Revising World History, motivating students, parent

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After two years on probation, Schurz High School can now point to increases in its reading scores. In late May, the Reform Board reported that just over 16 percent of Schurz students were reading at national norms, up from 12 percent last year. After doubling last year, math scores held steady, at 21 percent of students meeting norms.

Though many at Schurz are glad for any increase, Pam Mayers, a reading consultant from Northeastern Illinois University, is disappointed in the pace of progress. “I thought it was heartbreaking,” she says.

English teacher Dale Berman speaks to a key issue: Most high school teachers aren’t trained to teach basic reading. “Don’t they understand that we don’t know how to teach reading?” she asks. “This reading task force is a very new thing. I joined because I wanted to learn more about reading.”

To give teachers more help, Principal Sharon Rae Bender plans to hire a full-time reading specialist in September.

Before this school year ends, freshmen and their teachers will face one more test—the board’s new Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE) in the four core subjects, English, math, social studies and science. In April, social studies teachers from Schurz and other high schools gathered in central office to review proposed new curricula and ask questions about the exams.

Apr 13 Teachers on the board’s CASE.

Today, about 100 high school social studies teachers from around the city are meeting at central office to vet proposed revisions to the School Board’s new curriculum and tests for World Studies and U.S. History. Schurz teachers Jack Giles and Megan McCarthy are among them.

In a December meeting at central office, social studies teachers citywide complained that the proposed Chicago Academic Standards Exam (CASE) in World Studies did not correspond to what they were teaching. They were especially concerned that the exam focused too narrowly on modern European and post-colonial Third World history at the expense of other topics.

“What we want is your input,” Barbara McCarry, O.S.B., the board’s social studies coordinator, tells the group. McCarry, a Benedictine nun, was a teacher and administrator in Chicago Catholic schools for 32 years before being hired by the School Reform Board. This morning teachers will discuss both the World Studies and U.S. History curricula, or “programs of study,” initially developed by outside consultants, then revised by a committee of local teachers.

Schurz’s Giles, a member of the revision committee for World Studies, facilitates a group of 10 teachers. “When we came in, we took that initial [curriculum] offering and put it in the wastepaper bin,” he tells the group, as they look over the revised version.

Englewood High’s Jim Russo applauds the revisers’ efforts. “I’m glad to see they went back in time,” he says. But he’s concerned about how his kids will fare. “Because of the reading levels of our students, we can’t get through everything. Are they gonna be expected to read the same materials, at the same level of proficiency, as Lincoln Park, Lane Tech, Whitney, Lindblom?”

Later, McCarry tells Catalyst, “Yes, because that’s why they go to school. The point of standards-based education is to ensure equal opportunity for all students. CASE is a part of this.”

The draft World Studies curriculum is only four pages long, but it calls for sophisticated instruction. For example, teachers are asked to have students interpret political cartoons and statistics, hold mock elections and debates, conduct independent research and the like.

Judith Gearon of Clemente High opens the discussion.”How do you feel about the amount of material they’re asking us to cover?”

“It’s a lot,” chorus two teachers as the others nod agreement.

“We have kids coming in with weak math skills, who’ve never seen a political cartoon,” says Cindy Buscher of Manley High.

“You’d spend two to four weeks teaching each skill, depending on the level of kids,” asserts Mike Sielepkowski of Prosser. By his estimate, it would take more than a semester to teach the skills listed for one of the five goals of the course. “You can spend six weeks doing a mock election and polling research,” he observes.

Paul Bush of Near North says the issue isn’t covering material; it’s teaching knowledge for understanding. “Jack, we can cover this, we can cover all this,” he says to Giles, “but to pass the test—they’re not gonna pass it. We can cover one of these [skills] in a day, but it’s not gonna register.”

Later, the discussion turns to content organization: Should it be chronological or thematic?

Sielepkowski and Jerry Sloboda of Calumet argue strongly for chronological. “There are things you can’t skip,” says Sloboda. “I go all the way back to prehistoric man. … You have to introduce the types of early government. I don’t think you can leave that out.”

Schurz’s McCarthy suggests starting with current world events and working backwards. The reactions are mixed. Six members of the group teach chronologically, three teach thematically, and one uses both approaches.

Sielepkowski doubts the effectiveness of non-chronological teaching. “They have no foundation to understand how to go from A to B,” he says.

But Clemente’s Gearon has literally been sold on thematic teaching. “They spent beaucoup bucks to get us to do thematic,” says Gearon, “and now I’d never go back.” Gearon is referring to the multicultural curriculum that has emerged as a point of contention in the ongoing controversy about politics in and around Clemente.

