Piccolo, Casals staff: Give current leadership a chance

January 31, 2012

In the first set of hearings on proposed turnarounds, district officials made their case that Casals and Piccolo elementary schools need a whole new set of staff. But they were countered by parents and teachers who asserted the schools had already suffered repeated changes in programs and turnover in leadership.

The hearings, which took place at district headquarters, were peaceful compared to many community hearings on school closings that took place earlier this month. 

Some have argued against the turnarounds, especially at Casals where about 60 percent of students are meeting standards on the ISAT. About 100 elementary schools have worse composite ISAT scores.

But Jacare Thomas, data strategist for the Garfield-Humboldt Park Elementary Network, made presentations at both hearings on the schools’ lack of progress. She showed a growing gap between the percentage of students meeting state standards on the ISAT test at each of the schools, and in their network and CPS as a whole.

 “The school is not making progress in catching up to the rest of the district,” he said of Casals.

He also used value-added data, which compares students’ progress to that of other demographically similar students around the district, to show that students at both schools are making slower gains than the district average. Casals’ math scores, for instance, put the school in the bottom 13 percent of CPS elementary schools.

Denise Little, chief of schools for the network, also listed the strategies CPS had tried with the schools over the years. At Casals, she said, the district abandoned direct instruction for balanced literacy and supplied the school with additional leveled books; added staff; expanded the Chicago Math and Science Initiative; developed a comprehensive math instruction plan; and offered special interventions for English language learners.

 Through the Reading First program, the district lowered class sizes, hired reading specialists, and bought additional materials, she said.

 However, 2nd-grade teacher Andrew Mackow argued the various programs were part of the problem. “In three years, our school has been assigned four area leaders,” he said. “Each leader has required our classroom staff to change their classroom curriculum. Every single person has come in with their own vision, and completely changed the way we teach.”

 And, Mackow added, the leaders moved on before all their initiatives were fully implemented.

 “After finally finding the perfect fit, we are being denied the opportunity to work with Ms. Little and see our efforts culminate in academic excellence,” he said. 

 The school’s retired principal, Paula Jeske, who left in October, echoed Makow’s sentiments – though she said there had actually been five area officers. “We have had so many different people telling us to march to so many different drumbeats, some days I didn’t know if we were coming or going,” she said.

Piccolo bilingual teacher Claudia Nunez raised similar concerns about her school. “We are on our third change of curriculum in 5 years,” she said. This year, Piccolo got a new principal. “In just four months, our new administration at Piccolo has increased parent involvement.”

She added, the school went from having 561 suspensions last year to, this year, only 30 so far.

Parent Elisa Nigaglioni said through an interpreter that she has volunteered at Casals 40 hours a week for the past year. She asked the district to take parents’ vote against the turnaround into consideration. (Out of about 200 families at the school, 183 cast votes, with 171 opposing the turnaround.)

“If you want to help somebody, one of the things you have to do is ask them what they want, not impose it upon them,” Nigaglioni said.

Teacher Sharon Herod-Purham took issue with the district’s presentation and distributed results from Humboldt Park schools’ fall Scantron test results, which show the school tied for 9th in its network for math, and ranked 7th for reading, out of 22 schools.

At both hearings, Keisha Campbell – the principal of Howe, another turnaround – touted the gains Academy for Urban School Leadership is making. The Academy for Urban School Leadership, a not-for-profit educational management organization, is slated to manage the turnarounds at Casals and Piccolo. AUSL brings in special after-school programs, teacher coaching, and social-emotional learning curricula, she said.

A few audience members supported the turnaround. At the Piccolo hearing, a group called Final Phaze Dance Troupe, which also attended a Jan. 20 hearing on the Price closure showed up. Turnaround opponents were not impressed with the comments, asking how much they’d been paid to show up.

 The group’s coach, Maurice Jones, said that no outside groups had even covered the cost of transportation for the dancers. “They paid their own way,” he said, and noted that it was the third hearing the group had attended.

 Khristtian Locke, a member of the group and a Columbia College sophomore who is studying music business management, said he was just concerned about failing schools. “I wanted to come here and have a say-so about what’s going to happen,” he said. 

 “There is a need of them turning the school around,” he told the hearing officer. “I don’t think CPS should keep prolonging the failure. I think CPS should go ahead and close the school.”