Too much too soon is better than too little too late

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As a Chicago Teachers Union district supervisor, Gary Moriello led picket lines during every teachers’ strike from 1979 through 1986. Now as principal of Gladstone Elementary on the Near West Side, he’s still not one to shy away from confrontation.

“I question almost everything,” he says. “Let’s not be so hung up on rules. Let’s try to do what’s best for children.”

Nine years ago, Moriello became principal of Gladstone, a century-old school in a neighborhood that again was changing. Built in 1884, the school now stands in the last undeveloped parcel of the Illinois Medical District. Housing in the predominantly African-American neighborhood is slowly being torn down to make way for government buildings. Only some 60 percent of Gladstone’s 570 students come from the surrounding area. The rest are bused in for special programs or for overcrowding relief.

When Gladstone landed on the state’s academic watch list last year (due to low test scores), faculty agreed to try out some of the initiatives of the new school administration. For one, they bought into a Region 3 program that organizes teaching around standardized-test objectives.

This year, they also bought into—literally—Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ recommendation to extend the school day, cutting a successful reading program and two labs to pay for it.

While causing a few headaches, the new board policies and programs are moving in the right direction, says Moriello. Unlike previous administrations, where change came at a snail’s pace, “This one will probably do their erring on the other side, moving too hastily,” he points out, adding, “Most of us would prefer that.”

SEPT 9 A plea to Paul Vallas.

Principal Gary Moriello is getting anxious. Several weeks ago, he faxed a letter to CEO Vallas about a budget matter, and he needs an answer soon.

“Dear Mr. Vallas, HELP!” the letter began, “We need your assistance with what should be a purely technical matter, but apparently is too controversial for other Pershing Road employees to handle.”

Moriello wants to redirect $50,000 the board sent Gladstone for after-school tutoring and recreational programs; he would rather use the money to help pay for the extension of regular classes. Last spring, the board’s recreation department nixed this creative funding idea. Its objection: District computers are not geared up to pay teachers their regular hourly rate for work beyond the standard school day.

“Mr. Vallas, I refuse to believe that there is not one computer expert down at the board who could rework these numbers and make them available, as we would like to use them,” Moriello insists.

Gladstone launched the longer school day in September by reallocating about $200,000 in federal Title I and state Chapter 1 money. A science lab and a computer lab were closed. So, too, was the school’s Reading Recovery program, which features intensive staff training and one-on-one tutoring for kids.

“I fought, fought to get Reading Recovery in this building,” says Moriello, “Nevertheless, it only targets a small number of children. It wasn’t the most cost-effective program.”

Gladstone did participate in the board’s After-School Academy program last year, but the activities attracted only 58 percent of the students, mostly the better ones. The longer day—an idea Vallas is pushing—requires the attendance of all students, Moriello points out.

“One word from you is all it would take to get complete cooperation from anyone at the Board of Education,” he reminds the CEO. “Since we are trying to implement your idea, we hope you will see things as we do. “

If Vallas says no, Gladstone will have to get going on after-school programs.

SEPT 11 Victory at last.

Yesterday, Moriello left a message for Vallas’ chief of staff, Cozette Buckney. This morning she returns his call. After a brief discussion about the After-School Academy funds, she agrees to review Moriello’s letter to Vallas. “So I put it in the fax machine,” the principal reports, “and about an hour and a half later she called up. ‘OK, you got it.’ ”

A couple days later, Moriello is bouncing on his heels outside the main office, still grinning over his triumph. “A lot of people didn’t think I would ever win this particular battle, so I’m thrilled. … It’s just getting through to the right people.”

With $50,000 freed up, Gladstone now will be able to pay its parent volunteers for the entire school year, re-open a teacher aide position and order some sorely needed instructional materials— the school has been able to purchase only about 80 percent of what teachers requested this year. The following week, Gladstone’s local school council (LSC) approves these spending plans.

SEPT 12 Surprise mandates from central office.

Bonnie Glassner, Gladstone’s curriculum facilitator, goes to a meeting at the Region 3 office this afternoon and is handed a draft of the board’s new “Chicago Academic Standards.” The standards list specific goals for core subjects at every grade level and are based on new Illinois state goals, also still in draft form.

Glassner had seen a copy of the standards last spring but thought they would be distributed only for comment during the current school year. Not so. Teachers are to implement the draft standards immediately. “Everybody in that room was surprised,” she reports later.

