Retention, midyear promotions big issues at Gladstone

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Probation may have been the best thing that happened to Gladstone Elementary School.

The Near West Side school’s reading and math scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) dropped in 1997 below the 15 percent cutoff for probation. But with guidance of an external partner and an influx of new staff, Gladstone’s scores rebounded dramatically. Last spring, 21 percent of Gladstone’s students scored at or above norms in reading; 29 percent in math.

What happened?

“We looked at the curriculum and the academics with a stronger focus,”says Elizabeth Newman, Gladstone’s special education case manager. “We really pushed the kids. We told them we’re on probation and we need to bring these scores up. Everyone got really focused.”

One teacher even wrote a song about the ITBS. All of the children learned it. The school also had a pre-test pep rally to get everybody psyched up.

Newman also believes that communication between administrators and teachers improved, changing the climate of the school for the better.

Principal Gary Moriello credits Gladstone’s partnership with the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. “It’s hard to separate out all of the factors, but one of the big things was that we got the right external partner,” he says.”

At first, Moriello tried to hire Kinney & Associates, which had created Gladstone’s assessment program, as its external partner. “We spent months setting that up, but then the board said, ‘no.’ Kinney wasn’t on their official [external partners] list.” So Gladstone staff listened to presentations from other partners, and picked Oak Brook-based NCREL, one of 10 regional labs across the country.

Says Moriello, “NCREL did a lot of classroom coaching, which is probably the best thing you can do. They also presented a lot of staff development. They worked on discipline, planning, classroom management. If I had the money—and I won’t—but if I did have the money, I’d bring them back next year.”

The board footed the bill for NCREL last year. The board was supposed to pay only half this year, but Moriello persuaded it to pick up 75 percent since NCREL didn’t start until February.

Asked how Gladstone raised its scores last year, several teachers cite staff turnover, not NCREL. In the fall of 1997, Gladstone hired about nine new teachers, one quarter of its teaching staff.

Mark Lee, who teaches social studies and reading to 7th- and 8th-graders, believes the infusion of new people made a difference. “I think they hired some good people,” says Lee, who is among the newcomers.

Fourth-grade teacher Karen Pfendler agrees. Both the new and old staff “became committed to bringing more order into the classrooms, to quiet the movement in the hallways,” she says. “The atmosphere changed. Our goal now is to stay off probation. I think we’ll be OK.”

JAN 14 Snowed out.

It has been almost two weeks since the Blizzard of 1999 dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Chicago, but attendance at Gladstone is not yet back to normal. On Jan. 6, when Chicago’s public schools finally reopened following winter break—minus busing—fewer than 100 of Gladstone’s 610 children showed up. On the 8th, attendance grew to around 200.

About half of Gladstone students are bused to school. The residential neighborhood around the school, in the Illinois Medical District, is disappearing. “The predominant piece of architecture in the neighborhood is the vacant lot,” jokes Moriello.

This week, buses are running again, sidewalks and streets near the school have been cleared of snow, but some kids are stretching a two-week winter break into a full month. Attendance early in the week hovers around 480.

“We had teachers with one or two kids in their classes,” says Elizabeth Newman. “When you’re getting ready to do testing, you have only so many weeks to prepare, and we missed a whole week. When you’re looking at a 40-week school year, that’s a lot.”

Students who are catching buses arrive on time, though. Gladstone business manager Dean Blair even says the bus service (provided by Latino Express) is more punctual than usual this week, perhaps because a spotlight has been placed on it by the storm.

Still, it isn’t until the end of January that attendance is back to normal. “They got used to being at home, and the parents got used to them being at home,” Moriello says. “Most attendance is parent-related. The parents just aren’t getting the kids to school.”

Although several events have been postponed by the storm—including an upper-grades science fair and a Martin Luther King Day assembly—retesting for retained students went on as planned Jan. 11 and 12. Those who were absent could make up the tests Jan.13.

Three 3rd-graders were absent all three days. Moriello discusses with counselor Susan Lopez whether to give these kids one more chance to take the tests. They decide to test them today. The children meet at 10 a.m in Room 105 with Lopez, who seats them around a conference table and hands each one an ITBS math booklet.

