Thanks for the nice activities, but you can keep the uniforms

Print More

“For years, I was the only person in the building after school,” says Roger Allen, a veteran music teacher who once ran Gage Park’s student council. “I would leave the building at three or four o’clock, and I’d be there with the janitors. Now, the building’s full of people at that hour.”

Since the start of the semester, Gage Park has been abuzz with new programs after school—everything from peer tutoring to weightlifting to arts and crafts—most of them courtesy of the School Reform Board. Allen now runs an after-school chorus and trains peer mediators.

Principal Audrey Donaldson says she loves the new board and the policies their managers are pursuing; the after-school programs are a visible example.

But that doesn’t mean that everything the board does works to Gage’s advantage. For example, new guidelines on state Chapter 1 spending prompted Gage Park to scale back a planned overnight retreat to a one-day event.

And initiatives don’t always go smoothly. The private property managers hired by the board have offered to help supervise school custodial workers for a price. Donaldson and Gage’s LSC welcomed the offer, only to see it put on hold.

Meanwhile, the school continues with its own initiatives, from a pair of additions to the attendance office staff—one of them a machine—to an after-school prep course for college entrance exams. With almost 80 students enrolled, the course is one of the most popular after-school offerings this spring.

JAN 19 Nice idea, lousy name Gage Park teacher Arlene Crandall likes the idea of a state-funded program the School Reform Board is offering Gage Park, but she hates the name. The idea: free after-school classes for kids who’ve flunked a course, so they can catch up and graduate on time. The name: The Hispanic Dropout Program. “That’s politically insensitive,” Crandall scoffs.

And if the name means what it says, if the classes are only for Latino kids, the program is downright discriminatory, in the view of LSC Chair Donna Koestner. Unless the program is open to students of all races and ethnic groups, no deal, says Koestner. Crandall suggests a name change for the Gage Park chapter, the At-Risk Student Intervention Program.

Both changes are OK by the folks at central office. For about the last 10 years, the Illinois State Board of Education has earmarked dropout prevention money for high schools serving Latino youth. But last year’s revisions to the Chicago School Reform Act folded Chicago’s share of the program into a block grant, which means that Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and the board can spend it about any way they want, including to balance the school system’s budget. But they didn’t do that; instead, they chose to spread the program among more schools, adding four to the 11 that participated last year.

Gage Park has to scramble to take advantage of the offer: Four classes, each serving 15 to 20 students, are supposed to be up and running in less than three weeks.

JAN 22 PhoneMaster arrives Martha Pirtle, who heads Gage Park’s attendance office, starts training a new colleague today—the PhoneMaster 2000 machine, which the school purchased with $6,446 in state Chapter 1 funds. Pirtle will spend a week entering the names, phone numbers and native languages of all of Gage Park’s 1,400 students into the machine’s memory. Next week, the PhoneMaster will start its daily rounds; from then on, the home of any student who is truant will automatically get a call that evening. (Also, a kid who shows up late to school will get a “wake up call” at 5:30 the next morning.)

“Good evening,” the machine says in Pirtle’s recorded voice. “This is Ms. Pirtle, the attendance counselor at Gage Park. We are calling to inform you that your child was not in school today.” The recording goes on to ask parents to call the attendance office to discuss the situation.

JAN 29 Truant officer, after-school programs debut The PhoneMaster makes its first calls today, but Pirtle can’t get it to make the printouts she wants. “We’re not as computer literate in this office as some folks around here,” she admits. Pirtle calls the vendor for some extra coaching; it’ll be another week before the machine is really doing its job.

Pirtle welcomes another new colleague today, this one a human being. Onlando Jones joins Gage Park as a teacher aide, but some of his duties are more like those of a truant officer. Twice a week, he’ll go out in search of kids who aren’t coming to school, just like truant officers did citywide until 1992, when the Board of Education cut their jobs to help balance the budget. Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas has said that he plans to give schools matching funds if they hire their own truant officers.

