Robeson hurt by stigma of reconstitution

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In U.S. History class this fall, Rachel Rattley, a senior at Paul Robeson High School in Englewood, tried to turn in a test with a couple of questions left unanswered. Her teacher wouldn’t accept it, and Rachel had to complete the exam before she was allowed to leave the room.

Rachel didn’t mind. “It felt good to know that he wanted me to finish my work,” she says.

Robeson is one of seven schools that underwent reconstitution over the summer, and Rachel’s new history teacher, Brian Brennan, is one of the results.

“Most of my teachers are new this year,” Rachel says. “Half of my new teachers seem more concerned.”

Senior Kinte Green also sees an upturn. “It seems like more teachers want to help,” he says. “This year you’ve got teachers who want to [know] ‘Why you act like that?’ They say, ‘I’ll teach you.'”

These signs of hope appear, however, amid palpable uncertainty. Mid-summer, 24 of the school’s 90 teachers were given walking papers. Then, as the school year was about to start, 12 veteran teachers abruptly left for other jobs within the system, leaving a kink in a summer’s worth of planning. Through the first grading period, the school had to make do with 12 vacancies, 10 of which had not been met as Catalyst goes to press.

“The worst part is hearing the parents who come to me and say, ‘My son’s a senior. He needs a music credit, and he has no music teacher,'” says Principal James Breashears, who was spared the reconstitution ax.

“It’s hard to hire teachers,” says Breashears, “For one thing, there’s a teacher shortage. And, what can I offer? Success to some people may be about working an eight-hour day, a 12-month year, increasing their salary by 30 percent, working with highly motivated students on a sprawling suburban campus. I can’t offer those things here.”

(Robeson lost several teachers to the newly created high school transition centers, where they’re guaranteed year-round work and smaller classes.)

“Robeson is still lacking in terms of being able to pay teachers additional dollars and offer good work conditions such as smaller class size,” says Major Armstead, Robeson’s probation manager and a former CPS district superintendent. “When teachers have the opportunity to work in a less stressful setting or enjoy an enhanced income, they take it.”

Stabilization of the teaching force and teacher recruitment are crucial challenges Robeson must meet to get a fair chance at meeting its improvement goals, he adds.

Some staff members believe that reconstitution itself has stigmatized the school and made hiring harder. One administrator says he felt the stigma when he applied for a suburban principalship. “They liked what they saw, but they had a real problem with Robeson,” he says.

Breashears says that in filling vacancies, he’s sought young and energetic novices. “I made a deliberate effort to hire fresh blood, knowing what that meant. I definitely think the benefits, over time, will vastly outweigh the need for intense training.”

Robeson’s enrollment is down about 15 percent from last year—to 1,150 students. That’s due mostly to a new promotion policy that holds back low-scoring 8th-graders or sends them to transitional centers. As with other high schools, the uncertainty over the size of the freshman class aggravated staffing problems usually associated with the beginning of the school year. “We really didn’t know how many students were going to show up almost until the first day of school,” notes technology coordinator Tim Colburn.

Students have been shunning Robeson for a long time, says Breashears. “There are thousands who live within Robeson’s boundaries who don’t go here,” he notes. “The fact that the test scores have been dramatically down hasn’t helped, but any stigma connected with this school has more to do with scaring away teachers, not students.”

Shutdown feared

Robeson’s short-term goals, says Breashears, are to raise attendance and reading and math test scores. To get off probation, 20 percent of students tested must score at or above national norms in reading and math on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP).

For Robeson, that’s a stiff challenge. Currently, only 4.7 percent of Robeson students score at or above the national average in reading; 8.1 percent score at that level in math.

“What happens if we don’t make it, what happens? We don’t have a school, that’s what!” says an exasperated staff member, who asked not to be identified.

“Closing a school would have to be an absolute worst-case scenario,” assures Philip Hansen, the school system’s chief accountability officer. He says the accountability office is looking for significant progress on TAP test scores and will consider gains in other areas, such as attendance.

At times, though, the pressure drives teachers to distraction. At one after-school workshop, a new teacher raises her voice in frustration over students who don’t seem to want to learn. Specifically, she cites students who refused to read a lesson and then began throwing things in class.

This story prompts a veteran teacher to complain. “Many behavior problems at this school are caused by kids who become bored because the material is way over their heads.” The disruptions, he says, “shortchange the students who want to learn the materials and could—under better conditions.”

Still another teacher contends that this year’s freshmen are not performing math computations at the level they are supposed to for graduation from 8th grade. “Some came in more like 3rd and 4th grade,” she says. “And even for those at the 7th-grade level, we’re still trying to take them through two years in one.”

