feb. 2.

JAN 25 Recruiting challenges.

Last spring, Fenger was one of eight schools selected by the board to be a Math, Science and Technology Academy. The staff scrambled to find 48 freshmen to join the program in time for this school year. These students attend intensive math and science classes in a class separate from other freshmen.

Most have survived the first semester. Six were asked to leave because they disrupted class or did not cooperate with teachers. A few others are dropping out on their own. Counselors are filling the slots with other freshmen they believe can handle the extra work.

Students are across the board in terms of ability, says science teacher Maricruz Gonzalez. “In general, though, they tend to be brighter than the other freshmen, but some don’t fit the MSTA model because they aren’t willing to do any work.”

The MSTA students in Gonzalez’s environmental biology class today are copying words from the blackboard that they’ll need to define twice for homework. Gonzalez wants them to write the textbook definition, and then define it in their own words. She finds they don’t understand the meaning if they only copy words from the book. They also watch a video on a geologist who is studying how life forms become extinct.

Each semester, the MSTA students work on a big project that integrates four core subjects: math, English, science and social studies. The first-semester project is rivers. Students visited and studied the condition of the Calumet and Chicago rivers. Several will be attending a conference in a few weeks to present their findings on the state of the rivers. Northwestern University, Fenger’s MSTA partner, helped plan the river curriculum. “The hard part was working history into it. Northwestern helps because they’ve tested these [projects] out in other schools,” says MSTA math teacher Marty Block.

Block says the rivers project helped motivate and focus the students. In turn, their work ethic is improving. “Once they [started] the project and had to come in front of the group to present it, they started coming in after school [and] doing much better. They still consider it difficult, but they’re beginning to get it now and know what’s required.”

Block also was heartened by an evaluation form he gave to students at the end of the first semester. Many gave positive reviews of their first semester in MSTA. Next semester will focus on global warming.

Social studies teacher Audrey Scott-Kelley is Fenger’s service learning coach, which means her schedule is packed with classes and student conferences from early morning until late afternoon. She usually stays after school so students can drop into her classroom to discuss their volunteer projects.

In 1998, the board made service learning mandatory for all students, beginning with the graduating class of 2001. To graduate, students must perform 40 hours of volunteer service that is related to classroom study.

Scott-Kelley teaches four classes and has one free period to work on service learning. The board gives service learning coaches stipends but no extra time. Scott-Kelley agreed to take up to 35 students in her four classes (the limit is usually 28) so she could carve out a free period.

The amount of work a service learning coach takes on is visible in the numerous file cabinets and cardboard boxes of files that surround Scott-Kelley’s desk. Last year, she was the only service learning coach at Fenger. She began this year sharing the job with special education teacher Pam Wells. But Wells has turned in a letter of resignation, and Assistant Principal Patricia Nichols is trying to find someone else to take her place.

“There is so much paperwork,” says a weary Scott-Kelley. “I have a file on every kid. You have to check on when they went [to their job] and sometimes you have to call because they go but they don’t bring the paperwork back.”

Getting teachers to integrate service learning into the curriculum also has been tough. Scott-Kelley names several whom she applauds for devising service projects connected with their curriculum, “but there is not nearly enough of that.” Consequently, many students volunteer independent of their classwork and then write a paper on their experience when they’re done.

At lunch today, two sophomores stop by Scott-Kelley’s room to chat. Sophomore Leticia Shelley is beginning her volunteer job in the pediatrics unit at St. Francis Hospital in Blue Island this week. “She [Scott-Kelley] gave me a choice of places to go,” says Shelley, who already has earned some hours as a volunteer gardener at the Edna White Garden in the Morgan Park neighborhood. “I want to be a pediatric nurse or maybe a pediatrician. It’s good if you can get experience in your field.”

Sophomore Jennifer Scott, who volunteered 20 hours at the Halsted Terrace Nursing Center last year, says, “I had fun doing it. You learn that it’s better to help people than to be selfish.”

It’s a lesson many juniors still need to learn. “There are going to be a lot of seniors in trouble next year,” says Scott-Kelley of this year’s juniors who haven’t started service learning yet. She is tracking them down and assigning them to service work sites, since they haven’t come in on their own.

Though it’s not easy getting students started with service learning, says Scott-Kelley, once they do, they tend to enjoy it. A couple of students put in more than 100 hours, she says.