In two weeks, Vallas and his team will announce their intention to help schools hire parents to do “attendance” work beginning next September; the announcement is part of a sweeping plan that includes everything from expanding preschool programs to boosting vocational education. Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary Pamelyn Massarsky tells reporters that although the union supports most aspects of the plan, it still wants the laid-off truant officers rehired. Indeed, the union is still pursuing the matter in court.

After school, two new programs get rolling.

In Patricia Hubbard’s room, 17 student tutors arrive, pencils sharpened, for a training session. In a week, they’ll meet their charges, a group of freshmen. It’s the first day of a citywide program called “10,000 Tutors.” The citywide program is run by Sylvan Learning Systems, a for-profit business that several months ago started providing its own tutoring services in several Chicago schools, including Gage Park.

Hubbard, who administers the peer-tutoring at Gage Park, is impressed with Sylvan’s bean-counting accuracy. “These Sylvan people, they’re on it,” she says. “They tell you they’re going to send you a box of 50 pencils, and it’s not 51—it’s 50,” she says. But students don’t come in such neat packages, and Sylvan’s quota of 20 tutors and 40 freshmen won’t be met next week. But Hubbard is prepared; she’s already got several other kids lined up to take the places of students who become consistent no-shows.

The other new program, an after-school academy, takes place all over the school building. There are eight programs in the academy so far; any Gage Park student is welcome.

In the ROTC’s basement quarters, students can lift weights, take an aerobics class or learn how to pose, stand and walk like a model. (How do models walk? “The girls have to swish,” one student reports. The rules for guys are less clear.)

On the third floor, in an art room, students work on craft projects, using household supplies like string, yarn and buttons to make sculptures, brooches and chess sets. “We show them, usually, things you can do at home,” says teacher Helen Gryzbek. “The stuff is right there. All you have to do is look at it with a different eye.”

In the auditorium, a small group of friends starts working with a teacher to write their own skits, which they will put on videotape. “We’re hoping to set up a little monitor in the lunchroom,” says their advisor, English teacher Gerald Faulkner.

Students are welcome to stop by the school library to get homework help from teachers, to do research or just to play games on the library computers.

The program even includes a few paid jobs for students; a team of 12 cleans the school’s bathrooms three afternoons a week, and each student earns $5 an hour.

The School Reform Board fashioned after-school academies with savings from the playground supervisors it fired last August; Vallas says it is serving three times as many children as did the old playground program, which was limited to some 50 schools. Gage Park used part of its $42,000 to bus students home at 4:45.

Gage’s Sylvan-staffed tutoring center also is staying open after school now—at no extra cost to the school. Donaldson met a Sylvan executive at an out-of-town conference last week and asked for the extra hours; by the time she got back to town, the new hours were in effect. Center director Joyce Spight reports her staff already was staying after school to do administrative work; now they also leave their cabinets open so that students can use the materials.

FEB 5 The “thing” goes to work, LSC meets The PhoneMaster starts dialing today, and students quickly dub it the “Thing.” “As in, ‘That Thing called my house, and my mama pulled the covers off of me,'” says attendance counselor Pirtle. Or, when the machine makes evening calls, “‘That Thing called my house at 10:30 last night, and my mama thought that was kind of late—but she got on me anyway,'” Pirtle chuckles.

But tonight, attendance is a problem at the monthly LSC meeting; only five of the 11 members show up. (The council has one vacancy.) “No quorum. That means we can’t take action,” laments Principal Audrey Donaldson. “And I have a money action!”

Donaldson’s money action comes out of a meeting she had today with Gage Park’s property advisor from Ogden Services, the firm that the School Board, in one of its privatizing moves, assigned to meet the repair and maintenance needs of schools in Region 5. Donaldson is to get a certain sum to pay Ogden for repairs this year. When Donaldson requests a particular repair, Ogden will price the job and, if Donaldson approves the price, hire a subcontractor.

In today’s meeting, the advisor offered Donaldson some help doing something she and the council have long wanted to do: fire custodians who don’t perform up to par. For a fee, Ogden will retrain and supervise the school’s custodial staff. Ogden says it can document the process carefully enough to get custodians fired if they don’t meet expectations. Once evaluated by school engineers, custodians now are evaluated by principals.