Just before time is called on the small groups, Giles reviews his group’s suggestions: study geography and social systems first semester, and political and economic systems second semester. The connection between history and the humanities would be woven into the course throughout, along with skill development. Finally, as Giles puts it, “lighten up on skill development—don’t get too ambitious”; focus on those that improve reading and writing.

Back in the large group, teachers appear to agree that work on geography belongs in the first semester, but there’s no consensus on where to put the other four goals.

(A month later, McCarry tells Catalyst the program is still under construction and has “taken a conceptual direction which will allow flexibility for teachers to use a regional, chronological or thematic approach.”)

Before taking a break, McCarry tells everyone the next step will be to review the U.S. History program of study. “I don’t believe the U.S. is as controversial,” she says.

“Oh no? Maybe,” someone calls out, stirring genial laughter from the group. As it turns out, McCarry is right. The most significant change teachers propose is to restore time to review early American history—the first proposed program of study started just after the Civil War, which caused an outcry.

After lunch comes the moment many have been waiting for—a chance to put questions to Jan Sedlacek of the Office of Student Assessment. First, she assures teachers that, like the curriculum, the tests will be open to revision. “This will change in future years,” she says.

The first question from faculty is why CASE exams have been changed from end-of-the-year to end-of-semester. Sedlacek says the change was made to reflect the fact that students earn half a course credit each semester.

Barbara Binkis of Kelly High poses a question raised earlier in the day. “Would it be possible to make questions more open-ended? I think that would ease a lot of our concerns.” She gives an example of writing essay questions about regional change and giving students the option to discuss one of a number of world regions, rather than specifying “the colonial experience in Africa.”

Sedlacek says that’s possible.

Clemente’s Gearon asks what consequences students will face as a result of their performance on the tests. “Am I to infer that if a student does not pass the exam, no credit?” she inquires.

“For the pilot, count it any way you want,” Sedlacek replies. “Ultimately, it’s going to be only 20- 25 percent of the student’s grade.”

MAY 4 Frustrated planning.

This afternoon, members of the school’s federal Title I committee meet in the lounge by the copy room to discuss Family Reading Night, scheduled for May 21. The purpose of this event is to bring students and parents to school to read together, underscoring the importance of reading. The event will include workshops and raffle prizes, among other activities. But at today’s meeting, the absence of Assistant Principal Carline Williams-Strong, a key committee member, leads to frustration and, it eventually turns out, needless worry.

After reviewing some event logistics, committee Chair Evelyn Takaki, a parent who works in the discipline office, mentions the raffle prizes the committee plans to offer: dinner for four at Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, four tickets to a Bulls game, four tickets to a Chicago Fire soccer match, and a season pass to Great America.

Operations Manager Vicky Hansen, who is filling in at the meeting for Williams-Strong, warns Takaki that Title I funds, which are earmarked for school improvement, can’t be used to provide such prizes. “If they’re not directly involved in the reading, I believe we wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says.

Further, she says, the Region 1 office has advised against using state Chapter 1, too.

After some discussion of items the school could easily offer as prizes—thesauruses, a subscription to Sports Illustrated or some other popular magazine—Takaki explodes in frustration. “Three weeks prior to the event, we’re told we can’t have this,” she says. “If I go on the intercom and announce these prizes, I don’t think it’s gonna spark a lot of interest. If we knew about this way ahead of time we could have had a fund raiser. We’re back to square one as far as gifts again.”

For much of the meeting, the group discusses options without resolution, except for the grand prize, which will be a laptop computer the school already has on hand. The conversation shifts to a discussion of Bulldog Bucks, the incentive system begun in conjunction with Schurz’s tutoring initiative. (See Catalyst, February 1998.) Soon, the group is talking about gift incentives again. Parent Lula Gordon says the committee raffled off “something like a bike, and they didn’t want us to continue” the practice.

Takaki’s frustration erupts again. “Anything that seems to work and motivate these kids seems to be taken away. It seemed like it was working. There were some kids who were showing me, up in the lunchroom, their Bulldog Bucks,” she says. “We know how these kids are—they need something instant, right away, that they can hold in their hand.”

Another sore point in today’s meeting is lining up teachers to offer workshops for parents and students. Turning to Gerri Baginski, a teacher member of the local school council, Takaki asks: “Have you been asked to participate?”

Baginski says she and others have, but that there are a number of competing pressures, including final exams and International Day. “I told Mary I’d like to, but … it’s kinda tough,” she says.

Takaki doesn’t buy it. “Twenty minutes,” she says. “It’s not like we’re asking a two-hour commitment here.”

To date, three English teachers have agreed to be presenters.

