Tough choices for turnarounds

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Tamoura Hayes started high school with big dreams for college that she already knew would be tough to reach. “C’mon,” she said. “I go to Marshall High School.”

Obviously, Marshall’s long-standing academic failings weren’t lost on Tamoura, who went on to say that she “wasn’t even supposed to be here.” Marshall was her last option. Her family couldn’t afford the private school that was her first choice, and she wasn’t offered a slot at Raby, one of the newer high schools sprouting up on the West Side.  

Tamoura was one of the Marshall freshmen profiled in “Class of 2011,” the award-winning issue of Catalyst In Depth that examined the challenges of High School Transformation. (The issue was published in February 2008 and is available online at www.catalyst-chicago.org.) As Tamoura entered 9th grade, Marshall had just begun the initiative. The goal was to make rigorous coursework the foundation of high school improvement—an idea tailor-made to suit studious teenagers like Tamoura.

Discussions about the many academic and social ills of urban high schools tend to give scant attention to the Tamouras at these schools. In other words, the kids who don’t get into trouble, who show up to school regularly, whose parents support their education but lack financial resources. These teens, like Tamoura, are savvy enough to know that their best option for getting into a good college is to bypass the neighborhood high school.

As one researcher said, “What are you doing about all the smart kids?”

Last year, the district embarked on a turnaround at Marshall, sinking millions into campus renovations and bringing in a new principal and mostly new teachers and staff. The success of turnarounds, at Marshall and other struggling high schools, is of national as well as local importance: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the strategy a key part of federal education efforts.

For this issue of Catalyst In Depth, Deputy Editor Sarah Karp visited Marshall regularly during its first year in the turnaround program. From her reporting, it’s clear that the school is making progress. The climate is calmer, the special education department no longer faces state sanctions, and teachers have begun to collaborate regularly and focus on good instruction.

Marshall, of course, still faces big hurdles. For one, school leaders must balance the need to keep enrollment up—or face losing staff, as Marshall did eventually—with the challenge to improve academics. Nationally, other urban districts are in similar straits, trying to figure out how to handle the challenge of reforming large, failing neighborhood high schools. That’s a very tough job when a school is expected to take virtually any student who walks through the door, from the one who is ready for accelerated classes to the student who wants to transfer in but has a transcript filled with F’s—and a bad attitude to boot.  

Part of the answer is to focus on serving the good students, the Tamouras of the world, first.

That idea will undoubtedly anger some reformers, who will view it as a call to abandon at-risk teens. It’s not. Society—not just schools—has to figure out how to help youth who are on the road to dropping out.  When students like Tamoura show up, they’ve already made a critical leap. They’re motivated to learn, and they need the adults around them to respond to that motivation.

For the neighborhood high school to survive, individually and as a larger concept, academics have to improve. Schools have to offer honors and Advanced Placement classes, for one. And teachers need students who, even if they aren’t quite ready for it, are at least motivated to tackle high school-level work.

Donald Fraynd, a former principal of Jones College Prep who now heads the CPS turnaround initiative, says that big neighborhood high schools still have a role to play in the district. The turnaround high schools are “getting better and better at catching students up,” with more students achieving higher-than-average growth in reading skills and recovering credits toward graduation.

These accomplishments are heartening signs that the turnaround program may, finally, put long-failing neighborhood high schools back on track. And they’re a sign that, while poverty and social ills can be significant barriers to learning, they are not insurmountable.

Chicago’s high schools still have a long way to go, although at Catalyst press time, a new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research showed that high schools are, in fact, doing better academically than many observers believed to be the case.

At Marshall, there’s another small but encouraging sign that academics are on an upward trajectory.

In her senior year, Tamoura finally started getting more than 15 minutes’ worth of daily homework.