Suburban superintendent takes on CPS

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Allan Alson

Allan Alson

CPS has tapped Allan Alson, the highly regarded superintendent of Evanston Township High School, to oversee its high school transformation project. In 1999, Alson led the creation of a consortium of 15 school districts that were committed to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher spoke with Alson about what needs to be done to make Chicago’s public high schools better.

Talk a little bit about your job and your role in high school transformation.

The centerpiece is bringing new curriculum and assisting teachers to deliver that curriculum in ways that truly provide engaging opportunities for students. The idea is to motivate students to build their skills, to build their conceptual and analytical skills, to be excited about learning and to improve their ultimate opportunities for post-high school.

There are other elements to high school transformation. It includes building better bridges with 8th-grade. It includes credit recovery and dropout prevention. There are a lot of moving pieces, so part of my job, as I see it, is making sure all of those other pieces are in place as well.

Ground zero is looking at curriculum and instruction in 14 high schools.

That’s correct.

Within high school culture, we know there are things that have to happen.

It’s really an engaging set of activities that has kids excited about learning. Where kids feel like teachers know them, where teachers don’t give up on them, where schools have a pyramid of interventions to try when kids are struggling. It’s about counselors thinking right away when kids enter high school, what does the end game look like? If a kid dreams of college, what are the incremental steps, especially if they’re a first-time college-goer in their family. It’s also about using wonderful programs like AVID, which is used very successfully in Evanston. Kids don’t know how to do school, so they need study skills [and] organizational skills. They need to have their motivation set up for them.

There will be one coach approximately for every 15 teachers. I really see coaches as critical friends, people who in a non-supervisory, non-evaluative way could sit with you and the two of you really talk in a down and dirty way about [solving problems].

Who are these people going to be? How will the coaching work?

Finding high-quality coaches is not the easiest task and so we have to be vigilant and be willing to step in and take corrective action. Hiring is not a perfect science.

Schools have been asked to form leadership teams. The leadership teams will consist of principals, three lead teachers and one or two other important people that the principal designates. This is about their professional development, about learning to be better instructional leaders and what they need to do build distributed leadership.

Who is going to be doing those kinds of things and where are we going to find those people?

We will do a national search to find people who have demonstrated skills, whether they’ve been principals or assistant principals for curriculum and instruction or superintendents. We want the best people who understand urban environments, who understand secondary education, who understand the struggle moving increasing amounts of kids to complete high school and to succeed in college. Are they out there? I believe so. I’m going to supervise them.

You’ve got a lot of experience with minority achievement in high school. How does your experience inform your thinking about the high school transformation project?

I started my career in urban education. I worked in Philadelphia—where I grew up—as a math teacher in a [public] school that was 100 percent African-American and very poor. I taught in Boston and I’ve had an opportunity in Evanston. One prime area of research is about teacher-student relationships and the instructional strategies that teachers can employ to change life’s opportunities for kids.

We’ve worked with phenomenal researchers who have really helped expand my thinking. We had a couple of research grants on understanding the barriers of high achievement in mathematics for kids of color. The person who’s going to be the Chicago lead for math is someone who once taught for me in Evanston.

Oh, Rickey Murff? [Murff, previously with the district’s Office of Math and Science, has been hired by math curriculum provider Carnegie Learning to supervise their coaches.]

He was a wonderful teacher. The last piece is, adolescent literacy. I believe literacy touches all curricular areas—and I mean reading, writing, speaking, not just reading. I can bring to the table some ideas to insure that our curricular vendors pay attention [to] literacy. It’s obviously the foundational baseline.