MAY 5 It’s TAP time.

It’s TAP time. At 7 a.m., one hour before testing is to begin, about 150 students are having breakfast in the cafeteria. In the social room, Assistant Principal Sue Kukla and others are handing test proctors brightly colored gift bags filled with testing materials. Attendance is slightly above average, 88 percent.

During a break, music teacher Tony Pons walks up to a reporter and says, “A lot of the kids are saying the material was easy but there just wasn’t enough time to finish the whole thing.”

Later, in the student cafeteria, “not enough time” is a constant refrain. Many say they felt they did better in math than in reading. “In reading I didn’t do pretty well,” says freshman Jose Gutierrez. “I took too long.”

However, he says the tutorial classes Schurz offered selected freshmen helped. “All we do is read, and we had to answer questions,” he says. “It was kind of the same” with the test. He adds that he attended the tutoring sessions more frequently once a quarter credit was attached to them.

Social studies teacher Jack Giles applauds his freshman division’s performance. “The kids really responded in a very mature way,” he observes. “You saw them follow little test-taking strategies. Some of that training really did rub off.”

But perhaps not in every division. As two male teachers walk down the hallway, one asks the other, “How’d your kids do?”

“Well, they finished early,” the other responds hesitantly. “I don’t know what that means.”

Students leave about 12:30 p.m., and teachers gather by department after a lunch break. As science teachers begin their meeting, one of them says, “‘Scuse me for interrupting, but I have a message from the principal. She told me to come in and tell everybody before anything is done, she wants you to call Mike Madigan, call the governor, say you’re a public school teacher from Chicago, and you want the bill to pass involving the 2.2,” the retirement package to boost public school pensions currently before the General Assembly.

Teachers listen politely, but no one moves for the phone, and the meeting proceeds, focusing on ordering supplies and a proposal to change the school’s daily schedule.

MAY 8 Science lab, summer school: Give and take.

In the teachers’ lunchroom, engineer Dan Hartnett and Science Department Chair Ovaldo Buntin are reviewing architectural drawings for a new science lab. The School Reform Board is planning to build one new lab in each high school, so students can meet the new graduation requirement of three years of science. Schurz’s lab is expected to be finished by January.

The board’s prototype lab would serve 28 students, and Buntin says that’s insufficient. “Many times at the beginning of the year, classes are overloaded because they know there will be a natural attrition,” he explains, referring to the practice of making staff decisions with dropouts in mind.

Later, Buntin, Hartnett, and Operations Manager Vicky Hansen meet with the architect of record, Tim Bosanoz of O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi and Peterson, and others involved in the project. Buntin suggests making the tables wider, and then raises the class size issue.

Rick Salinas of Public School Architects and Engineers, a consortium of six architectural firms working jointly on public school projects, says there’s little room to maneuver. “There are standards that have been established citywide,” he explains.

Of the 28-student classroom, Hansen says, “Yes, that’s the union agreement, and that’s what’s on the books, but is that reality?”

“If you have concerns of that nature, you need to take them to people other than us,” Salinas tells her. “We’ll design basically as we’re told.”

Over lunch, English teacher Barbara Becker talks with a reporter about summer school. Due to a slight dip in the number of low-income kids, Schurz lost $200,000 in federal Title I funding that would have paid for summer makeup classes for sophomores, juniors and seniors who fail core courses. As a result, students who need them will have to pay tuition.

“I think kids should pay to take summer school, unless they’re trying to get ahead,” says Becker. “Everybody should be able to take a course once for free,”she says, either during the school year or in the summer if they wish to accelerate. But, she insists, not the second time around.

MAY 11 The light dawns.

Parent Evelyn Takaki begins today’s meeting for Family Reading Night with an apology and an update. “First, I’d like to open the meeting by reflecting on our last meeting,” she says. “There was a lot of information that wasn’t available at the time. I’d like to extend an apology to Dr. Strong [the assistant principal].”

When Williams-Strong returned from her absence, Takaki continues, she informed the committee that 11 workshops are planned. Also, Principal Sharon Bender solicited raffle prizes from local businesses, adding two CD players, as well as a number of smaller items. “It took about a ton of pressure off my shoulders when I got all this information,” Takaki says as an aside to a reporter.

The meeting quickly settles into logistics—schedule, registration, location of workshops, etc. Usually the committee meets from 3 to 4, but at 4:35 they are still going strong.

“Are you a little more comfortable with the registration now?” Strong asks Takaki. When she says yes, Strong asks the group, “Anybody else got something bugging them?”