Hence, Donaldson’s proposed money action: start paying the fee, which would be 2 percent of the salaries of the employees supervised, as soon as possible. A council member asks whether the new Employee Discipline Code doesn’t already give Donaldson the power to suspend custodians for various infractions.

Yes, says Donaldson, but that’s not the point. “The goal is not to see how many people I can suspend,” she explains. “That does not get the building cleaner. The goal is to have people working in this building who are interested in keeping it clean—and to purge our building of people who want jobs but who really don’t want to work.”

The council members present seem to agree, but action has to wait until the next meeting.

Another action is deferred for lack of a quorum: scaling back the school’s annual planning retreat from an overnight event to a one-day session. Instead of starting the retreat on a Friday evening and spending the night in a hotel, Donaldson proposes holding the first session at school during an upcoming in-service day for teachers. The second, longer session would be held Saturday at a suburban hotel, as originally planned. The total cost would be $1,800.

Donaldson believes that spending an extra $3,000 to put everyone up for a night would be a good investment. When teachers know each other better as people, she says, they work together more effectively as colleagues. “Last year, we did have the overnight retreat, and it was a wonderful experience,” she recalls.

But this year, Donaldson fears that School Board officials won’t allow an overnighter. Following a Chicago Sun-Times expose of alleged overspending on retreats, the board proposed a revision to state Chapter 1 spending guidelines that would ban overnight retreats; it subsequently backed down, requiring instead that they get central office go-ahead.

So far this year, only two schools have formally proposed overnight retreats, says John West, an aide to Vallas. Both were approved.

Toward the end of the evening, the council considers the question of uniforms. The board, at its last meeting, ordered every LSC to vote for or against a school uniform policy by April. Francisco Contreras, Gage Park’s student council president and a regular guest at LSC meetings, offers some advice. “There’s some downside to it,” he says. “First, everybody’s wearing the same thing, and then … some people get kinda musty.”

Donaldson is surprised to hear that. “I thought that everybody would just buy five white shirts and five pairs of black pants,” she says.

“Well, some kids will do that,” Frankie allows. “But some people, they’d rather buy a $120 pair of sneakers and only one white shirt…”

The council members decide they had better gather opinions from students and staff before they vote on the issue next month.

FEB 7 More after-school fun Yet another after-school program opens today: the At-Risk Intervention Program. There’s a math class, an English class and two social-studies classes that serve a total of 80 students. The classes meet two hours a day, three days a week; participants aren’t allowed more than two absences a semester.

One of the big selling points for parents was the offer of a bus ride home, says coordinator Arlene Crandall.

As for the kids, “Most of them are not happy about being here,” says Crandall, “but they realize that they can earn half a credit at no cost.” Without the program, she says, they would have to go to summer school or pay around $100 to a parochial school for similar after-school classes—and then they’d have to pay for books and transit as well.

FEB 22 A disciplinarian’s lament Alternative schools for disruptive youth opened weeks ago. Gage Park’s disciplinarian, James Gorecki, and Donaldson say they would like to enroll over a dozen students. But they haven’t referred anybody yet because the guidelines are so strict, says Gorecki. Only students who commit serious offenses—e.g. knifing someone, lighting fires, selling drugs—at least twice are eligible. Very few kids go that far, says Gorecki. Only four Gage Park students might qualify.

“We have students who have 10 or 15 misconducts this year, but they’re for things like foul language and disrespecting teachers,” says Gorecki. “We can’t service these kids, and to me, these are the kids who need the alternative environment because they make learning impossible for the other students.”

However, he says that since he notified the parents of the four kids on his short list, the kids have been “lying low. Lying real low. I haven’t seen them in this office.” A few days later, Gorecki refers two of the four to the alternative schools program.

Gorecki notes that, as disciplinarian, “I never meet the good kids.” But that’s begun to change since the new after-school programs started a few weeks ago. A former wrestling coach, Gorecki runs the weight-lifting program now, “and I meet kids who are so polite, so well-behaved. And I say, ‘Where have you been? Why haven’t I met you?’ And they say, ‘Well, I haven’t been in your office.’ I tell them, ‘Keep it that way.'”

