South Chicago: Bowen’s small schools come full circle

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Chicago Discovery Academy at Bowen

Photo by John Booz

Chicago Discovery Academy at Bowen

When the first wave of school reform came to Chicago in 1990, Bowen High School quickly became a pioneer in the small schools movement, creating a school-within-a-school for students who were interested in becoming teachers.

Eventually, more small schools were launched and began flourishing, only to fall victim to top-down reforms. But through the efforts of community and school leaders, small schools have returned to Bowen: BEST (Bowen Environmental Studies Team), Chicago Discovery Academy, Global Visions Academy and the New Millennium School of Health.

So far, the schools appear to be making strides. Principals say staff members have more opportunity to develop relationships with their students, and performance indicators are, for the most part, better than those for Bowen’s general program.

“I can stand in the hallway and see all [the students] and I know their names,” says JoAnn Thomas-Woods, BEST’s principal.

Although still below-par, dropout rates are lower and attendance rates and test scores are higher in the small schools. Scores on the PLAN and EXPLORE tests (precursors to the ACT, which is included in the Prairie State Exam for juniors) and course failure rates also need to improve, says Ernestine Key, program associate for the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative.

“Freshmen who fail two or more classes are not on track to graduate. We want no failures,” Key says.

This year, the small schools are facing the potential loss of staff due to budget cuts, which principals fear will hinder further improvement. And the loss of Bowen’s general program, whose principal served as campus manager, could mean added administrative duties for the small schools principals. [Bowen’s general program will graduate its last class of seniors this June.]

“We will not be able to offer some of our electives,” says Lynne Nuzzo, principal of Chicago Discovery. “I’m a little worried about that.”

“Classes were supposed to be small,” says Alice Hale, a community member on the advisory board at BEST. “If the schools lose staff, they will be just like the classes at a larger high school. Then how do you work with these kids? I know our principal needs a teacher and she may lose a teacher. Schools are going to lose their identity.”

“Because they already have fewer people, it will be difficult,” says Cynthia Barron, the area instructional officer for small schools. “It is tough for everybody.”

One small school, then eight

In 1992, social studies teacher Joann Podkul jumped at the chance to start a school-within-a-school: a teachers’ academy that ended up enrolling about 60 kids.

“Students would get personalized attention. Our teachers could steer students to opportunities that would fit their interests and needs,” says Podkul. Once the academy got off the ground, students began making academic progress, she recalls.

But Bowen as a whole was not performing well and in 1996 was placed on academic probation. Inspired by the success of the teacher’s academy, the LSC decided to adopt small schools school-wide and chose the Small Schools Workshop as its external partner.

“We knew that CPS was desecrating the vocational programs that our kids were interested in and would have helped them in the job market,” such as the auto shop, says Neil Bosanko, a longtime Bowen LSC member and the executive director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. “So we looked to how we could fit in themes that our kids would want.”

The school created seven additional teacher-led small schools: visual and performing arts, travel and tourism, arts and technology, languages, architecture, a scholars program for high-performing students and a culinary program for special education students.

Gradually, Bowen’s picture brightened. The school got off probation in 1999.

‘A screeching halt’

But then, test scores in reading fell, which the district considered a red flag. In 2000, Bowen and four other high schools were selected for intervention, under intervention, the district sent in teams of educators to guide improvements.

Central office didn’t consider the overall picture, Bosanko says. “The improvements were noticeable. Attendance improved. Class failures and truancy were reduced. There were gains in every area but the one that they were [looking at], reading scores.”

“Everything came to a screeching halt,” Podkul recalls.

Bowen lost 35 teachers, who chose to retire rather than work in an intervention school.

“They quit en masse,” recalls Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop. “It was horrible. I remember 17 of them approached me directly. These were the best, and most of them went to small charter schools or the suburbs.”

Gang violence flared up again, Klonsky adds.

“Small schools almost wiped out violence completely,” he says. “The school became peaceful. There was a major reduction in arrests and suspensions. Then, it was right back to the way it was before.”

The intervention team visited the small schools, Podkul recalls, but didn’t know what to do with them because central office had no small schools office and district leaders, at the time, had not embraced the concept. Only the architecture and travel and tourism schools survived.

Another try

Two years later, new CEO Arne Duncan scrapped intervention, deeming it a failure.

Bowen’s LSC decided to take another look at small schools. When Bosanko went to central office, he met Jeanne Nowaczewski, the new small schools director, who told him that CPS would soon be requesting proposals from high schools interested in breaking up into small schools under the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative.

Bowen jumped into action, says Bosanko. The LSC surveyed students at elementary feeder schools to see what subjects they were interested in and held meetings with Bowen teachers, who broke themselves up into four small teacher-led schools. Chicago Discovery, with a focus on fine arts and architecture, and BEST opened in 2002. Global Visions, with a focus on technology, opened the following year. The New Millennium School of Health opened in 2004.

But building-sharing emerged as a prime concern, especially since Bowen has only one gym, lunchroom and library.

“We had some feverish arguments as to how we were going to split things up,” recalls Podkul, who is now retired. “But we knew each other. We’d worked together. We were not new to our jobs. We didn’t get to a point where we were not talking to each other.”

Joan Shaughnessy, a consultant at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory who works with high schools that want to restructure into small schools, agrees that logistics can be difficult. And small schools require kids to give up the “shared-school culture” that includes pep rallies, team mascots, sports teams and the other trappings of the typical high school life.

“You lose that when you have multiple schools under one roof,” Shaughnessy says. “But if you want to prepare students for life after high school, it is better to be part of an autonomous small school that is more personalized.”

Another setback

In 2004, central office administrators told lead teachers that the small schools had to be led by principals with full credentials. While the lead teachers were handling hiring, budgets and other administrative work, none met the board’s entire list of requirements.

The board’s decision did not sit well with the teachers or with some parents. “It was just unfair,” says Hale.

However, Key notes that CPS always intended to have the small schools led by fully certified principals. In Bowen’s case, she says, “maybe [that] was not clearly communicated.”

The principals were selected by community stakeholders, including parents from the advisory councils, other parents, faculty members and other community residents. Arne Duncan gave final approval to the group’s selections.

“We work well together,” says Nuzzo at Chicago Discovery Academy. “But if I decide to do something on the spur of the moment, we have to talk to each other first. We’ve gotten better at it, but sometimes we forget.”

Next year, Bowen may get a campus manager, possibly a retired principal, to handle the day-to-day operations of the building. And Barron says her office is considering whether to move to per-pupil budgeting. “We are looking at what would work to their advantage,” she says.

“The resources that set us apart and help us give our kids extra attention are being taken away,” says Bosanko, who favors a school-within-a-school setup to save costs. “We need to revisit what small schools were designed to do and find the resources to make that happen. If we don’t have the extra money to do this, then can we really afford to have four separate autonomous structures in the building?”