“We’re going to try our best, so it’s not just a matter of luck, is it?” Lopez asks the two girls and one boy. The three children take two tests in the morning, are excused for lunch, then return for two tests in the afternoon. Between the two morning tests, Lopez provides a little tension relief. She has the children do arm circles while they are still seated; then she tells them to growl. That makes them laugh and relax a bit.

This is the first time students who have been retained in grades 3, 6 and 8 are retaking the ITBS in January. Last year, only 8th-graders enrolled in high school transition centers were given a mid- year opportunity to be promoted.

“I don’t believe there will be a lot of children’s placements changed due to this test,” says Moriello, “but I could be wrong. We’ll find out in a few days when we get the test results back.”

JAN 21 One-third advance.

The scores arrive yesterday and today. Of the 37 retained students who were tested last week, a third scored well enough to be moved ahead to the next grade. Nine of the 29 retained 3rd- graders, three of the six 6th-graders and one of the two 8th-graders get passing scores.

The percentages are roughly the same across the system. More than 40 percent of the students retained in September have now met minimum standards for promotion and will be moved up a grade.

Some of Gladstone’s promoted students get the good news in letters hand-delivered by Assistant Principal Marie Patzelt. “I thought one girl was going to start to cry,” says Patzelt. “They’re happy they’re going to get to be with their old friends.”

But there’s a problem with the 8th-grader. She has been absent 27 times during the first half of the school year. Moriello fears it sends the wrong message to the other students if he promotes her based only on her Iowa scores. He doesn’t want to promote her, but he’s getting pressured to do so by the Region 3 office.

Lydia Nantwi, Region 3 business manager, calls Moriello and tells him, “just look at the test scores and go.”

Moriello doesn’t want to go along with this. The School Board promotion policy book states that in addition to getting acceptable test scores, students must have passing grades in their class work and no more than 20 days of unexcused absences.

About a week later, Nantwi calls Moriello again, “exhorting me to allow this child to graduate,” he says. He’s not going to do it. Moriello says this is a child who rarely shows up and does little to no work. “I don’t even know what she looks like,” he says. “I’m not graduating her. I don’t care what they tell me to do.”

Region 3 Education Officer Hazel Steward disagrees with Moriello’s decision, but allows it to stand. “Gladstone had the only case in the region where a child was retained who had met the [test] standard,” she says. “I would, perhaps, have given her some make-up work. I don’t agree with the decision [not to promote her] but I wasn’t going to overrule it.”

Several Gladstone teachers are concerned about the mid-year promotions, though, because those children will miss a semester’s worth of the curriculum.

“There’s a concern of whether these children will be able to be successful,” says one teacher. “If you get moved up, and you’re lost, are we really helping these children?

She adds: “I don’t know if they are doing this because they’re having huge amounts of kids piling up in these grades or what. I’m not as concerned about the 8th-graders, because they’re on semesters, so they’re starting a new semester, but that’s not how elementary school works.”

Moriello says the biggest burden will be in the 4th grade, where an inexperienced teacher, Erik Hull, is receiving six of the promoted students. Hull, who completed his student teaching at another school in the fall, was hired in January to replace a teacher who transferred to a school closer to her home. Fourth-grade teacher Karen Pfendler, who is in her second year at Gladstone, after teaching for 33 years in private schools, will get the other three.

“Fortunately, 4th grade isn’t overcrowded,” says Moriello, who has not yet decided what extra help to provide to these children.

Retained students were supposed to be getting extra tutoring from a college student and a retired teacher paid for by the School Board. Both started in the fall but quit soon after. The student said she wouldn’t be back because of family problems. The retired teacher “wasn’t happy,” says Moriello.

So Moriello tapped sources in the community and found another college student. By the end of February, he reports this tutor is reliable and doing a good job. She is working with retained 6th-graders, helping them with daily assignments.

