Tough stance in Area 14 backfires, few schools do better

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Before Jose Torres stepped in, his predecessor in the Area 14 instructional office spent four years trying to make a difference for a group of low-performing schools in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Greater Grand Crossing.

He didn’t.

From the time Jim L. Murray became AIO in 2002 until his departure in 2005, test scores crept up only 3 points to just under 35 percent of students meeting reading standards. During the same period, scores in Area 4, a group of similar schools on the Northwest Side, jumped more than 16 points—the highest gain in the district.

Facing a cadre of frustrated principals, who had signed a petition demanding his removal, Murray retired in June, a year earlier than he had planned. Though he didn’t leave on his own terms, he says he felt vindicated when 2006 brought significantly higher scores in math, reading and science.

“I got a letter from one of the teachers at a school where the principal was against me thanking me for lighting a fire under them,” Murray says.

Yet scores across the district were dramatically higher this year, and it remains unclear how much of those gains are the result of improved instruction and how much can be attributed to a complete overhaul of the test itself. Even with the higher scores, Area 14 has the lowest pass rate of all districts, with only 45 percent of students, on average, meeting state standards. (By contrast, Area 4’s composite pass rate is 55 percent.)

The story of what happened in Area 14 over the past four years is a lesson in how difficult it is to reverse decades of dismal academic performance. It also begs the question: What mix of carrots (support for schools) and sticks (corrective action and firing principals) will guarantee an AIO gets results?

Chief Educational Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins suggests AIOs should mainly provide support, but Murray, in his own words, says he often resorted to punitive measures. “Everyone who knows me knows I am not one to stand for people not doing what they are supposed to do,” he explains.

A review of School Board reports shows that 70 percent of schools under Murray’s charge changed principals in the past four years. Two schools—Yale and Harvard—had two principal changes in as many years. In Area 14, under the leadership of Olga La Luz, 40 percent of schools got new principals.

Instructional leadership is creating pressure with support, says Deanna Burney, a senior consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in Rhode Island. Burney, who declined to comment specifically on Area 14, says change needs to come from the top down and from the ground up. “Then the [AIO] must assess what principals and teacher don’t know and what they refuse to learn,” she says.

Families are ‘fighting for survival’

Stephen L. Jones Sr., who was forced to retire as principal of Yale, says Murray did not understand what it took to turn around schools with “at-risk” children. “He felt that there was a quick fix to years of deprivation,” Jones says. “He was impatient. It is a slow process working with at-risk kids.”

When staff visited students at home, they learned what kind of economic and social hurdles those families were up against, says Jones. One in three families living in the vicinity of the Greater Grand Crossing school has an annual household income of less than $10,000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

“These families are fighting for survival,” Jones says. “Parents love their children, but the children come in with problems. We loved the children. We thought that if they received our love, they would want to come to school and do better.”

But Murray says the principal and teachers at Yale were not pushing hard enough. Indeed, reading pass rates fell from 27 percent in 2002 to 20 percent in 2005.

Jones was nudged into early retirement. “I would not let the children be used and abused by principals who were not doing their job,” Murray says.

Speaking recently from his South Side home, Murray explains that schools serving poor children need to tend to their emotional needs as well as their academic needs.

Jones says he did just that by starting a gospel choir at Yale to build students’ confidence, taking them on field trips and celebrating all their accomplishments, no matter how small.

“The biggest thing that hurt my heart is that you would have these brilliant children who had so many issues to deal with that they didn’t achieve their potential,” Murray says.

Like other AIOs, Murray had been a star principal. He had impressed parents and local school council members at Joplin Elementary by bringing in direct instruction and being a stern disciplinarian. Test scores rose and, under his leadership, the school was never on probation.

Joplin, however, is markedly different from nearly every other school in Area 14. The school’s poverty rate was slightly below the district average, and only 16 percent of the families in the surrounding Auburn-Gresham area have incomes under the federal poverty level. On average, the school poverty rate in Area 14 is 91 percent.

Most of Murray’s schools were like Wentworth Elementary, with 99 percent poverty and 37.4 percent of students meeting state reading standards.

Wentworth Principal Effie McHenry says some principals fought Murray when he pushed them to display student work, block out two hours a day for reading and develop programs for boys—all districtwide mandates.

“They never wanted to go through a change in a true sense,” says McHenry, who was not forced to retire. “They fought him.”

McHenry says she never had a problem with Murray’s edicts and was already doing much of what he asked. Still, she found it nearly impossible to show much progress.

The biggest problem was student mobility—nearly 45 percent of students who start the year at Wentworth leave before June. (Overall, mobility in Area 14 is the highest in the city.)

At one point, Wentworth had the dubious distinction of having the largest population of homeless children. “We were just playing catch-up all the time,” she says.

Not about equality

At Woods Academy, Principal Rosyln Armour says it was tough to get parents to take their child’s education seriously, basics that go beyond showing up for meetings or volunteering. “I am talking about getting children to school on time or making sure they come to school in their uniforms,” she says.

It is no secret that students who live in deep, entrenched poverty have problems learning, says Principal Richard Morgan of Brownell Elementary. The issue is that the district will not provide enough resources for schools or area offices to address the additional needs.

Morgan suggests the districts give schools like his access to additional resources, such as math and reading coaches. “It is not a matter of crying and begging,” he says. “The school system talks about equality, but it is not always about equality. Our students come in with a defeatist attitude.”

Beginning this year, the new teachers in Area 14 will be working with the Chicago New Teacher Center, which provides extra professional development for teachers in their first year.

Just months on the job, AIO Jose Torres has made a positive impression on some principals. Torres is willing to lobby the district for extra resources and seems open to input from principals, say Morgan and Armour.

He also seems to have the right attitude. Morgan says Torres shares his belief that those working with low-income students must not concentrate on the negatives.

“When you raise the ceiling, you also raise the floor,” he says.