The new standards are designed not simply to meet—but, rather, to exceed—the state’s learning goals, says Andrea Kerr, the board’s director of curriculum and instruction. Several meetings are planned in each region between now and February to gather teacher feedback before the board releases a final version in early spring.

“We want to get input from everyone who’s going to use them,” says Kerr, noting that immediate implementation of these standards is a “non-negotiable” issue.

Principal Moriello doesn’t intend to negotiate the point either—Gladstone will not try out the new math and reading standards this year. Glassner and three other staff members spent the entire summer planning a math and reading curriculum around the old state and city goals. Their effort was part of the Region 3 Achievement Structure (dubbed “R3AS”), another board initiative Gladstone signed onto last spring.

Furthermore, Gladstone paid Kinney and Associates, an educational consulting firm, $8,000 to match reading and math textbook pages with both the old goals and standardized-test objectives.

Moriello has also rejected another board initiative discussed at Glassner’s meeting—lesson plan books. The books—also in draft form—are recommended as a guide for planning structured lessons. Glassner’s team worked on lesson plans for R3AS that contain the same information but in a different format. So when a box of the board’s books showed up at the Gladstone office, Moriello passed it on to his wife, principal of Goethe Elementary. Her box was 20 copies short.

Gladstone will try out the draft standards for science, social studies and writing, though. Glassner has notified teachers to hold off on lesson plans for these subjects until she explains the new standards at a faculty meeting on the 27th. “The teachers are going to have to play catch up,” she notes.

Despite the short notice, Glassner appreciates the board’s new standards, which are more specific than the old ones and will help her give clearer directions to teachers. Some won’t like the board’s directions, she suspects. She plans to brush off any complaints with the reminder, “This isn’t coming from me. It’s not Bonnie; it’s the board.”

SEPT 13 Principal Moriello chooses his next battle.

Most of the time, Moriello’s office door is open wide. Staff pop in and out with questions or to grab a soda from his refrigerator. But late Friday mornings, he shuts himself in to hammer out Glad News, a weekly newsletter.

The two-page newsletter goes out to Gladstone parents, a handful of reporters, board officials, friends of the school, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Gov. Jim Edgar, Moriello’s mother and his barber, who sends coloring books to the school at Christmas time.

Most of this week’s news is routine: a postponed dental screening, a new 3rd-grade teacher. But one article is designed to grab the attention of central office.

Last spring, Moriello received a memo from the board listing Gladstone as one of over 100 schools that would be closed during the summer for repair, one stage in a five-year, $806 million Capital Improvement Plan for city schools. With a few calls to the board and Region 3’s property managers, Moriello learned that work at Gladstone would include new windows, boiler repair and lead and asbestos abatement.

To make way for the repairs, a special education summer school had been moved to Skinner Elementary; a summer social center, to a field house out back.

“Then we waited for the work to begin,” Glad News reports. “And waited. And waited. Finally the boiler work was begun but not finished, and some architects came out to look at our windows. And that was it!”

The lead and asbestos problems particularly trouble Moriello, and he has been unable to get a reason for the delays. “Are the children, the teachers and the parents safe?” he writes. “I truly do not know. Will this work ever be done? Again, I do not know.”

One of Gladstone’s building engineers, Eric Soraghan, shares the principal’s concern. Down in the boiler room, he explains how a red steam engine (circa 1925) drives a paddle fan that blows air across heating coils and up to the classrooms. Within 10 feet of the fan, asbestos covering on some overhead steam pipes is peeling.

“It’s airborne, no doubt about it,” he says.

Outside the lunchroom, Soraghan points to lead paint hanging in strips from the ceiling and more asbestos peeling from an overhead pipe.

In Glad News, Moriello refers to a recent report identifying asbestos in 16 areas of the school’s two buildings. “I do not mean to cause trouble for anyone, but I do wish to call attention to this situation,” he concludes. “… We shall see.”

SEPT 19 Raising “a little hell” gets results.

At 9:40 a.m., Principal Moriello emerges from his office. “That was Ben on the phone,” he announces, meaning Ben Reyes, the school system’s chief operating officer. “Now he’s reading Glad News. He wants to know, ‘What’s this report?’ ”

The report comes from the Illinois Department of Public Health; every school has one. “I’m going to have somebody copy it for him,” Moriello decides. “Every page. And have it hand delivered tomorrow. Why not?”

Later in the morning, he beckons teacher assistant JoAnn Williams to follow him into his office. “You see this huge thing here.” He lifts the four-pound report from his desk with both hands. “I want two copies.”