Today is a hectic day at Gladstone for another reason. A new school, Sandoval, is opening on the West Side next week to relieve overcrowding at Tonti and Peck schools. Though Gladstone is not on the board’s list of receiver schools for overcrowding, Moriello sometimes will accept students when a desperate principal calls. He has taken many students from Tonti, and some of them are now transferring to Sandoval next Monday.

“Kids are being solicited to go to the new school, but bad information is being given out,” insists Moriello, who thinks that switching schools in the middle of the year is a bad idea.

Last week, a parent who came in to pick up transfer papers said she was sorry they had to leave. “I was livid,” says Moriello. “I told her she didn’t have to transfer her kids now.” Despite Moriello’s explanations, over 50 children are transferring to Sandoval.

For now, students in several neighborhoods can go to the new school, says Moriello. “But if you really belong at Tonti or Peck [another neighborhood school] then they’re going to send you back again at the end of the year.”

William McGowan, administrator in the Office of Schools and Regions, says the board never told parents they had to transfer children to Sandoval. “The letters all said this was an option, not something they had to do,” he says. “I sat at many meetings and made that as clear as I could.”

Only “a very small number of students” will have to leave Sandoval next fall for Tonti or Peck, McGowan adds. Those would involve parents who, for hardship reasons, wanted to send their children to Sandoval this semester to eliminate a long commute by bus.

Moriello says it won’t take long to refill his school with new students. Already, he’s taking phone calls from principals. “I’ve had two calls this week from the principal at Nightingale,” says Moriello. “They already sent us a few kids. He asked if he could send me a couple more now and a couple more in September. I said, ‘whatever you need.'”

At 5:30 p.m., the local school council members are gathered in the auditorium/gymnasium for the monthly meeting. The main item on the agenda: renewing Moriello’s four-year contract.

LSC meetings, usually held at 7:30 a.m., have been sparsely attended by parents and community members. To boost the numbers, a survey went out earlier in the year asking parents for suggestions on convenient times and days. Eight surveys came back saying Gladstone should move the meetings to Thursdays. Since they’ve always been on Thursdays, Moriello wonders if anyone’s paying attention.

“This new time, in the evening, is a trial run. We’re hoping to have a good turnout,” says Lillie Hallom, who is in her third year as LSC chair. But the evening meeting time hasn’t made much difference. About 25 people show up; most are Gladstone teachers and staff.

Sharion Reed is an exception. She has children in 2nd, 6th and 8th grades at Gladstone. “I usually come [to LCS meetings] because I’m concerned about what’s going on here,” says Reed, who transferred her children to Gladstone from Medill after the latter closed. “Where they used to go, they kept passing them, but they weren’t learning. People in my neighborhood were telling me it was good here. They work with your child.”

After Moriello gives his state-of-the-school address, most comments from the floor are from people supporting his retention. There are a few complaints: It’s too noisy in the hallways, and Moriello isn’t available to listen and respond to teachers’ concerns.

The vote is unanimous to renew the contract, which includes three stipulations to which Moriello has agreed. First, he will make himself more available to the teachers. Later, he says, “I’ve always thought I had an open door policy but you’re always able to improve and do better.” Second, he will visit classrooms more frequently. And third, he will work to improve the cleanliness of the school.

Later, Moriello says the LSC will go back to morning meetings.

JAN 27 Promotion pressure.

Fourth-grade teacher Karen Pfendler welcomed three of the mid-year promoted students to her classroom yesterday by having the other students give them a round of applause in the morning.

“We congratulated them for making it,” she says, “and told them we knew it would be tough.” She told the three to let her know if they don’t understand something, and she hopes the old 4th-graders will help the new ones. “I’ve got some good kids in the class who will buddy up nicely with them,” she says.

Today, one of the three new students is absent. The other two sit at the back of the class, one at the end of the last row and the other right in front of her. The day starts with a half-hour of quiet reading time. Then Pfendler does a brief social studies review, throwing out questions.

“How many states are there?” she asks.

“What are the two branches of Congress?”

The two new girls just listen, one with eyes open but head down on her desk for a few minutes.