FEB 1 Restoring order.

A letter is given to all staff members this morning. It begins:

As the result of the unusual amount of conflict between students over the past two to three days, several students have been dismissed from Fenger Academy, and several others have been suspended with expulsions pending. Your help is needed to restore an orderly environment.

The letter contains 13 bullet points, each describing ways that staff can pitch in on the patrol effort. A couple examples: Stop sending students into the hall unless there is an emergency. Assist in clearing the halls between periods.

Over the past week, gang fights broke out after school within a few blocks of Fenger. Smaller skirmishes have occurred inside the school, sometimes in the lunchroom, and frequently involving girls. Security guard Joe Crumb says the number of girls caught fighting has increased dramatically in the recent years. He breaks up more fights among girls than boys.

Chicago police officer V. Petty is keeping an eye on the lunchroom at 11:30 a.m. today. So far, things are quiet. That wasn’t the case last Friday, when Petty says there were four students arrested after fights broke out in school. “If the fight isn’t too severe,” then the school handles it with suspensions, says Petty. “If it gets serious and people are getting hurt, then the police come into it.”

Three days later, Fenger’s four counselors hold a meeting with the junior and senior girls in the auditorium during third period. “We felt we needed to put a halt to everything and pull all the girls together,” says freshmen counselor Sandra Slone. “These fights aren’t about gangs. They’re usually ‘he said-she said’ things. A lot of times, it’s about boys.

“We talked about the issues of being young women, demanding respect and how to carry themselves. The girls talked and made suggestions, too. It really went well, and we plan to do it with the younger girls, too.”

FEB 9 Probation end in sight.

Wednesdays are dress-in-uniform days for Fenger’s 368 Junior ROTC cadets. That’s about half of the school’s enrollment, but not that many are wearing the dark-green pants and jackets and the shiny, black shoes.

The school has only 250 uniforms to distribute. Students who do not receive uniforms must wear black and white on uniform day. Still, some of those with uniforms balk at wearing them.

During an inspection at third period, five of 18 students lined up are not wearing uniform attire. Master Sergeant Walter Littleton, one of three retired U.S. Army officers who teach ROTC at Fenger, subtracts 50 points from their inspection sheets. “Some of you still refuse to get into uniform,” Littleton says, adding a warning. “If you don’t come to drill [marching in the gym before school], you cannot pass ROTC. You must come.”

Four years ago, Fenger made ROTC mandatory for freshmen. ROTC replaces gym on their schedules. About 35 percent continue to replace gym with ROTC during their sophomore year. There are 18 seniors in ROTC this year.

Counselor Sandra Slone says she favors mandatory ROTC because “I looked at the kids in gym and the ones in ROTC, and the ones in ROTC seemed to be the ones passing their classes. It’s also a program that lets them connect to something positive in the building right away, and it provides them with male role models.”

As battalion commander, junior Shaunita Dunmore is the highest ranking student. She says she was skeptical of the program at first “because I heard it was strict and the thought of taking orders from other students turned me off.”

But in time, she found she enjoyed it and is considering an ROTC college scholarship. “It was more about teaching leadership and respecting authority. It’s a challenge.”

Reading specialist Pamela Drymiller is at Fenger this morning to begin a reading class for sophomores. They will meet once a week during their advisory period. “You were chosen because you’re motivated, you’re close to 50 percent on the TAP, and you have good attendance,” Drymiller tells the 48 students gathered in a large conference room. She passes out a “Zap the TAP Reading Contract” to each student, where they will record their goals for the class.

“It’s only February and we have until May [when the TAP is given]. We think you’re going to do great.”

Today, students work on a skill called previewing. They “preview” a reading passage by reading the title and the first and last sentences, and then skimming diagonally through the meat of the passage. Then, they’re ready to read the passage and answer the questions.

Most students are attentive and participate. One boy just sits and does not participate in the exercise; he doesn’t do the reading or answer any questions.

Next week, advisory teachers will kick off a 10-week regimen of intensive TAP preparation with materials provided by the Office of Accountability reading team. “We’re so close [to moving off probation], the pressure is unbelievable,” says counselor Sandra Slone. “The teachers feel it, the students feel it. You want so much to do well. There have been situations where schools have been close one year and then gone back down. We don’t want to let that happen here.”