Meanwhile, Patricia Hubbard says that about eight of the 40 freshmen who had signed up to receive peer-tutoring after school aren’t coming; so far, she’s recruited five others to take their places. “And we had a walk-in yesterday. I think she came in because she saw a boy that she’s interested in being tutored. That’s fine. She’ll get the benefit.”

Downstairs, in the professionally-staffed Sylvan tutoring center, a handful of students show up after school for extra work. Mostly, they’re freshmen who receive Sylvan services during the day, but the center gets a few older students too, and they’re very directed, says Sylvan teacher Kelly Jirous. “Some sophomores and juniors have come in and said, ‘I can’t read, and I’m going to graduate in a year or two. I want to learn to read by then.'”

FEB 28 Lining kids up for alternative schools Today, the guidelines for referring disruptive kids to alternative schools are loosened, according to Ron Beavers, who runs the program citywide. Students with lesser offenses may now be considered for placement. (See story.)

Meanwhile, attendance officer Martha Pirtle says that she’s having no trouble identifying kids for alternative schools for dropouts and chronic truants. She’s sending her first dozen referrals to the regional office today, and she expects to refer five more. These are kids who have missed at least 20 consecutive days of school and who have come in to discuss alternative-school placement with Pirtle.

“My biggest problem is getting parents to respond and come in for an interview,” she says. “I’ll call and find that the phone’s been disconnected.” When parents do come in, she says, many of them say a change might be good for their children.

Pirtle also is pleased with the early results of the PhoneMaster’s work. Attendance is up an average of roughly 1 percent a day over last February’s figures—bringing it to about 83 percent.

MAR 5 First kids shipped off to alternative schools The two students Gorecki referred to alternative schools for disruptive youth leave Gage Park today. One is headed to the Garfield Park Alternative School, the other to the Ada S. McKinley Alternative School. Gorecki had been worried that the referrals would be tied up for weeks or that they wouldn’t be approved at all. “They’ve made a believer out of me,” he says.

However, he is surprised to learn from a reporter a week later that students with lesser offenses are now eligible.

Meanwhile, it will be weeks before the truant students recommended for placement in alternative schools for dropouts are even interviewed by a region administrator.

MAR 6 IGAP: “the noose” This afternoon, Principal Donaldson spends an hour with the teachers who will administer the state IGAP tests to sophomores and juniors next week. The state testing program gets a great deal of attention at Gage Park. Since January, Wednesdays have been IGAP days, with every teacher preparing students for the tests. Every teacher also has been given a set of books called The IGAP Coach.

“I even do IGAP stuff in my French class,” says teacher Joan Callan. The test doesn’t cover foreign languages, but Callan says she spends time talking about guessing on answers and relaxing during the long, stressful exams. This Friday, students who will take the tests are scheduled to hear a motivational speaker; E. J. Bassette will encourage them to make positive choices in their lives, like deciding to exert effort on the IGAP.

Like other schools, Gage Park puts a heavy emphasis on the tests largely because the Illinois State Board of Education and Chicago’s School Reform Board view them as the most important measure of a school’s performance.

Last year, the state announced a “watch list” of schools with exceptionally low scores; the list was dominated by Chicago public schools, including Gage Park; the same holds for this school year. With new powers granted by the Legislature last May, the board selected 21 of its 126 watch-list schools for remediation, a process that brings extra help but also the possibility, down the road, of staff dismissals. Gage Park escapes the remediation list.

Social studies teacher Don Price describes the IGAP tests as “the noose that we face. If we don’t get ourselves off that list, we won’t be the group sitting here making decisions in three or four years.”

Fellow social studies teacher Susan Steinmiller tries to help her students put the IGAP in perspective. She explains how schools are funded in Illinois, with Chicago schools getting only half as much per student as some suburban high schools. “But then everybody’s supposed to be judged by this one test, the IGAP,” she says. By the time she’s done, she says, her students are good and angry.