“The whole book?” asks Williams, eyeing it doubtfully.

“The whole blessed book.”

The next morning Moriello gets a chance to hand deliver the copies himself. He has been summoned to Pershing Road for a meeting with Blondean Davis, deputy chief education officer. Mr. Vallas, she indicates, is not happy with Glad News.

During a 90-minute meeting, the incident is smoothed over, with Davis speaking for Vallas. Gladstone was indeed on an earlier list for summer repairs but hadn’t made a pared-down list distributed in May, Moriello learns. The principal shares a draft of the next Glad News, which Davis carries upstairs to Vallas for a few red-pen corrections.

Moriello agrees to clear up any misunderstandings about his motivation for reporting on the lead and asbestos problems. His final draft reads: “Unfortunately last week’s column was interpreted as an attack on the current administration of the Chicago Public Schools, which was certainly not the intent.”

“We are not being ignored,” he assures his readers. The school chiefs have given their word to finish boiler repairs within the month, new windows and shades within the school year, and an expert review of Gladstone’s asbestos and lead paint reports.

Meanwhile, Moriello hopes that “maybe the squeaky wheel will indeed get the grease” and Gladstone will land on next summer’s repair list.

“I guess I inadvertently ruffled a few feathers and raised a little hell,” he says. “But I survived it. And hopefully it will do good things for my school.”

SEPT 20 Homework hits the weekend.

On the first day of school, Gladstone teachers handed out assignment books to every child in 3rd through 8th grade. Embossed with the school insignia, the books are part of an effort to enforce the board’s new homework policy.

The new policy made headlines last spring, although it differs little from one in place since 1986. At elementary schools, daily homework time still ranges from 15 minutes for kindergartners to 90 minutes for 8th-graders.

Gladstone teachers have always assigned homework, Moriello notes, but haven’t always pressured students to record assignments and complete them. This year is different.

Fifteen minutes before today’s final bell, 8th-grade teacher Debbie Hornof calls one group of students at a time to line up beside a table where she checks their assignment books.

One boy has neglected to record part of the social studies assignment; she enters it in red pen. Next he hands her a green homework folder; it’s empty. Hornof flops her arms on the table and shoots him a look that clearly inquires, “What could be missing here?”

“I put it in my regular folder,” he tells her.

“It belongs in here.”

The next girl in line has forgotten the questions on page 49, Hornof notes. The next is missing her assignment book all together.

“It’s on the bus with my bookbag,” she explains.

“Where are your assignments?”

The girl looks baffled. “What assignments?”

“The ones due Monday. You need to write them down.”

“But I don’t know …”

“That’s why you have an assignment book.” Hornof sends her to copy page numbers from another student.

In previous years, Hornof assigned only 30 minutes a day and none over the weekend. Even so, students completed only 40 percent of the work, she estimates. Now, with three times as much homework, the class completes about 95 percent on time. Requiring parent signatures on homework, part of the board’s new policy, is one reason for the higher compliance rate, she says. The longer school day has also given her time to make sure students know what they’re supposed to do.

As an extra reminder, the principal and assistant principal perform a random check for assignment books. At the 3 o’clock bell, Moriello is stationed by a staircase where 5th- to 8th-graders stream toward the east exit. When he catches one 6th-grade girl by the arm, she rolls her eyes and smiles shyly.

“Where’s your book?” Moriello grins at her, clearly enjoying himself. She unzips her book bag, and he peeks inside. “Good!”

Initially, teachers were concerned that kids wouldn’t remember to bring the books back each morning. So on the first day of school, Moriello visited each classroom to impress upon them the crucial nature of this responsibility.

“I told the kids, ‘How many of you came to school last year without your pants on? You wouldn’t leave home without your pants on, don’t leave home without the book.’ “

SEPT 30 Well, at least you’re not on probation.

Today, Principal Moriello gets a call from Bob Deckinga in the Office of Accountability. “I’ve got some good news for you,” he says. “You’re not on probation.”

Instead, Gladstone has landed on the board’s remediation list. The news doesn’t surprise Moriello—a friend at the board tipped him off about the criteria at a meeting last week. Schools with only 15 percent to 25 percent of their students scoring at or above national norms in reading were candidates for remediation; those with less than 15 percent were headed for probation. Gladstone’s score came in at 16.7 percent. (For an update on probation, see Probation partners vow to work on whole school.)

Earlier, Moriello had thought his school was in the clear. After the board notified him last year that Gladstone was on the state’s watch list for schools with low scores on the state IGAP tests, he received no further assistance. “That was it for my intervention, a phone call. Not a team, nothing, nada.”