After another few minutes nailing down details, committee Chair Takaki looks at her watch. “Our meeting is over at 4:42. Wow, we really went over, but …” she trails off.

Strong picks up her thread. “It was very productive.”

MAY 18 Principal for a red-letter day.

Today Bruce DuMont, host of the political talk show “Beyond the Beltway” and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, takes over the helm at Schurz as “Principal for a Day.” Although DuMont will visit classrooms, attend meetings and even sample the student lunch, perhaps his most significant public moment at school comes while acting as an on-air emcee.

At 10:35 a.m., DuMont’s broadcaster voice rings over the public address system. “This is Principal DuMont bringing you some very important news— good news—from your regular principal, Principal Bender,” he announces.

Bender takes over the microphone. “I have some very important news about our TAP scores. They have improved. I’m very proud of you,” she says. The school’s reading scores improved from 12 percent meeting national norms last year to 16.5 percent this year. Math scores rose by less than a percentage point to 21 percent meeting national norms. “I want to take this opportunity to thank the students, faculty, ancillary staff, and everyone at Schurz High School,” continues Bender. “Thank you for all your hard work, and God bless all of you.”

In the school’s career/college information center, students listen intently, then break into soft conversations. Applause filters in from a room down the hall.

Later, DuMont and Bender drop by the auditorium to visit students. Because 18 teachers, an unusually high number, are absent today, six classes totaling 110 students have been assigned to the auditorium this period, under the watchful eyes of two full-time substitutes, or “cadres.”

DuMont introduces himself, gives a brief autobiography and asks if students have any questions. “When you look back at Schurz, do you see anything different now, do you feel?” asks Jamie Hrobowski.

“When I went here, there was no air-conditioning…” DuMont begins.

This causes a buzz in the audience. “Really?” calls out one student. It’s sweltering today, and the school’s air-conditioned auditorium provides a welcome respite from stuffy halls and classrooms.

“I just went to a meeting where Dr. Bender was fighting for more air conditioning,” DuMont continues. He is interrupted again, this time by heartfelt applause from students. “I think that’s important,” DuMont adds, saying that he realizes what a difference the physical environment of a building can make to increase student learning.

“Did anybody here help you in planning your career?” asks Dawnica Harris. DuMont cites his history teacher, Mr. Jenro, who “got me interested in politics,” and his homeroom teacher, Chester Kondratowicz, who taught drama.

In closing, DuMont tells students about some other famous Schurz alums, including William S. Paley, who founded CBS, and Abraham Pritzker, founder of the Hyatt hotel chain. “Whoa,” says a student on hearing that billionaire Pritzker attended Schurz.

During the class change, DuMont introduces himself to cadres John Manchester and Radames Guzman, who supervised the large crowd. Their relief, cadres Anthony Stockwell and Eugene Ornowski, join the group.

“That seems like a lot” of teachers absent, DuMont remarks.

“Yes, yes,” says Guzman. “Usually we have nine or 10 [absent per day].”

“When you wake up every day, do you know where you’re going?” DuMont asks Stockwell.

As a cadre substitute, Stockwell is assigned to Schurz daily, but his assignments within the building vary. “If we have enough coverage they assign us to class,” he says. “Today there’s so many teachers out, wherever they can they put us.”

Later, Assistant Principal Carline Williams-Strong tells a reporter that based on previous poor experiences with day-to-day substitutes, Schurz prefers to rely on its own cadres rather than send requests to the board’s Sub Center. “When we call Sub Center, the people we get are the undesirables and that’s why they’re still available,” she observes.

Bender, DuMont, and Region 1 Education Officer Eva Nikolich relax in the teacher’s lunchroom. While Bender and Nickolich take sandwiches from the faculty offerings, Principal DuMont insists on checking out the cafeteria’s student lunch. Today’s menu includes hot dogs. “Just like the ones I ate when I was a student,” he says with relish.

While they eat, DuMont tells them about the Museum of Broadcast Communications program, “Networking on the Air,” which brings public high school students from all over Chicagoland to the museum three times a year to meet on-air personalities and management in the broadcast industry. Students also have access to the museum’s model studio and mentoring opportunities. After being interviewed earlier this morning by journalism students in Tom Voegtle’s class, DuMont is eager to bring Schurz into the program. Bender is delighted.

After lunch, Bender and lunchroom manager Cynthia Kennedy lead DuMont and Nikolich on a tour of the brand-spanking new kitchen. “We went from the Dark Ages to almost the 20th century,” says Kennedy, as the group admires the gleaming metal cabinets, steel table, and a marble-topped pastry preparation table.

“She [Bender] really bitched to get that,” muses Nikolich. “Their lunchroom was an embarrassment before.”