Last year, Gage Park had uneven results in getting its students to “pass” the tests. The percentage of students who met or exceeded state goals in reading and math dropped. However, the percentage with acceptable scores in science and social studies increased dramatically.

Even after the tests are over next week, there will be one more IGAP-related event: Students who show up for every hour of the testing will be let out of their last two classes on March 26 to see a movie of their choice. They’ve already picked the flick. “Wouldn’t you know it,” Donaldson tells teachers. “They picked ‘Dumb and Dumber.'”

MAR 9 Planning retreat It’s Saturday, but by 9 a.m., 45 members of Gage Park’s staff and LSC (more than a third) have arrived at a conference room in a Holiday Inn in suburban Countryside. The group will work together until 4:30, with an hour set aside for lunch. No one is paid today, except the facilitators from Millenia Consulting.

The group looks back on last year, imagines what they want their school to be like three years from now and starts planning what they will do next year. LSC chair Donna Koestner marvels at the teamwork the group displays. “Before Mrs. Donaldson came, the school was a nightmare,” she says. Teachers had no say in planning, she explains; rather, the principal simply wrote a lengthy School Improvement Plan, which teachers never saw. “One teacher told me she never even knew that she had a budget,” says Koestner. “She never saw it. The principal just spent all her money for her.”

Donaldson takes a much less controlling approach, and it’s evident today. She stays on the sidelines, letting her staff do the talking and organizing.

After lunch, a teacher makes a 15-minute presentation on the Internet, showing his colleagues how easily they’ll be able to pull all kinds of material from the computer network once classrooms are wired next year.

Social studies teacher Greg Glab relates how working with special education teachers on “inclusion” techniques made his professional life easier. A special education teacher observed Glab’s class and gave him tips on how to help kids with certain learning disabilities show their knowledge on tests. “To my surprise, certain students who were getting borderline D’s and even failures would jump up to an A,” he says. Glab applied the tips to other classes and found that even discipline became easier, once students were given more ways to succeed.

Disciplinarian James Gorecki makes repeated pleas to his colleagues to modify the hallsweep program, where kids caught in the hall during classtime get sent to the discipline office. The program was intended to encourage students to get to class on time, but in some cases, it has had the opposite effect. Some students use it to avoid classes they dislike, Gorecki contends. And, a teacher adds, some teachers use it to exclude problem kids. “This is something we need to resolve on-site, in a meeting,” Donaldson notes.

During an afternoon work session, social studies teacher Steinmiller leaves her department’s table to work the room—she’s trying to get teachers in other departments to buy into a plan to change Gage Park’s daily schedule wholesale by instituting double-length classes across the board. Another teacher had proposed the idea earlier in the day, and it seems to have gone over well. Teachers agree to consider spending the next year creating block schedules for fall 1997.

It’s taken teachers a while to get comfortable working with each other, says Koestner. She credits not only Donaldson but also the Total Quality Management process the school has used for the last two years. After initial training from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and with ongoing coaching from consultants, teachers meet every few weeks in management teams to work on various school problems.

At the end of the day, the retreat facilitators ask everyone to spend a few minutes finishing three sentences about the retreat: (1) I liked … (2) I disliked … (3)

I wish …

People say they liked a lot of different things, including camaraderie, commitment, the informal setting, the chance to hear about what others are doing, the chance to be part of the planning process, and the way the facilitators let teachers do almost all of the presenting.

There are only a few dislikes. Donaldson says she dislikes the fact that it was not an overnight retreat.

The wishes are the most interesting: I wish we could have a parent retreat too. I wish we had more time to explore. I wish we could do this more than once a year. I wish that everything we’ve talked about could be implemented right now. I wish we could have an overnight retreat next year.

MAR 11 Property advisor in “hibernation” At tonight’s council meeting, members spend some time talking about next month’s LSC elections. So far, with two weeks left to sign up, Donna Koestner is the only parent in the race for six parent seats. Several organizations have received contracts from the board to recruit and train candidates, but none operates in Gage Park’s neighborhood.