The Office of Accountability had time, staff and money to visit only 110 of the 127 watch-list schools, according to Intervention Director Phil Hansen. The office essentially gave a pass to the highest scoring schools in the lot, inviting them to workshops such as those that some Gladstone staff attended on the Region 3 Achievement Structure.

Hansen’s remediation team is to start its rounds in mid-November, once the probation schools are settled. Gladstone then may select an outside partner, with the board picking up the full tab this year and half the tab in subsequent years.

Meanwhile at Gladstone, most teachers are none too concerned about their remediation status, which went public two days after the courtesy call from central office.

“You know, I read it in the newspaper,” says 4th-grade teacher Vicky Tomko. “It doesn’t really mean anything. Last year there was this constant threat that somebody was going to show up from the Office of Accountability. It never happened.”

Many at Gladstone say they would welcome the intervention team, though they doubt it will have much to offer. Tomko sums up the general feeling: “That would be great if somebody came in and said we have this magic potion, and this is what you need to do, and all your kids are going to learn, and your school won’t be flaking lead paint all over, and the bathrooms won’t smell. Great! Come on.”

OCT 4 Thumbs up for business intern, attendance and lunch.

Friday tends to be a casual day at Gladstone; students don’t have to wear their uniforms (navy bottoms and yellow tops), and most teachers dress down, with some in blue jeans. But Dean Blair, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sports a tie.

During the last school year, the Office of Accountability trained Blair and 64 other business graduate students to handle internal accounts and other school business matters. Working full time in schools, these “interns” freed principals from time-consuming paperwork to concentrate on instruction, and the board paid their salaries.

This year, the accountability office expects to train an additional 50 interns to assist elementary schools on probation. In a separate program, the CEO’s office is hiring business managers for high schools on probation.

Blair was the first recruit sent to Gladstone for an interview, but Moriello snatched him up. Principals have their choice of interns and may ask for a replacement at any time, although that seems unlikely in this case. “It’s manna sent from heaven—Dean,” says Moriello. “He’s self-starting, easy-going. He saves us tons of time.”

On Blair’s agenda this week: figuring out the board’s computerized attendance system, which took several hours. This morning, he sits down to train attendance monitor Sherman Hallom, a parent volunteer, who will enter information on today’s absentees.

After 45 minutes of coaching, Hallom is entering codes and scrolling to the correct blanks without prompting. “You’re on the ball, sir,” Blair remarks.

The computerized attendance system was expanded this year from high schools to elementary schools as part of a $6 million anti-truancy plan announced last week. Previously, attendance rates at elementary schools were calculated monthly; now anyone at central office can access those rates instantly and pinpoint trends.

“If [schools] know you’re keeping track of what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, they’re going to do a better job,” tracking and improving attendance, says Ronald Beavers, director of truancy prevention.

Gladstone already has stepped up its attendance-monitoring efforts. Post cards are sent out when parents of absent children cannot be reached by phone. Moriello estimates that a third of Gladstone parents don’t even own telephones, and many others have been disconnected.

Systemwide, anti-truancy efforts already are showing results, with last month’s attendance reaching 94.13 percent, the highest for September in at least 5 years, according to Beavers. With state aide tied in part to attendance, Chicago could realize substantial financial gains if it raised its rate on a sustained basis.

Meanwhile, down in the lunchroom, staff are dishing up yet another board initiative. To improve cafeteria food and worker training, the board contracted with two private firms in September to take over lunchroom operations at 190 schools. Plans are in place to add another 120 schools in January. Employees from the two companies will replace board workers as they resign or retire.

Gladstone Lunchroom Manager Emma Leachman, a board employee, finds the school’s food service company, Aramark, gives students higher quality food and more choices, too—three entrees instead of one. Today’s are chicken nuggets, hamburgers or peanut butter bars. Burgers appear to be the top choice.

Students are happier with the food this year, she says, “And if kids love it, you know it’s got to be OK.” In fact, student meal participation is up 50 percent this year for lunch and 100 percent for breakfast. She’s pleased with the increase, but to handle it, she says the lunchroom staff desperately needs another worker.

OCT 8 LSC members slow to show for mandatory training.

Gladstone’s LSC meets this morning for training mandated under a new state law. The law requires council members to complete six two-hour lessons on specific topics plus six additional hours on any school improvement issue.

