Vanessa Johnson: High school English teacher

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Vanessa Johnson

Vanessa Johnson

Johnson, who is involved with the High School Transformation Project at Carver Military Academy, says CPS needs to focus its energy on creating good middle schools with stronger curricula because incoming freshman are not academically prepared for high school. “The skills just aren’t there. Depending on what school they came from, they may have had a teacher who was strong in math and didn’t focus on language arts, or vice versa,” John says. “And when kids come into 9th grade and they’ve got six or seven classes, it’s hard for them to juggle different teachers and subjects. Perhaps that needs to be instituted at an earlier age.”

WHAT TEACHERS NEED

Time. CPS talks about collaboration and teachers working together, but they don’t provide the time. You can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat—you need time to sit down [with colleagues] and hash out lesson plans or interdisciplinary projects.

WHAT KIDS NEED

If you’ve got a kid who can’t read and he’s 15, maybe coming to high school a year late, that kid is frustrated. Counselors are overworked and can’t work with kids on a regular basis. My seniors ran around all year looking for their senior counselor, who was never in her office. [Kids need] support, not only from teachers but [auxiliary] staff. Also, we were supposed to have a computer lab open for kids to use, with staff to monitor it, but it didn’t happen. Kids need the administrative staff to look at the big picture and make sure things are in place for them. After all, that’s what we’re there for.

AFTER-SCHOOL ACCESS

We have photography, dance, computer classes, things like that. Unfortunately, there’s no CTA stop in front of our building, so kids say, “I can’t stay because I don’t have a ride.” I was talking to someone about programs on the North Side, and there’s nothing on the far South Side that’s equivalent. Our kids can’t get to the North Side, especially if they only have $2 in their pocket. Programs shouldn’t just be in schools, but also in community centers that kids can get to.

HIGH SCHOOL TRANSFORMATION

We [teachers] are forced to collaborate more on a regular basis, even though we don’t always have the time we need. Is the curriculum making a difference academically? We still have to wait and see.

SCHOOL EQUITY

[Access to college-prep programs] depends on which school you’re talking about. We’re supposed to be a college prep school, but our AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] program is gone and we only have one Advanced Placement class. In schools like Whitney Young or Gwendolyn Brooks, practically every senior is taking an AP class. If the district has 20 college prep high schools, shouldn’t all those schools have pretty much the same programs?

CURBING DROPOUTS

Parents are coming up to the school making sure their kids are staying until age 17. We’ve been running after-school classes for kids to make up credits. And from what I understand some of the alternative schools are becoming harder to get into. So kids are realizing, “Well, I don’t really have any place to go. Maybe I’ll stick around.”

WANTED: TRUANT OFFICERS

In my freshman classes, a couple of kids just dropped off the radar. Where are they going at 13, 14? We lost track of them. You have kids, even in elementary school, who [disappear for] a whole week. There’s no way to follow up on them. You don’t know what happened in the household. Did they pack up and move? Does the mother think the child is at school, and the child is just not coming? They need truant officers.

THE NEXT CEO

Whether he or she comes from inside or outside the system, it should be an educator who has had some experience in the classroom and has been a principal. Somebody who is going to run this district, or any district for that matter, should actually know what it’s like from the bottom up.