Reconstitution brings Harper new life

Print More

Teachers at William Rainey Harper High School have gathered in a large conference room to explore creative ways to conduct 100-minute classes.

On the spur of the moment, five teachers put one idea into practice: role playing. They conjure up a special education classroom. Four teachers portray students; one of them can’t grasp the lesson, asks that everything be repeated and then forgets what she’s just been told. The fifth teacher plays a frustrated teacher, struggling to keep his cool.

“They’ve definitely got it, that’s it, that’s my class,” says one teacher in the audience, amid peels of laughter. “I can absolutely identify.”

As the 50-minute session comes to an end, most teachers seem energized by the interaction. But not Queen Weiner, a special education teacher. “I did learn some things here today, but I thought it was going to give us some meat about how to keep their attention,” she says. “I’ve been doing a lot of this all along. I’ve never been a teacher who just lectured.”

Weiner also worries how students with attention deficit disorders would fare if classes met two or three days a week, as typically occurs with 100-minute classes and block scheduling, instead of every day. “I’m afraid they’ll forget a lot in between,” she tells a reporter. “And how do you keep the attention of someone who can’t sit still for even 20 minutes? Block scheduling is not necessarily for everyone.”

Asked whether she would feel comfortable bringing her concerns to Nathaniel Mason, Harper’s new principal, Weiner replies without hesitation: “Oh yes, definitely yes.”

Weiner’s response speaks volumes about the new, reconstituted Harper High, a West Englewood school of 1,350 students. The principal is approachable and responsive, and the faculty trusts him; both are well documented essentials of school change. Indeed, when Mason talks about the school, he usually begins with “we.”

“When he identifies a problem, he proceeds to solve it with the help of his staff,” says Albert Williams, manager of reconstitution in the Office of Accountability. “That way, his whole staff is having an impact.”

Teachers, administrative staffers, students and parents give varying accounts of how much has changed at Harper, with some still questioning the value of reconstitution. However, everyone Catalyst interviewed said Nathaniel Mason, whom schools chief Paul Vallas plucked out of Lincoln Park High School, has been the best change of all—even above extra personnel and resources.

“I’m really impressed with Mr. Mason. He’s been a gold mine for our school, a steal,” says Morris Ross, local school council chair. “I’m observing teachers really making an effort to teach. I used to walk into the building, and 15 to 20 people would come to me complaining. Now hardly anyone approaches me. In comparison to when I came here three years ago, the changes are dramatically pleasing.”

Leadership, says Williams, will determine the rate of recovery at Harper and the six other high schools that were restaffed last summer. Englewood Technical Preparatory Academy and Orr Community Academy also are making notable progress, he says, citing their principals’ cooperative approach to management.

While serving as an assistant principal at Lincoln Park, Mason received management training at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. “This training taught me that it’s important to incorporate the input of staff,” he says. “Along those lines, when you form committees and a committee comes up with a solution, you really will try it—as long as it does not violate any laws.”

At Harper, even the numbers have begun to improve:

The course failure rate has dropped 4 percent since last year, from 64.2 percent to 60.8 percent. “It’s a beginning,” Mason says. “It’s still not where we want to be.”

Attendance has risen from 74.8 percent to 78.5 percent.

91 percent of the school’s 10th- and 11th-graders took the state IGAP tests this year, up from 72 percent last year. “It shows me that kids are taking the testing seriously,” Mason says. “At least we’ve accomplished this much. I think it also shows how they regard coming to school.”

While tardiness remains a problem for first period, it has decreased dramatically for subsequent classes.

The number of prank fire alarms is down, too. So far this year, there’s been only one, compared with a total of 34 last year.

Getting to class

An active attendance committee is behind the improvement in attendance and punctuality.

Harper cut absences by changing its staff development schedule. Previously, the those meetings were held for a whole afternoon every other Friday. “A lot of students weren’t coming to school for just the half day,” Mason says. Now, the meetings are held every Monday afternoon for 50 minutes. “By eliminating those half days, we solved some of our attendance problem almost immediately,” Mason says.

The school’s attendance committee also maintains an outreach program for students who fail to show up three days running and whose families cannot be reached by telephone: Members make house calls.

