Teamwork drives up scores at Marsh

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Marsh Elementary

Photo by Jason Reblando

Marsh Elementary

When Marsh’s local school council hired Gerald Dugan as principal in 1990, his reputation as a skilled administrator and his Spanish-speaking ability were key selling points.

The South Deering school served a Mexican immigrant community, but only one previous principal, who stayed just a short time, spoke the language. Dugan, then a district administrator, had the right credentials and impressed the search committee, recalls teacher Judith Mims, who was on the LSC.

Teacher Leatha Brooks, who was also acting assistant principal, was itching to take a firmer hand with discipline. Brooks says she “had a gut feeling” Dugan was the right choice to support her efforts without micromanaging.

Tougher discipline was sorely needed, teachers recall. Chaos reigned at Marsh: Kids tossed eggs at the school’s brick walls, tagged the doors with gang graffiti, threw paint from the windows onto teachers’ cars in the parking lot and set off firecrackers in classrooms. Children dubbed the school “Harsh Marsh.”

“My first year here, I was going to write a book,” says teacher Linda Ostoich, who arrived at Marsh in 1988.

“Harsh Marsh” is a far different place today, with test scores above the city average and a calm atmosphere. The school is now part of a district initiative to reward higher-performing schools by giving them more autonomy.

Dugan is still at the helm 16 years later and has had an unusually long tenure for a principal in Chicago Public Schools. Fifth-grade teacher Beatrice Winters contrasts Marsh with her previous school, which she recalls had five principals in five years. “Every year, you could see the school go down a peg,” says Winters. “Because we’ve had a consistent administration, there’s follow-through from year-to-year rather than change all the time. That has made a difference.”

Besides stable leadership, teachers credit staff teamwork, a better curriculum and parental and community support (which helped the school get a much-needed addition to relieve overcrowding) with fueling the turnaround.

Schools like Marsh that began to improve in the first wave of school reform were more likely to be located in a community with strong social networks, according to a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Teachers say South Deering is just such a place, with families who have deep roots in the neighborhood and value education.

Many teachers have developed close bonds with the neighborhood as well as with each other. “Some have been working here so long they’re teaching the children’s children,” says reading teacher Carlos Bañuelos. “The families now trust us and invite us over to the fiestas.”

Dugan “is just relentless in his quest for excellence,” says Thomas Avery, Area 18 instructional officer. “He is a fantastic instructional leader. And he covers the waterfront, making teaching a priority, making sure that students are learning and comfortable and that parents feel good about having their children at the school.”

Five simple rules

Dugan recalls feeling excited about taking on Marsh’s challenges. The first time he walked up to the vintage building, he was struck by the graffti-marked doors and tall weeds poking through the cracks in the front steps. “It was horrible,” he says. With help from the district office and the building’s engineer, Dugan got the weeds cleared away and the doors scrubbed clean by the time school opened.

Brooks became assistant principal and was given authority over discipline. At first, some parents whose kids misbehaved got defensive at efforts to enforce the district’s Uniform Discipline Code, but Dugan says the school eventually won parents over by making them partners in discipline decisions.

“We never suspend a child on the first offense. We have a conference with parents and ask for their support,” he says. “If they know that you care about their child and you want to work with them, you get their cooperation 99 percent of the time. You lose the trust of your parents when you haven’t involved them.”

Dugan also hired outside trainers to help teachers craft their own approach to classroom management. “[If] they don’t feel a part of it, there’s a tendency not to support it,” he notes.

After discussions in small groups, the faculty unanimously agreed that they would post and enforce five rules throughout the building: Follow directions, be respectful of yourself and others, handle materials appropriately, come prepared for class activities and cooperate.

Another strategy requires students to stop talking and raise their hands when a teacher gives the order to “Give me five.” The strategy seemed “corny” at first to the upper-grade teachers, Ostoich recalls. But they agreed to try it—and it proved so effective that today Dugan uses it to bring order to staff meetings. “We feel silly, but it works,” says 2nd-grade teacher Maeva Jankovich.

Teachers also integrated character education with the reading program. Students discuss values such as honesty and generosity that they encounter in literature. “You want discipline to come from within, instead of from the outside,” Brooks explains. She also tells new teachers not to yell at misbehaving students and to always let them know they are cared for. “Then they will listen to what you have to say,” she says.

Teachers now have a book documenting each student’s discipline infractions. Kids get one warning before being issued a “white slip.” Fourth- through 8th-graders who rack up four white slips get a detention.

In time, the school’s climate calmed down, as kids and families realized misbehavior wouldn’t be tolerated. “Younger brothers and sisters [who] saw the older kids acting up also saw them getting in trouble,” says science teacher Warren Fischer.

“By the time I have them in 6th grade, some of them have come all the way from preschool hearing the same rules over and over and over again,” says 6th-grade teacher Laura Lukach. “You can ask them on the first day, ‘What are the five classroom rules?’ They all know them, and they all know what they mean.”

High expectations, high standards

Dugan knew he also needed to raise teachers’ expectations and get them to believe that students could excel. To do that, he brought research and case studies of high-achieving low-income schools to professional development sessions for teachers to analyze and discuss.

But he knew that expecting success wouldn’t do much good if the school wasn’t set up to achieve it. So Dugan also got to work on instruction. In addition to reading, math, science and social studies also needed to improve. Parents complained that teachers assigned too little homework, while teachers insisted that kids wouldn’t do it, Dugan recalls. And the bilingual program did not have enough teachers.

In his first year at Marsh, Dugan asked teachers to help select science and social studies textbooks that had English and Spanish editions. Dugan checked to make sure that all subjects, and adequate homework assignments, were included in lesson plans. Over the next three years, Dugan added three bilingual teaching positions. Classroom teachers got training in strategies for teaching second-language learners.

In his eagerness to raise achievement, however, Dugan says he made one big blunder: He identified a math program with a strong research base that he was certain would boost the school’s math scores—but didn’t involve teachers in its selection.

Uncomfortable with the new program, teachers attempted it half-heartedly or reverted to the old, familiar one. Dugan pushed teachers to adopt the new program, but now says, “I was too forceful in getting them to go along with it. It didn’t work.”

From then on, teachers approved every program and textbook selection. The staff makes budget decisions together. And teachers at each grade level meet weekly for a common prep period to plan lessons and share ideas and materials.

Teachers say that Dugan’s high expectations and openness to input have made them more dedicated to their jobs and changed the culture of the school. “You don’t feel like you’re just someone working under him,” says librarian Diane Papageorge. “He treats you like, almost like an equal. He cares what your opinions are.”

‘Caught up in the momentum’

When 6th-grade teacher James Mullane applied to work at Marsh several years ago, he was a little taken aback by the process. When he arrived for the interview, he was asked to write an essay on the spot. His interview was held with a committee of teachers as well as administrators.

Marsh collects writing samples from all of its applicants to make sure teachers can communicate with parents. New teachers are hired by consensus. Dugan believes that teachers will feel more invested in helping colleagues succeed if they had a voice in selecting them.

The collaborative effort results in an exceptionally dedicated and hardworking staff, says teacher Lukach. “You get caught up in the momentum when you come here. Everybody is doing something [extra]—committees, afterschool programs, sports programs, enrichment classes.”

“You feel like your views matter and it really is a team effort,” Mullane agrees.

Jankovich, who recently became the first Marsh teacher to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is still early in her career but plans to stick around and see the school’s upward climb continue.

“It’s a place where I want to come,” she says. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”