Today’s session covers lessons five and six, reading the budget and evaluating the principal. At session’s end, trainer Lyndon Whitlock, a volunteer with Executive Service Corp., worries about two members who’ve missed all six lessons. Only four of the 11 council members are completely up to date. By law, members must complete the training by Jan. 1 or forfeit their seats.

Later, Whitlock reports that the Gladstone attendance is fairly typical. “I think a lot of people aren’t going to be trained by January 1st.”

Staff in the board’s School and Community Relations Office say they’re not eager to lay down the law, as many LSCs had trouble recruiting members in the first place.

In an all-out effort to keep councils intact, the board is offering marathon make-up sessions at central office— from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every Tuesday in November. In-the-field trainers, drawn largely from civic and school reform organizations, are being encouraged to offer weekend make-up sessions, and a training session or two may be available via cable TV in December.

OCT 11 Teachers rankled by residency push.

The Chicago Sun Times reports a Reform Board partnership with banks to offer low-interest loans to employees who want to become city homeowners. The administration acknowledges the pilot program is aimed in part at enticing the system’s some 10,000 employees who live in the suburbs (roughly a fourth of total staff) to move into the city.

Last spring, the board announced a crackdown on its teacher residency requirement—a big issue for Mayor Richard M. Daley—but it has had a hard time cracking down. The requirement was adopted in 1980 but never strictly enforced. Last spring, the board sent a survey to the 4,400 employees hired since 1980 who are now living in the suburbs. The survey asked whether they had received waivers and for what reasons.

One Gladstone teacher says a former principal granted her a verbal waiver when she married but that the principal is no longer employed by the board. She decided not to respond to the survey. If they follow up, she says: “I never received it. What letter?”

Other teachers know of public school colleagues who have moved to the suburbs but are using their old city addresses.

The Chicago Teachers Union opposes the requirement and fought it “from the get-go,” says spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “We don’t think where you live affects how you do your job.” The policy is unfair, she adds, as principals are exempt. “If the bosses don’t have to live in the city, why do the employees?”

Confusion over the waivers will make enforcement tough for the board, she thinks. “They realize what a quandary they’re in.”

So far, enforcement has targeted new teachers, according to Leonard Dominguez, the board’s policy director, and no decisions have been made on what to do with information from last spring’s survey.

In a little more than a month, the School Reform Board will adopt a revised policy that requires all new employees, including principals, to live in the city.

Dominguez dismisses a rumor that board inspectors are following teachers home to verify their addresses. Gallagher concurs, calling it an urban legend, “like that one about the dog that’s really an Australian rat.”

As for the board’s mortgage carrot, Gladstone teachers are unimpressed. One who is looking for her first home feels she can get a better deal elsewhere. Two who recently bought homes in the suburbs say they can’t afford to move. Those long since settled outside Chicago intend to stay put.

Some who are ducking the residency requirement say that if the board’s push comes to shove, they’ll quit. “My husband wouldn’t live in the city if you gave him 10 million dollars,” says one.

OCT 14 Hugo’s Cleaning Service takes the day off.

Columbus Day is usually a time for the Gladstone custodial crew to get some heavy cleaning done and spruce up the grounds before snow season.

But on Friday, Building Engineer Eric Soraghan discovered that three workers from Hugo’s Cleaning Service, Gladstone’s maintenance firm, are getting the day off. Soraghan and Principal Moriello figure the inconvenience is a small price to pay for the improved service Hugo’s has brought to Gladstone. When the board gave schools the option of going private with maintenance this year, Gladstone didn’t think twice.

“Why? We weren’t clean,” says Moriello. “It was as simple as that.”

The board expects to save an estimated 20 percent through privatization, which will go toward expanding the custodial staff, says operations chief Reyes. Eventually, he hopes, several thousand parents will be hired as maintenance workers in their neighborhood schools.

At Gladstone, the arrangement is working with only a few snags, Moriello and Soraghan say. All of the Hugo workers hired in August proved unsatisfactory, but they were easy to remove. “Unlike board employees where it can take forever and a day, I can just say, get rid of him. Done, gone. Just like that,” says Moriello.

Two of the three new workers are “outstanding,” Soraghan adds.

OCT 17 Disappearing dollars.

Following this month’s LSC meeting, mandatory training continues. The required lessons are done, and the six training hours left will be spent on issues specific to Gladstone.

This morning Principal Moriello and business intern Dean Blair take an hour or so to help the council understand an interesting development in the school budget. A few weeks ago, they turned on the computer and discovered $90,000 missing.