Next, Pfendler passes out a packet, called Exploring Geography, to each child. The children have to place trading cards with geography facts onto the correct pages of a photo album. The two new girls complete the activity without a problem. One of the new girls finished early and assists a classmate in getting the cards into the right spots.

Later, she says she was sad to leave her friends in 3rd grade and is a little nervous about jumping into 4th grade. Still, she adds, “I was happy when I found out I passed.”

The other girl is less thrilled to be here. “I liked 3rd grade,” she says, barely in a whisper. “I liked my teachers. I’d rather be back in 3rd grade.”

This afternoon, Moriello gets a call from a central office administrator, asking him to review the records of two other retained 3rd-graders. Both scored 2.7 in reading on the ITBS, just one month below the promotion minimum of 2.8. If the students have good attendance and are doing passing work in the classroom, they want them promoted, says Moriello. “And they want it done by tomorrow.”

Moriello speaks to the children’s teachers and finds out both have met the other requirements to be promoted, but it takes much longer than a day to get it done. That’s because CPS policy requires parents to consent to their children attending summer school.

It takes more than a week, but the papers come back signed and the children are promoted. One goes into Pfendler’s class and the other into Hull’s.

By mid-February, Pfendler reports that all four of her newly promoted students are keeping up academically and adjusting nicely. “I think, in general, the kids who [were retained] just weren’t good test-takers,” says Pfendler. “These kids are doing fine because they should have been in 4th grade anyway. For the most part, they know what they’re doing.”

Hull’s class is not running as smoothly. Along with several students presenting discipline problems, he now has another disruption: One of the promoted girls cries daily in class. Teachers, support staff and even Moriello have talked to her, but she won’t say why she’s so upset. Moriello says that since she meets the academic standards for 4th grade, he’d rather not move her back. The staff hopes she will adjust and is monitoring the situation.

Mark Lee has the three promoted 6th-graders in his class. They have done well on the first couple of social studies quizzes, and seem to be keeping up, he says.

Still, Lee is not sure how his new students will pick up what they missed in the first semester social studies curriculum, including a lesson on the expansion of the American West. “They missed that, and I don’t want them to get any further behind, so I have them doing what everyone else is doing now.”

FEB 3 SIPAAA update.

This morning at 7:30, seven people are in a conference room to update the school improvement plan, officially called School Improvement Plan Advancing Academic Achievement.

The SIPAAA used to be hundreds of pages, but now is only supposed to be only 20. Today, several items under the heading “needs work” will be moved to “what is working.” It will take an hour and a half just to rework page 9.

Last week, staff members turned in suggestions for the SIPAAA. Several had positive comments on the new employee handbook, which includes the SIPAAA and the new discipline plan. “For the first time there’s a place to go for information,” says Susan Lopez. “Now, they have to get into the habit of using the handbooks.”

On the SIPAAA update, “handbooks” move over to “what’s working.”

Next, primary grade teachers have commented that holding primary, intermediate and upper grade team meetings every other week is too much. They want the meetings once a month. No decision is made on this one.

Teachers also want more opportunities for peer coaching, but no one’s sure how to free up the time to do this. It stays in the “needs work” category.

This leads to a discussion on the 18 in-service half days and how to use them. “They want to be left alone more,” says 4th-grade teacher Karen Pfendler. Now, about half of those days are devoted to workshops, some of which are run by NCREL.

The group discusses giving the teachers the half days that NCREL had this year, to be “left alone” in their classrooms, engaged in teacher-directed activities. “But we need to make sure they’re using the time productively,” says Pfendler.

Assistant Principal Marie Patzelt agrees to add a few more teacher-directed half days and cut back a bit on professional development. But not too much. “The teachers would like to be able to work individually in their classrooms more,” she says. “What I try to do is plan half the days for curriculum planning and half for staff development.

Later in the week, two primary teachers say they wouldn’t mind the half-day workshops if they were productive. “But they haven’t been worthwhile programs. You don’t get anything out of them,” complains one of the teachers.

