Reform Opened A New World for Dee Smith

Print More

At Piccolo, Smith is known for her reliance on novels to teach reading. While her youngsters consume “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” at home, she is reading another novel out loud in class. Every book—plus units in social studies and writing—come with handouts she has compiled that detail the classwork and homework day by day.

Smith didn’t operate this way when she began at Piccolo in the mid-1980s. Teachers followed Board of Education manuals, she recalls, and didn’t work much with each other, either. “People closed the doors to their classrooms and did their own thing. You taught your grade. Teachers didn’t work together.”

But after school reform dawned in 1989, Piccolo experimented with several routes to better teaching, and Smith was led to follow one of them—the small-schools approach. With the backing of a new principal, she and several colleagues created Connections, a school-within-a-school where Smith is now the lead teacher.

Though sometimes rocky, Smith’s journey as a teacher has re-energized her. “I found a whole new way of teaching, not by the book but through more creative means,” says the 62-year-old teacher. “Learning became more fun, not so tedious. My kids are more successful now.”

So, seemingly, is Smith, who teaches reading, writing and social studies to 4th- and 5th-graders and has a 5th-grade home room. “Dee’s exceptional,” says Linda Sienkiewicz, principal of Piccolo Specialty, a K-5 school that shares a building with the Piccolo Middle School. “She’s hard-working and doggone determined that every child will achieve.”

New opportunities

One of four daughters born to a salesman and a housewife, Smith grew up in Albany Park and Rogers Park. “My father had had some college, and he felt it was very important that his daughters get a college education. There weren’t a lot of fields open to women—it’s not like it is today—so I studied to be a teacher.”

A 1959 graduate of Chicago Teachers College—the Northwest Side branch she attended developed into Northeastern Illinois University’s education department—Smith substitute-taught while her five sons were small, hiring on full time at Piccolo in 1984, when her youngest entered junior high.

When the Chicago School Reform Act law was passed, Smith paid little attention at first. “I didn’t really know what it was,” she says. “It was put in the newspaper, and so I read about it, and that was it.” But she soon noticed that Sienkiewicz, chosen in 1990 by a newly elected local school council, was proceeding differently than her predecessors had. “Everything before had been done by the principal,” Smith says. “We never handled budgets or purchased books, but now she [Sienkiewicz] wanted us to be involved.”

After school and during summers, Smith helped hammer together a school improvement plan, which Chicago principals must prepare for approval by their local school councils.

Sienkiewicz also tried out reading and math programs, installed a discipline room and hooked the school up with Project CANAL (for Creating a New Approach to Learning), a desegregation- related program aimed at promoting whole-school change through shared decision making. The new principal also acted to get rid of teachers she found wanting. “There were your usual retirements, relocations and administrative transfers, and we also did four direct dismissals for incompetency,” Sienkiewicz relates. Only 20 percent of the faculty on the job 10 years ago remain at Piccolo today.

New Ideas

Another formative experience for Smith came in 1991, when Margaret Richek, an education professor at Northeastern Illinois University, began spending time in her classroom, checking out methods later incorporated into a book. Out of her interaction with Richek, an expert on reading strategies, Smith changed her teaching style, scrapping the use of a basal reader in favor of fiction, and turning to more imaginative side activities. Smith also became a convert to Richek’s belief in building vocabulary through context rather than by looking up words in the dictionary. Richek liked what she saw in Smith, too: “I would model one idea, and she’d multiply it 10 times over.”

In carrying out the theories of Richek and others, Smith found an ally in Sienkiewicz. Some Piccolo teachers criticized their principal for willfulness (“Sienkiewicz would sometimes get on her high horse and go off on people,” says one Piccolo veteran.), but Smith appreciated her superior: “When Linda came in, she told us what the standards were, but she also let you teach any way that got results. She wanted change.”

Sienkiewicz found Smith the money to buy novels for her students, and the principal approved Smith’s idea to departmentalize the 5th grade, that is, have separate teachers teach different subjects.

“When kids get to 6th grade, most of them will have departmental instruction,” reflects Smith. “Research has shown that if you, as a teacher, like a subject, you’ll present it better. But departmentalizing didn’t work out so well. Those kids, for whatever reason, couldn’t deal with so many teaching styles. They didn’t take it seriously or do their homework. After two years we stopped doing it.”

During this period, Smith considered leaving the classroom. “I didn’t feel I was accomplishing anything, and there was a lot of negativism. I didn’t have the support of the other teachers or the parents.” She considered becoming a consultant or a resource teacher, unfettered from direct classroom duties. “But I knew there just had to be a better way,” she says. “I’m an overachiever. I like getting A’s.”

In 1994, she participated in a change-oriented discussion group at Piccolo led by facilitators from the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, another reform era institution. There also were citywide Saturday workshops. “This is when I first heard about small schools,” she says. She visited Foundations School, the city’s first small school, marked by multi-age classrooms and portfolio assessment. “When I told Linda [Sienkiewicz] about this, her eyes sparkled,” says Smith.

Indeed, Sienkiewicz, who had already tried management teams and grade-level groupings to jump-start her faculty, fancied the notion of a small school. About 20 teachers gathered to explore establishing one at Piccolo. In time the group winnowed down to a half-dozen instructors, with an enthusiastic Smith as the biggest booster. “She put her all into this, with all her unlimited energy,” says colleague Nancy Blayer.

The small-schools planners came up with an integrated curriculum, cooperative learning, a longer school day and uniforms. “And we were adamant that we needed a lower class size,” recalls Blayer, who would soon leave for a job nearer her home. In the end, the organizers gave one teaching slot back to Sienkiewicz in exchange for receiving fewer youngsters, resulting in a smaller class size, and Connections debuted in the fall of 1995.

A new school

A key feature of Connections is that parents, students and teachers sign a “contract” spelling out their responsibilities. Parents agree to help with homework—up to an hour a night for 5th-graders—and to abide by Connections’ discipline policy. The 180 Connections students vow to show up prepared and on time.

Uniforms translate as burgundy tops and black pants or skirts. Teachers try to knit subjects together—the integrated curriculum the Connections planners had in mind. Grades are given for tests, papers and oral presentations, a practice that distinguishes Connections from the many other small schools that rely on other forms of assessing student performance, such as portfolios of their work. The school day goes an hour longer than is prescribed in Chicago, from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. The extra time affords more instruction, with 5th-graders getting 90 minutes a day in both reading and math or science.

Connections also is characterized by an upbeat group spirit. Each morning the students gather in the hallway to repeat the pledge of allegiance and to shout the school chant: “I am somebody! You are somebody! We are somebody.” There is a peer-mediation process to resolve disputes, and older students are frequently paired with their juniors, following a Connections emphasis on cooperative learning. Every other Tuesday, for example, Smith’s 5th-graders do phonics drills and read The Weekly Reader to the Connections kindergartners.

As lead teacher, Smith chairs the Friday morning staff meetings and runs interference with Sienkiewicz. “If it was me, I’d shout at Sienkiewicz,” says Mary Kay Lesner, the Connections 1st-grade teacher. “But Dee tempers herself and talks to Linda diplomatically.”