Bender’s unending quest for lockers comes up again in the conversation. “Your lockers are gonna get done when your floor gets done,” warns Nikolich, describing how, when she was principal of Kennedy, installing new lockers scratched the brand-new flooring. “I told Sharon,” she comments to a reporter, “‘don’t let them put the floor in before they put the lockers in.'”

MAY 20 Restructuring out, advisory in.

This afternoon, the faculty was expecting to vote on a proposal to restructure the school day to allow the entire faculty to get together for more than 30 minutes a week. This is a sore topic at Schurz, and one that has been discussed without resolution for over a year.

English department chair Mary McNeal has been a rare prime mover in proposing alternative schedule possibilities. “We had a restructuring committee for quality review that was supposed to address this question. They did not succeed, so it was turned over to the departments,” she said in an earlier interview. She herself was a member of the quality review team.

But her proposal bites the dust today, when Bender receives word from Region 1 that schools should leave their flextime arrangements as they are for next year. Given that no consensus on an alternative has emerged at Schurz, the vote is easily scrapped.

But Schurz is preparing to rejoin its fellow high schools in offering advisory next fall, now that the board has agreed to pay advisory teachers an extra half-hour’s salary weekly for their efforts. “It’s official,” says advisory project manager Girod Walker in a telephone interview. Walker adds that some schools are planning to keep their current two- or three-times-per-week schedules and make in-house arrangements about extra pay. For next fall, Schurz is assuming advisory will occur once weekly.

MAY 21 Family Reading Night—quality, not quantity.

On the sidewalk along Milwaukee Avenue, outside Schurz’s auditorium doors, freshman Mayra Coreas holds a bunch of purple and gold balloons to show the way to Family Reading Night. Another student with her is costumed as Clifford, the big red dog from the popular children’s book series. Coreas says a number of folks have stopped to ask what is going on.

But not many find their way inside. About 60 people are in the auditorium—a mixture of parents, faculty, students and younger siblings, some of whom are pre-school age.

Though the crowd is small, they seem to enjoy the workshops, presentations, and the book fair, sponsored by Scholastic, in the social room. Everyone is entitled to one free book from a wide selection for kindergartners through adults.

Bender looks over the shoulders of two little girls, the younger sisters of student Maria Denemarza, who are here with their mother, Rosa. “Dear Barbie,” Bender reads aloud.

“Dear Barbie,” one girl echoes.

“My birthday is next week,” Bender continues to read.

“My birthday is next week,” comes the tiny echo. Bender continues the story as the girls listen.

Down the hall, juniors Ozivell Ecford and Louis Wells are presenting a workshop entitled, “Reading and Rapping.” The duo, who take part in Schurz’s speech and drama program, have prepared a mini-musical about the importance of reading. The show combines dialogue, Louis’s ability as a pianist, and rap. The script, which they co-wrote in a week, includes Prozac jokes and a take-off on the Mary J. Blige hit “Real Love.”

“I’m searching for some—good books,” sings Ozzie.

Out in the hallway, Marilyn Ecford and her three-year-old boy are on their way to catch up with Ozivell, her older son, when they spot Clifford heading their way. “Hey, Clifford,” says the little boy.

Clifford bends down, offers a paw, then gives the little guy a hug and admires his book.

Ecford stops Ozzie in the hallway just before he and Louis are about to begin their last presentation of the night.

“There’s one book I want you to get—that soul for the teenager book,” she says. She’s referring to “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul,” part of the inspirational “Chicken Soup” series written by Jack Campbell. The school ordered class sets of it as part of its sustained silent reading project, and students have given it rave reviews.

Ozivell asks his mom to get it for him, but she can’t—the rule is one per customer. “I got mines, and he got his,” she says, referring to his little brother. She adds that she set aside a copy for him. Her older son obligingly heads off to the social room to get his book before it’s too late.

“I think it’s great,” says Ecford of the event.

At the end of the night’s festivities, eight prizes are raffled off, including the 2 CD players, one each of a computerized spellchecker, dictionary and translator, two certificates that can be used to waive activity fees or to buy merchandise at the school store, and the laptop computer. After a few tries—you must be present to win—Teresa and Manuel Garcia, parents of a Schurz junior, win the computer.

Afterwards, Gerri Baginski comes up to Takaki to thank her for the committee’s work in organizing the event. “Evelyn, congratulations to all of you—there were some really cute ideas,” she says.

“We need some heavy-duty food for this crowd,” says Takaki, who is already considering how to boost turnout for next time.

But Baginski’s delight and admiration are evident when she tells her, “It’s the start of something great.”