Before reconstitution, Breashears says, “No one but the principal felt the pressure. Now it’s felt by everyone.”

Qiana Smith, a senior and likely salutatorian, sees the positive side of the changed atmosphere. “There’s not a lot of walking around out in the hall. The teachers get the [distractions] out of the way. They’re getting down to business.”

Like most Chicago schools, Robeson is teaching students test-taking strategies, such as rereading passages for specific information or finding correct answers through the process of elimination.

It also is familiarizing students with the format of standardized tests. Once a week, in every class, students spend 20 minutes reading and answering questions about passages that are four to five paragraphs in length. The questions and answer sheets resemble TAP tests. In every math class, students spend 5 to 10 minutes completing math worksheets that contain problems like those found on standardized tests.

“The most significant initiative to improve reading is that everyone in the school reads those passages and discusses the readings,” says Breashears. “The real value is in the discussion— which allows students to analyze and understand.”

The school also is opening a reading lab where computers will be used to teach reading, especially to freshmen.

Teachers can assign homework more easily now, too. The purchase of new textbooks allows students to take books home for reading and homework assignments. In the past, teachers generally had to restrict lessons to completion in class, or spend a great deal of time duplicating worksheets for homework assignments. This practice continues, but not in core subjects.

Breashears complains that efforts to fortify students’ math performance have been deterred by the school’s lack of personnel. “I’ve found it difficult to free Deberah Perkins, our math coordinator, to work within the school and not keep her in class, where she is also needed.”

While the TAP tests do not measure writing skills, Robeson decided to bring back a writing consultant who proved effective in helping students achieve impressive gains last year in the writing section of the state IGAP test.

To raise attendance, Robeson is focusing largely on parents, both providing and requesting help. It recently hired 20 parents to serve as school aides, and it sponsors workshops for parents to obtain information about public aid, housing and employment. On report card pickup night, classrooms hosting workshops on these topics were full.

The school also is helping parents budget money for prom and graduation purchases. Teachers are being encouraged to attend sporting events and other extracurricular functions in order to build relationships with parents as well. Plans for the future include keeping the school open into the evening for community activities.

Best students often torn

First semester, Robeson also invited parents of its seniors and top freshmen to come to special meetings.

“Particularly the Scholar Freshmen, these are some of the best kids we have in terms of their academic performance, and they’re often the linchpin in the family,” says Breashears. “When something happens, they’re the ones who get called upon to straighten things out. We’re trying to catch these parents early and encourage them to support their children by providing a place and specific time to do homework.”

Turnout is “usually good” among specific parent interest groups, Breashears says, but local school council Chair Carolyn Omar insists that parent participation could be much better for the school overall. “I moved here from Westport, Mississippi,” she says. “First time I came to a meeting, I saw 10 people. In the South, if you don’t get there early, there’s no place to sit.”

Small schools

For the long run, Robeson is investing in the development of schools-within-a-school.

Before becoming principal, Breashears headed up Robeson’s Computer Graphics and Communications Academy, which provides a basic academic curriculum as well as classes in graphic design and opportunities to earn college credit from nearby Kennedy King College.

Attendance in the graphics academy is 94 percent, compared to 70 percent for the rest of the school, Breashears says, and proportionately fewer academy students drop out of the program and become pregnant.

“These kids have been given a mission,” the principal says. “When education is personalized, it makes a big difference with the students.”

Robeson has two other academies, one centered around ROTC and the other around students’ learning styles. Under the leadership of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, it is organizing others.

Every Monday, Workshop Director Mike Klonsky meets with teachers from the academies for planning and sharing ideas and experiences.

Commenting on a recent meeting concerning the structuring of the Freshman Academy, Camille Collins, a new biology teacher, says: “That workshop did set a foundation for us. It let teachers within the Freshman Academy see one another and put our ideas together. These meetings are a support. There were certain things that I needed for a division class, information about a book club. One teacher helped me get those materials.”

The school also has staff development meetings every Wednesday afternoon. In these meetings, teachers submit and consider ideas for improving the school as well as evaluate measures already in place. So far, most of the meetings have focused on improving students’ reading abilities, says Collins.

Robeson is an old hand at one of the reforms being pushed by the central administration: 100-minute classes.

“With the 100-minute periods, kids have more time to learn,” Omar says. She acknowledges they can get tired or bored, too. “But that’s only in the classrooms where the teachers have not prepared. You must be prepared for this. And you will know which ones aren’t because the students will complain.”

Despite the continuing problems at the school, Omar counts reconstitution as a step forward. “You’d think people here got old and tired,” she says. “A lot of them didn’t give a care what happened to these kids. If it’s to better the children, I think it [reconstitution] is OK.”