Dave Piel, the LSC community rep, also is on the SIPAAA committee. He wants to bring up something that has been bothering him. “These kids don’t get enough activity,” he says. “It’s one of my pet peeves.”

The others in the room agree. Hanging her head down, multicultural teacher Susan Ashmann says, “The kids are like this by the end of the day. That’s why they get angry and frustrated.”

Gladstone kids get 15 minutes of recess a day, after lunch. But committee members say some teachers don’t take their classes outside for recess at all. State law requires gym class every day, but Gladstone is like most Chicago public schools: Gladstone students get gym once or, in some cases, twice a week.

There’s talk about hiring a second gym teacher, but there’s no money to pay for another teacher. Lopez says she will bring this up at the next administrative meeting.

After the administrative meeting later this week, Lopez says one idea is to add a second 15-minute recess. But Moriello remains unconvinced. Another 15-minute recess would take 25 minutes by the time the students put on coats and line up; two of these a day would wipe out the extra hour reserved for extended day. “I don’t object to recess, but we’re spending big bucks for extended day, and it’s supposed to be extended for instruction. We don’t have the time.”

FEB 9 New discipline plan.

Cathryn Williams, a former CPS principal who’s now a consultant with NCREL, will spend all of today at Gladstone, observing classrooms, offering advice and modeling a lesson in the 4th grade for new teacher Erik Hull.

Williams is one of three NCREL representatives who are at Gladstone at least one day a week. Williams also worked over the summer and into the fall with Gladstone Assistant Principal Bertha Dixon on devising new discipline procedures. Dixon’s office used to overflow with students sent there for disciplinary reasons.

“They didn’t have a consistent discipline policy. It varied from teacher to teacher,” says Williams, “so they wanted to come up with something very standardized.”

The new system puts more emphasis on the teacher’s role, classroom management and positive reinforcements, such as lunch with the teacher for good behavior.

“Everyone knows the procedures and the steps,” says Dixon. “I think it’s working. By this time [10 a.m.] last year, I’d have seven or eight kids here in my office.” Instead, she has only one little boy, who keeps popping out of his chair and has to be led back.

Today Williams visits several classrooms. One of the things she’s looking for today is whether the teachers are integrating testing skills into their teaching. Preparing for standardized tests is something that’s supposed to be done each week, if not each day.

“I want to see if they’re putting together testing and teaching instead of just practice, practice, practice,” she says.

Sitting in back of Janice Washington’s 3rd-grade class, Williams nods her head in approval as Washington passes out dittos with graphs and reminds the children they saw similar graphs on the Illinois State Achievement Tests they took last week. Washington briefly discusses how to do the dittos.

“She’s referring her teaching to the testing and going back and reinforcing these skills,” says Williams. “We have to make sure we’re covering all the skills they need [for the tests].”

FEB 17 More phonics.

Last year, several Gladstone teachers expressed the need for a more phonics-based reading program instead of the literature-based series Gladstone had been using. “They were concerned the kids weren’t getting a good foundation,” says Patzelt. “So I searched for people to come and give us their schpiel, and Direct Instruction was one of them.”

Direct Instruction is a 30-year-old, highly structured program that uses drills, repetition and frequent testing. It fell out of favor in the 1980s, but now is making a bit of a comeback.

Gladstone purchased DI readers, workbooks and teacher guides. The school also hired a consultant to train teachers at the beginning of the year and then observe them throughout the year.

One of two consultants visits each classroom every other week to observe DI instruction and sometimes model a lesson. Several times a year, consultants work with groups of teachers on specific parts of the program.

This year, primary grades are committing about 90 minutes every morning to DI. They tested the children and split them into ability groups. Third-grade teacher Robert Rogers teaches the two highest reading groups. He sends his lower level readers to the other 3d-grade classrooms.

Rogers begins his DI lesson today by having students, one at a time, read a list of 45 vocabulary words. They have one minute, and earn 11 points if they get through the list in time. The other students in this group are working in their DI workbooks, waiting for their turns. In the back of the room, the children in the second group are completing assignments given to them by their homeroom teacher.