One teacher came up with her own novel way of getting students to class. Maxine Powell walks around with a cellular telephone. “If a student doesn’t show up, she calls the parent from class,” reports Assistant Principal Robert Anderson.

“I gave one girl a clock so she could know what time it is,” says Powell, adding, “You do what you have to do.”

Powell says other teachers are putting cell phones to work, too.

Stitching together ideas from other schools with some of its own, the attendance committee adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to tardiness. During passing periods, an intercom blares the Chicago Bull’s theme song, and later the theme from “Rocky” and other energetic tunes. A recording of Mason’s voice punctuates the music with a countdown, ticking off the number of minutes remaining until the next period begins. Once the recording says, “Teachers close your doors,” security officers “sweep” through the halls, rounding up tardy students and escorting them to the auditorium, where they remain until the next class.

“At the beginning of October, when we started the sweeps, there were 160 students per day tardy to class,” Mason says. “Now there are less than 50.” Chalk up five tardies, and the school calls home.

Michelle Hicks, a sophomore, appreciates the new order. “Last year, they’d let you roam about your business,” she says. “If people are constantly in the halls, it’s a distraction to the kids in classes, who are going to want to know what’s happening out there. Now kids go to class. They get more work done. They’re participating more in class.”

During classes, the school, for the most part, is quiet and orderly. The hallways are empty and appear to be buttoned up. Lockers and classroom doors are shut, and hallways are free of trash and debris.

“In order to change the climate of the school, we have also stressed high expectations in terms of students’ behavior,” says Mason.

The principal delivered that message personally to several students after a recent fire alarm gave way to a fight. The alarm went off around noon on a chilly, gray day in March. Students burst into the hallways and, along with teachers, streamed out of the school. One student dropped some paper onto a neighbor’s front lawn, the man became upset, and a fight broke out, involving 10 students. A teacher was slightly injured in the fracas.

Mason says he spoke with students at length about his disappointment in their behavior. “I told them this was a situation where we’ve taken five steps forward and two steps backward. I told them I had expected more from them.”

Losing good teachers

As at other reconstituted schools, Harper lost some of its better faculty members over the summer; uncertain about the future, they chose less stressful options, Anderson says.

Assistant Principal Mary Randle adds that there wasn’t enough time to make good hiring decisions about replacing them or the some 20 teachers who were not invited to return to Harper. “In some cases, time didn’t allow us to do the kind of research needed to determine the best candidates,” she says. “Sometimes people interview well, but later things don’t work out as well as expected.”

She adds that, Harper had no choice but to take some teachers who had been dismissed from other reconstituted schools. “I think some good and some bad came with reconstitution,” she says.

Some new teachers are standouts. Aretha Collins, chair of the Science Department, points, for example, to Nicholas Miklusak, who came to the school from the Teachers for Chicago program. “I have to marvel at how he is able to cut through the scientific jargon for these kids,” she says. “He allows students to have input into the lesson.”

If Mason is unhappy with any of his 92 teachers, he isn’t saying so. However, he does suggest that the Reform Board offer incentives to draw and retain quality teachers at reconstituted schools.

The bottom line

The bottom line for all reconstituted schools, as well as schools on probation, is improvement in reading and math. So far, Harper has concentrated on reading.

“I applaud the Office of Accountability for trying to end social promotion,” says John Campbell, chair of the Social Studies Department, “but I’m still seeing students reading at the 4th- and 5th-grade level.”

One of the first actions Mason took at Harper, acting on the wishes of the LSC, was to sever the school’s relationship with Sylvan Learning Systems, which, for $250,000 a year, had supplied tutoring services to only 130 students a year, according to Anderson. “They also wanted only students who were performing at a certain level to begin with, and they wanted students who came to school everyday. Well, don’t we all!” he says.

Mia Gamble, a reading teacher who joined Harper at the start of this year, says the program was more disruptive than helpful because students had to leave regular classes to get the special tutoring.

Williams, of the accountability office, says the decision to split was “mutual.” “They were ready to leave,” he says of Sylvan. “And we tell principals in these schools, ‘If your external partners are not doing the job, divorce them.'”

Harper’s probation manager, Frank W. Gardner, says he admires Mason’s ability to move swiftly on this and other matters. “He moves very quickly, and he has a sense of what has to be done. He will support those persons who are getting tangible results. He’s not punitive or vindictive, but the bottom line for him is success in the use of people’s efforts.”