Blair passes around copies of the budget while Moriello explains the situation. A balanced budget was approved last May and left untouched over the summer. Now a huge negative balance appears in the school’s discretionary funds. “Dean? What’d you do?” He swivels around to give Blair a hard look while council members laugh.

“When’s your plane leave?” LSC trainer Lyndon Whitlock ribs him.

Even though the numbers are problematic, Moriello uses them to kick off a lesson on reading the budget. After a while, one council member wonders aloud whether anything like this has happened before.

“It’s not unusual,” Moriello remarks. “Funds appear one day, and they disappear the next. This summer, they doubled certain budgets just overnight. I said ‘spend it quick!’ “

He advises the council not to worry too much. Blair has scheduled a meeting with the regional office to discuss the matter. In any case, Blair notes, one board budget analyst has already advised him on a policy for handling inexplicable negative balances: “Give it a day, give it a week, and see if it goes away.”

“It does work sometimes,” he agrees. “I can vouch for that.”

Meanwhile, more money showed up in the school budget last week, enriching the capital development fund by $457,000.

“We think that’s to pay for our new windows,” Moriello says. “They don’t call. They don’t write. They just pop the money down there.”

Interviewed later, LSC Secretary Lillie Hallom, a community representative, says simply, “It’s just strange. Money disappearing and reappearing. I guess it’s something you kind of have to get used to.”

Still, she’s found the training sessions very helpful. “Without them, LSC meetings would have been like the blind leading the blind,” she says. “We would have just been sitting there going, ‘What should I do now?’ Our trainings are wonderful.”

OCT 25 Promotion policy questioned.

School ends early today for a faculty workshop. Beforehand, Principal Moriello calls a brief staff meeting to discuss issues related to the board’s new promotion policy, over which there’s some confusion.

Moriello and Counselor Susan Lopez agree that the policy the board sent to schools needs clarification. For example, are chronic truants sent to summer school or retained automatically? Does the policy apply for all grades or just the three where summer school is required for students with poor test scores or attendance (3rd, 6th and 8th)?

And 7th-grade teacher Paul Persenaire wonders about kids’ reaction: “If you’ve been out 20 days already come January, and you’re in 7th grade, why would you come back?” One of his students is almost there, he notes, and others are well on their way.

“I’ve faxed some questions over to the regional office,” Moriello tells the staff. “A whole page.”

Next week, he speaks with Regional Officer Hazel Steward at a principals’ meeting. She, too, is waiting for answers to these questions.

Meanwhile, central office is working on a booklet for distribution in mid-December that will clarify the policy’s details, according to Blondean Davis, deputy chief education officer.

Among other points, the booklet will note that 20 days of unexcused absences send students to summer school automatically if and only if they are in grades 3, 6, 8 or 9 and they score below national math and reading norms. For other grades, summer school referrals and retention are at the school’s discretion.

The booklet also will pose scenarios in an easy-to-read question-and-answer format; for example, “Can my child march in the graduation ceremony in June if he doesn’t pass?”

“The answer is no,” says Davis.

NOV 13 Parents give high marks to some new board policies.

Today is report card pickup day. At a table outside the main office, Gladstone parents also pick up a letter from CEO Paul Vallas. The letter explains the board’s new promotion policy, which parents appear to welcome.

Many think that retaining kids with low skills in elementary school will give them more success and confidence by the time they reach the upper grades. “That’s what makes some kids drop out of school, because they can’t do the work,” says Sharon Lee, parent of a 1st-grader and a high school student.

A new policy that requires parent signatures on homework also gets high marks. “Keep that on. I love it,” says parent Annie Williams. “Some people don’t even ask their kids if they have homework.”

Other board initiatives left less of an impression. Chicago Educator, a bi-weekly board newsletter that has gone to employees since September, now goes monthly to parents as well. Gladstone sent the first parent issue home with students a week ago; the issue stressed the benefits of attending report card pick up day, explained report card grading policies, and featured successful programs at various schools. Most Gladstone parents said they hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, but those who did liked the extra information.

None who talked with Catalyst recalled the board’s parent self-evaluation form, sent home in September, which asked parents to grade themselves on how often they helped with homework, visited the school and made other efforts to support their children’s learning.

The board’s new Chicago Academic Standards, which list learning goals for each grade level, also went home for parent input, but only one of a dozen parents interviewed recalled reading them. “It was kind of general,” says José Lopez, who has children in four grades at Gladstone. “It was hard to understand. It didn’t tell me much.”