Principals get creative within the bounds of district bureaucracy

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Talcott Elementary

photo by Jason Reblando

Talcott Elementary

While charter and AMPS schools operate with varying degrees of autonomy, scattered around the city are regular public schools that have managed to carve out freedoms of their own.

Catalyst Chicago talked to three principals who have developed creative strategies to improve their schools, with innovative curricula, outside partnerships and private fundraising.

Their stories show how resourceful principals are navigating the school system to do what’s best for their students.

Barton: Focus on African-American boys

Like the corporate headhunter he once was, Principal Terrence Carter of Barton Elementary makes scouting expeditions to find that rarest of school commodities: male teachers.

Those expeditions have borne a lot of fruit: At least one teacher at every grade is a male, and between 7th and 8th grades, there are five male teachers. While the percentage of male teachers at Barton is on par with the districtwide average of 24 percent, that figure is skewed by high schools, which have more male teachers. It is unusual for an elementary school to have so many.

“I can’t talk about this, because then my secret’s out,” laughs Carter, who then explains his recruitment process. Once he hears about a particular male teacher through the grapevine, Carter visits the teacher’s school to observe him in the classroom and then invites the teacher to visit Barton in return.

“I let them see the environment, sit in on classes, meet teachers and let them tell him what’s going on,” says Carter, who joined the Auburn Gresham school about a year and a half ago after completing the New Leaders for New School program. “I tell them, they’re interviewing us like I’m interviewing them. They get a more realistic feel for the school, rather than at a job fair.”

Having so many male teachers is a plus for Barton, which has a higher-than-average percentage of male students. While Carter says he doesn’t know why the school has attracted so many families with young boys, he does point out that “word has gotten out” in the surrounding Auburn Gresham neighborhood that Barton has a lot of male teachers. The school also has developed a reputation for making an extra effort to work with troubled children.

Carter also brought in a reading and writing curriculum he learned about while enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. (Carter was a teacher before joining the corporate world.) He also launched a before-school reading program to help youngsters who are behind and emphasizes professional development.

Students who are two grade levels behind in reading meet with teachers at 7:30 a.m. for five weeks to pinpoint where students need help and then fill in those gaps. The result: Student reading scores have improved.

For training, teachers come in once a week for two hours to examine student work, plan lessons and practice reading and writing instruction.

Carter uses discretionary money to pay for the programs and has shared his strategies with other principals. “You have to be creative with the money [the district] gives you,” he says. “A lot of things can be accomplished in a traditional setting. You can pull off what you need to do.”

Talcott: Museums and algebra

At Talcott Elementary in West Town, Principal Craig Benes imported a concept he learned about as a teacher: using the city’s museums to enhance teaching and learning.

Now, Talcott has partnerships with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, the Chicago Children’s Museum and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. While most schools visit a museum a few times a year, each class at Talcott may take four to eight museum trips in a year.

“We see the museum as a classroom,” says Benes. “If students are studying dinosaurs, they make a trip to the Field.” Museum visits tap into different learning styles, he explains—for instance, children who are visual or kinesthetic learners benefit from seeing exhibits or participating in interactive ones. Plus, Benes adds, many students would not otherwise get the chance to visit the museums.

As a teacher, Benes wrote curricula for a CPS program that sought to partner schools and museums; funding for the program has been discontinued.

Talcott is also one of about a dozen elementary schools that offer algebra for 8th-graders. Benes says giving students a head start on algebra, considered a gateway course to graduation and college acceptance, helps to insure their academic success. Once in high school, students can either retake algebra as freshmen—and do better the second time around—or move on more quickly to higher-level math.

“CPS has done nothing to stifle our creativity,” says Benes. “They signed off on the museum curriculum. All of my AIOs have been supportive.”

Disney: Eponymous profits

Four years ago, Principal Kathleen Hagstrom of Disney Magnet, by chance, met the eldest daughter of the late animation pioneer Walt Disney. Seizing the opportunity, Hagstrom invited her to take a tour of the Uptown school. By the end of the visit, Disney’s daughter had pledged to donate $150,000 over three years.

A year later, she upped the annual grant to $100,000 and kicked in an additional $100,000 as a bonus. Hagstrom used the money to create state-of-the art animation and digital music labs.

“I take advantage of contacts,” says Hagstrom.

No kidding. Hagstrom got players from the Chicago Cubs to attend student assemblies and read to students. She got famed chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter to allow Disney’s elementary students to attend a dinner that is usually reserved for high schoolers. “I knew somebody,” she says. Chatting up a lawyer at a wedding, Hagstrom secured 150 laptop computers.

Disney is a magnet school, but selects students on the basis of a lottery, not test scores, Hagstrom notes. The student body is 73 percent poor and 82 percent minority. “Yet, no one can beat Disney’s programs,” she says. “We find creative ways to get what we want. When you are told, ‘No,’ you have to find a way to make it, ‘Yes.'”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.