WebExtra: Q&A with Martin Koldyke

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This fall, students who arrive at Sherman Elementary in New City will be greeted by a brand-new staff charged with transforming the failing school, where less than 20 percent of children were reading at or above national norms in 2005. Rather than shut down the school, CPS chose to re-staff Sherman and turn it over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which already operates three schools (Chicago Academy, Dodge Renaissance Academy and Chicago Academy High School). Academy founder and venture capitalist Martin Koldyke says the program’s graduates, who spend a year training in the classroom under a mentor teacher, are staying on the job at a time when many urban teachers quickly leave the classroom. Koldyke talked with Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin about Sherman’s revival, prospects for opening more Academy-run schools and the need to fix failing schools.

Will the approach of replacing staff be as successful as closing and then reopening a school?

Yes. The [results] will probably be the same in terms of student achievement. The good news is that you don’t have the agony and chaos that attends closing a school. Our kids at Sherman won’t have to go somewhere else for a year and then come back. But the trick is that you’ve got to be able to find a competent school leader, an assistant principal or two and [faculty] who are really capable and have some experience working in a disadvantaged school to come in and change the culture.

Is it more challenging to start up a school quickly without the lead time you had at Dodge?

Well, Lionel (Allen, the new principal) has been in place for six months, working very hard at recruiting a faculty. We’ve instituted incentive compensation for the lead teachers. They’ve been promised a stipend of $30,000, $10,000 each year for three years, to be part of the leadership team. We’ll have four teachers in each [grade] cluster, and one of the four will be a lead, master teacher.

How will you build relationships with people who are probably still upset about losing their former teachers and administrators?

The more active and vocal parents have been enormously enthusiastic. They have turned out at every opportunity to show their support for Lionel and the new team.

Initially, though, parents were upset.

That’s why we think this approach is good. If a school has a long record of failure, it seems to us that a good way to [change that] is to announce that the kids will stay and that the faculty will be rejuvenated.

What are the challenges related to starting the school so quickly?

You’ve got the physical plant [to renovate]. You’ve got the very topic that you mentioned, getting to know the community and building relationships with teachers. That can’t be done overnight

How did you go about recruiting teachers?

[We] had open houses and teachers came from all over the city, some from the suburbs, to meet Lionel and see what’s going on. He had a very good field from which to pick.

How did you go about selecting your principal?

We had our best people on the case. Donald Feinstein (the Academy’s executive director), and Madeleine Maraldi (Academy director of special projects) and others [were] interviewing prospective principals.

Do you think you’re going to see the same test score gains that you saw at Dodge?

I do, over time. You can’t be too impatient. It takes time when you have a failed school [where] the culture isn’t working particularly well.

How do you change the culture?

Well, we use buzzwords [like] “All children can learn.” If you talk to Lionel, he really believes it. It’s the way he lives his life, and he doesn’t want teachers in the school who don’t share his feeling. The few teachers I’ve met who are going into Sherman from Chicago Academy, for example, absolutely believe that. They won’t tolerate a culture of defeatism.

Are you concerned that CPS is not going to do as much to hold schools accountable because of recent test score increases?

No. Chicago kids are doing better but we know that there are still failed schools. Whether [through] a strategy where the kids stay and adults in the failed schools leave, or whether it’s the Academy or someone else [taking over], we need to see those schools rejuvenated.

Do you feel the Academy is having the impact you envisioned?

We think so. This is just about the right time for us to be asking that very question. The men and women that we’ve recruited and trained have completed three years in the schools. It’s very rewarding to see what’s happening at places like Dodge and, more importantly, the schools like Tarkington where we have more [teachers] employed.

Should the Academy take over the management of more schools?

We’d like to. We have a [proposal] that’s been submitted to CPS and the schools. We’ve asked for a teacher training high school and probably three elementary schools over the next three years.