With the money saved by dismissing Sylvan, the school stocked a reading lab with new computers.

Harper also hired two teachers with elementary school experience, Gamble and Powell, to teach freshmen with reading scores below 8.0 level, or the beginning of 8th grade. Each teacher has five classes of 19 to 28 students each; they meet daily for 50 minutes.

“My students still seem to have a lack of motivation,” says Gamble, who came from a school in the suburbs. “I’m not used to that.”

Gamble stresses active learning. Students work in groups after reading aloud or silently. They present their findings to each other and discuss their work. In analyzing literature, they incorporate role playing, skits, rap poetry and art. They read and analyze novels. In a nod to standardized tests, they do timed readings, too.

“They all seem to like the novels,” Gamble says. “I do see progress with some students.” She notes, for example, that students sometimes stop her in the hall to ask for clarification of lessons or for feedback on their progress.

Reading is stressed across the curriculum, with all teachers using strategies suggested by Harper’s external partner, Northeastern Illinois University.

One strategy is teaching students to use so-called graphic organizers to analyze reading material. For example, in comparing two political systems, students would draw two slightly overlapping circles, using the overlap section to record characteristics that the two systems share. Each of the other two sections of the drawing would be used to record characteristics unique to one of the systems.

“Basic skills are our biggest problem,” says Campbell of the Social Studies Department. “The focus now is with reading and vocabulary. “Many times, when they see [unfamiliar] words, they just give up. I’m trying to get them to slow down and say to themselves, ‘Hey, here are some clues.'”

Campbell also sees progress. He notes that sometimes students will say, “We did this in English and science!”

Northeastern’s role

While Northeastern has taught teachers how to design tests and quizzes to reinforce basic skills and to familiarize students with test formats, it also is promoting innovative teaching strategies and lesson plans. Occasionally, Northeastern faculty members take over a class to demonstrate, and video tapes of the demonstrations are shared with teachers.

Northeastern gets generally favorable reviews. However, at least one teacher views it as an unknowing outsider. “They know all the stuff from research, but who are they to come in here and tell us how to reach these kids?” he says, asking not to be identified. “What do they know about teaching in the urban setting?”

Honors courses, schools-within-a-school and extracurricular activities also are on Harper’s agenda.

An honors program already has been set up for freshmen and will expand next year to upper levels. “You have to recognize kids and provide challenges for those who excel,” says Mason. “I don’t buy that because of the neighborhood, kids should not be expected to. I say that because I came from Lincoln Park, where over 50 percent of the students were from Cabrini Green. We had kids there who would really perform well academically.”

Harper already had three small schools—Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship, ComETS (Communication, Education Technology for Success) and FACETS (Foods Academy Connecting Education to Technology). Before reconstitution, it had proposed, as part of an application to become a career academy, to create three more. However, the board rejected the application, and small-school planning has slowed.

“I don’t think small schools is the answer to everything, but based on the research I’ve done, students do much better,” says Assistant Principal Mary Randle. “The kids get to know the teachers. The teachers get to know the students and parents. The teachers work with each other.”

Harper believes its three small schools-are serving students well. For example, their attendance rates are better than that of students in the larger school.

Mason is a strong believer in extracurricular activities. “My thinking is that the more fun things a student wants to participate in at school, the more he’ll feel a sense of belonging, the more he’ll care about what he does, what he achieves, here,” he says.

Mason hired a band teacher and constantly encourages students to participate in athletic and academic competitions, as well as extracurricular clubs and activities.

The school’s sports teams have performed exceptionally well, winning five conference championships. Sophomore Michelle Hicks says the success of the football and basketball teams is drawing transfer students to Harper.

If Harper has an Achilles heel, it may be its 53 percent mobility rate, suggests probation manager Gardner. While the school is planning to market its unique offerings to feeder elementary schools, it can’t keep families from moving, he notes. “That’s something we can’t control. Parents who manage to do better for themselves move out of the neighborhood and take their kids away from the gangs.”

However, Mason simply won’t entertain the vision of a failed reconstitution effort. “That’s not anything to do with my vision for the school at all,” he says.