Next, Rogers has the children take out their DI textbooks. They read vocabulary words listed at the top of a short story. With a clicker he holds in his hand, Rogers signals them to say the word.

“How do you say the word?” Click.

Handkerchief.

“How do you spell the word?” Click.

The children spell h-a-n-d-k-e-r-c-h-i-e-f.

“What word did you spell?” Click.

Handkerchief.

When they don’t answer loudly enough, or when they don’t wait for the “click,” Rogers has them repeat the word.

Later, Rogers says some of the children seemed bored with DI when it first was introduced to them. Now, though, he says they’re “getting into the flow of it.”

He, too, didn’t like DI at first. when he had to teach it at another school a couple of years ago. It took a few months to get comfortable with it, he says. Now, he thinks it builds vocabulary, boosts reading fluency and, in the higher levels, “the children do a lot of reading in the content areas and cover a lot of science and social studies.” Rogers says he’s curious to see how his students do on standardized reading tests after a year with DI. He’s already heard from a few parents that their children are reading more smoothly at home.

First-grade teacher Nicole Cox admits she was “very apprehensive” about DI. “I’d heard a lot of negative things. But I’m very comfortable now, and I like the fact we have a coach come every other week and give suggestions. I’m seeing how the kids are reading by sounding words out, and I like that.”

Gladstone receives a lump sum amount, based on enrollment, to spend on books each year. This year, 75 percent of the total was spent on DI materials, says Dean Blair. That means other grade levels didn’t get all of the texts they would have liked and will have to wait and hope their requests are filled next year.

FEB 23 Ukelele band.

Six ukeleles, which fine arts teacher Paul Gilvary purchased with a grant from the Chicago Foundation for Education, arrived Friday. This week, he will audition children for a new ukulele band.

Gilvary also has resurrected a school choir this year. It has been rehearsing after school every Wednesday since January. About 25 students joined and get bus transportation home. One of the problems with extracurricular activities, says Moriello, is that so many children live out of the neighborhood and have no way to get home late in the afternoon. Most of the grant money for this program is going to pay for the bus.

FEB 26 Retained students

The Black History Month Assembly this morning could be the last whole-school event of the year in the gymnasium, which is slated for renovations beginning in April.

Since August, the entire interior of Gladstone has been painted. Walls are now light blue and pale yellow. The ceilings are white. Two years ago, all of the windows were replaced.

The LSC and Moriello have lobbied for years to get lead abatement and repainting. “It took a lot of letters, a lot of phone calls to Paul Vallas’s office, and just staying on the phone and not giving up,” says LSC Chair Lillie Hallom. “We took pictures of peeling paint falling into drinking fountains, and wrote letter after letter. And we got it done.”

Now that this old building is looking a little better, Hallom says one of the things she wants to focus on is the retained students. “We need to get them more help,” she says. “I want to talk to people, do a little research, and see what we can do for them. We aren’t doing enough.”

Third-grade teacher Janice Washington has been having similar thoughts. Heading to an NCREL workshop, she says she has been thinking about suggesting that Gladstone place all of the 3rd-grade repeaters into a separate classroom next year. Currently, they’re spread among the three 3rd-grade rooms.

“What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, so we need to try something else,” says Washington, who has been at Gladstone 10 years, teaching 2nd grade until asked to move up to 3rd last year.

Board officials say retained students should get special help, such as smaller classes, tutoring or a special curriculum.

However, Gladstone uses money earmarked for after-school programs to pay for an extended day for all students, giving everyone an extra hour of instructional time, so there is no after-school tutoring for the retained students. And no special curriculum is being used with the retained students.

Moriello says tutoring is a fine idea, but it’s hard to find good, reliable tutors. He’ll consider the idea of clustering 3rd-graders next year, but adds, “Tracking is out of favor and not really supported by research. We need to wait and see how many [retained 3rd-graders] we’ve got in the fall.”

One solution is to reach these students before they fail at 3rd grade, he notes. “If we can test them, get them the help they need or place them in special ed at a younger age, that would cut down on this huge number of 3rd-graders in all of the schools really hitting a wall.”