Four of seven turnarounds see progress, high schools now on deck

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As Education Secretary Arne Duncan goes around the country touting Chicago’s turnarounds as a model for improving the nation’s worst performing schools, he may want to warn districts that it is no quick fix. 

And that there is yet no evidence that they can fix high schools at all.

 

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan goes around the country touting Chicago’s turnarounds as a model for improving the nation’s worst performing schools, he may want to warn districts that it is no quick fix. 

And that there is yet no evidence that they can fix high schools at all.

For those who don’t know, the turnaround approach involves the wholesale replacement of teachers and usually the principals in schools. CPS has done this with seven elementary and two high schools since 2006. Next year, it will take on an additional six schools.

The elementary school test scores released last week show that four of the seven elementary school turnarounds—Howe, Dodge, Sherman and Harvard — saw noteworthy increases in the percent of students meeting and exceeding standards All of the four are managed by the not-for-profit Academy of Urban School Leadership. One school managed by AUSL and two first-year turnarounds managed by CPS administration saw a drop in test scores.

There is one big difference between the AUSL and CPS turnarounds, and AUSL Executive Director Don Feinstein credits it for the turnaround successes. Half to 75 percent of the teachers in the AUSL turnarounds come from AUSL’s yearlong training academy and are used to working collaboratively with a common purpose. 

But the fact that AUSL-managed Morton Elementary School on the West Side saw a drop in scores, while some nearby schools, including Ryerson, saw increases, shows how tenuous the process is. Feinstein blames the Morton performance on the school’s leadership and what he sees as a not the right talent among staff. Come next school year, Morton will have a new principal.

The same is true at one of the turnarounds being run by CPS, says Don Fraynd, the new head of the Office of Turnarounds. Fulton Elementary in New City will get a new principal, too. The overhaul last summer at Fulton and Copernicus, which is close to Fulton in West Englewood, resulted in pretty significant drops in test scores. Both now have only 38 percent of their students meeting and exceeding standards—dismal results in a school district where 69 percent meet the threshold.

Fraynd doesn’t have particularly high expectations for test scores in the first year of a turnaround. In the early stages, turnarounds are focusing on decreasing serious misconduct, increasing the attendance rate, getting more parents involved and changing the culture and climate of a school. Fraynd hopes that by year two or three, these changes will result in improved test scores.

The turnaround strategy made its debut in high schools this past year. Both Fraynd and Feinstein say they are nervously awaiting the results of the PSAE, the state high school exam, for Harper High School on the South Side and Orr on the West Side. Fraynd says that new CPS CEO Ron Huberman has told him that in the future the CPS turnaround office will focus on high schools.

Whether it works in high schools is anyone’s guess. “Doing this in high schools is much more complicated,” Fraynd says. “There is not a lot of research. We are pioneers.”