Hard work starts at Chicago high school turnarounds

September 7, 2010

At the two new turnaround high schools, the message of the first day of
school was that this was a new day—one in which being out of uniform or
bringing a cell phone will result in an immediate consequence. At the two new turnaround high schools, the message of the first day of school was that this was a new day—one in which being out of uniform or bringing a cell phone will result in an immediate consequence.

“We have zero tolerance,” said Terrance Little, the Phillips High School principal.

CPS starts the school year with no Chief Education Officer in place and hence few defined education initiative. But turnarounds, which entail firing all staff and hiring back only those deemed effective, continue to take place. Turnarounds were started by then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan and are being promoted by him as a national strategy for improving struggling schools.

Some 15 schools are in the process of being turned around. But by far, the high schools are the hardest places to make a change. The two undergoing turnaround this year, Phillips on the South Side and Marshall on the West Side, have struggled for decades and each have fewer than 5 percent of their students meeting or exceeding standards.

To prepare for the turnaround, the physical buildings were upgraded over the summer, giving them a glow for the first day of school.

Principal Kenyatta Butler-Stansberry said she arrived at Marshall High School at 5 a.m. and when the first bell rang at 8 a.m. she was by the door greeting students. She spent the day meeting with parents and students identified as having behavior, grade or attendance problems.

She told each of them: “This is your school, but it is my house. You are starting with a clean slate, but the minute you mess up, there will be consequences. Every Friday you are to check in with me and if you have a problem you tell me.”

With the glare of their mother or guardian upon them, they all agreed.

Butler-Stansberry also took it upon herself to decide who she would let transfer into the school. Though Marshall has attendance boundaries, like many neighborhood high schools, there is a flow of students transferring in and out of the school.

Several young men and women from Manley and Farragut showed up. Some of said they had enemies at their old schools, others just pleaded for a fresh start. She gave most students a chance as long as their transcripts did not reveal serious problems.

But one young man who had straight Fs last year at Manley was told he couldn’t enroll at Marshall. “Sorry,” Butler-Stansberry told his mother.

At Phillips High School, the principal and the assistant principal also had an auditorium full of students they had to sort through. Some wanted to transfer in and others wanted to transfer out.

Assistant principal Devon Horton said he also was looking over transcripts. If someone was older and needed too many credits to graduate, he was suggesting they go somewhere else.

CPS contracted with the Academy of Urban School Leadership to manage the turnaround. AUSL, which runs a teacher residency program, only hired back two junior ROTC instructors, the lunch room workers and a few security guards.

Little said he came from Morton School of Excellence, an elementary school run by AUSL. He boasted that he was able to raise test scores by 16 points at AUSL. His trick: communicating to students that they had to follow the rules.

Little said he is confident that the high school students will respond in the same way.

Toward the end of the day, Little spent some time giving the founder of AUSL, Martin Koldyke and the executive director Donald Feinstein a tour. At the end, Feinstein remarked that he could already feel the energy and the difference. “It is a new day,” he said.