Donaldson wonders aloud when the board will start working to get candidates to come out. “When are they going to make a big deal of this?” she asks. “We’re in the middle, and I haven’t heard a lot about this in the electronic media.”

“Maybe we should put something in the newspaper,” suggests Koestner, noting the council could allocate discretionary money for an advertisement.

“See, that’s a shame, that we should have to spend our money to do that,” says Donaldson. The school already has included recruitment notices in recent mailings. And when parents get mid-semester progress reports next week, the envelope will include still more information about the nomination and election process.

There are other loose ends. Ogden Service’s offer to help supervise—and perhaps fire—custodial staff is “on hold for now,” says Donaldson. Apparently, Ogden and board staffers have been sending out mixed signals on the proposed project, and Ogden has “gone into hibernation.”

Drew Becker, a financial manager in the Operations Department, says the School Board has encouraged the property advisors to hold off on the staff supervision proposal. Repair requests, some dating back to 1985, are the first priority, he says.

When the council takes up the question of school uniforms, almost everybody has something to say—against them. “I think we’d be creating additional headaches for ourselves,” says Donaldson. The student council has voted 23-2 against requiring uniforms, and 95 percent of students polled said they disliked the idea. Some classes have written group essays arguing against the proposal.

The council votes 8-1 against the requirement. Teacher representative Barbara Polasek casts the only dissenting vote, explaining that many teachers whom she polled favored uniforms and that she wants to reflect their wishes.

MAR 14 ACT prep, thanks to corporate sponsor It’s a slow day for Nadya Engler’s ACT-prep class. Only a couple of dozen students show up. Attendance is low partly because of the 60-degree weather outside and partly because many of the students have already finished today’s main assignment: filling out the registration forms to take the ACT in April. (The forms are due tomorrow.)

About 60 seniors took this after-school course last semester; this spring it’s open to juniors, too. The cost is paid by Gage Park’s corporate partner, the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. “We do a lot of work for the city, and we wanted to find a way to give back,” says Deloitte & Touche partner Michael Mayo. The mayor’s office suggested several schools to befriend, but Mayo says that Gage Park was an easy choice. He cites “the outstanding motivation and attitude on the part of Mrs. Donaldson and her staff.”

Pedro Rodriguez is one of several peer tutors who have cut back on their tutoring so they can attend the ACT-prep class. “I had two students, but I had to drop one,” he says. “We dropped the one that’s like lower, the one that’s like more acting like a clown.”

One of the 17 tutors who launched the program has dropped out entirely, and only 23 freshmen are showing up for help. Teacher Patricia Hubbard, who oversees the program at Gage, cut several who hadn’t attended regularly. “From what I understand, it’s going comparatively well here,” she says. “We don’t have the numbers that we want, but it’s coming along.”

Judging from Tava Hall’s experience, comings and goings are to be expected. Tava, a senior, says that one of her first two charges moved away. “Her replacement didn’t come today, and this is not the first time,” says Hall. Upon reflection, she says that the student may just be embarrassed by how little math she knows. “She does perfect on the reading, but with the math—no, no.” Hall hopes that when the girl comes back, they can get to the point where she is comfortable.

“It’s going pretty good,” says Hall. “I don’t think there’s been a program like this before, here, with students helping students.”

Verda Hall also thinks things are going pretty well at Gage Park. She works for Sylvan, coordinating the peer-tutoring programs in Region 5. “Gage Park is one of the best programs that we have,” she says, praising Hubbard to the skies. Hall and Hubbard have a plan to recruit more students into the program soon.

“I’ve got a real, real good bunch of tutors,” says Hubbard. She didn’t stay strictly within Sylvan’s guidelines in selecting them, either. “They wanted people with [grade-point averages of] 3 or better, but I said, ‘Those people are doing everything else already; we can’t get our force that way.’ I took on kids who were maybe at 2.6 or better.”

She’s almost surprised at how well her own strategy is paying off. “I’ve got one girl, and her attendance wasn’t quite there, but now she’s very loyal to her clients. And I think that little check means a lot to her.” The tutors are paid $4 an hour, up to $32 a week for their work.