At AUSL, progress but ‘this is not magic’

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If ever there was a superstar principal, it’s Angel Turner.

When Turner took over Morton Elementary School as an Academy for Urban School Leadership turnaround principal, it was one of the worst schools in the district. Now, three years later, it is in the middle of the pack: The percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards has increased by more than 30 points.Turner’s success helped set the stage for the Chicago Public Schools leadership to propose another 10 turnarounds next year—the most ever proposed for a single year—with six of them managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.

CPS trumpeted its plans with a press release that praised AUSL. “In 2011, student growth in ISAT composite scores at AUSL elementary schools (8%) was more than double the district in average growth (3.8%),” the release stated.

The AUSL model has made true believers out of not just CPS officials, but those at the top of the education ladder. When President-Elect Barack Obama announced he was bringing CEO Arne Duncan to Washington D.C., he made the announcement at Dodge Elementary, an AUSL teacher training academy. As Secretary of Education, Duncan has praised AUSL and pushed the turnaround strategy, providing hefty federal grants for districts that undertake them.

Other districts are now studying the AUSL turnaround model, in which a new principal and a cadre of new, enthusiastic staff are brought in and given intensive professional development and a plethora of material and resources. Most classrooms get an extra hand, an AUSL teacher-resident, to help with small-group lessons.

Recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted that Los Angeles school leaders are preparing to use AUSL’s model there. “It is no secret that I am a zealot about AUSL,” Emanuel said at a media event designed to sell the district’s latest turnaround plan. 

A long-anticipated report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research that district officials say will be released soon will likely provide a more detailed glimpse into AUSL’s performance.

Catalyst Chicago analysis, meanwhile, shows the district’s portrayal of AUSL is incomplete. Though officials like to say that AUSL achieves quick results and that they can’t wait for the targeted schools to improve on their own, closer scrutiny reveals a more complex picture that reveals how difficult it is to make substantial progress at low-achieving schools.

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AUSL has had to confront skepticism, at least initially, from parents and residents in the impoverished African American communities that so far have been the targets for turnarounds. These skeptics question an outside group coming in to take over their schools, and wonder if the schools could make similar progress if the district provided the same infusion of money that comes with a turnaround. They also worry about losing teachers with whom students have formed relationships.

“Why can they give money to a private company if they can’t give it to us currently? Is this the only company that can do this work? Why can’t they train people from the community to be part of this?” asked Casals parent Elisa Nigaglioni at a hearing on the proposed turnaround of Casals.

“We want to be in partnership with CPS. 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,” she added.

But on average, the AUSL turnaround schools are outperforming neighborhood schools on state tests. However, only half of the 10 are performing substantially better. And some neighborhood schools that have not gotten the same resources are gaining ground at a similar clip. (See graphics on school performance)

And whether progress can be sustained is an unanswered question. The school that appears to be struggling the most, Sherman, is the turnaround that AUSL has been working with the longest. The school’s test scores rose between 2006 and 2009, the first few years of the turnaround, but have only inched up, or fallen, since then. Especially alarming: only 44 percent of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders met standards in reading in 2011, and these are students who have been at Sherman since AUSL took over. 

Sustainability is a concern because in theory, AUSL is supposed to work its magic and then turn the school back to the district.

But last year—when the district’s first five-year contract expired—AUSL asked and got another year at Sherman, located on the South Side in New City. The one-year extension is for $170,000.

AUSL Executive Director Donald Feinstein says the organization felt as though it needed more time. Feinstein admits that some of the newer turnarounds, like Bradwell in South Shore, haven’t “bounced as high as we wanted.”

He points to caveats with the other schools that might temper gains. When CPS officials announced in 2009 that they wanted to turn around Dulles, their decision was based on test scores from the previous school year. At that time, only a third of Dulles’ students met state standards. But in the year before AUSL actually took over the school, test scores jumped up 15 percentage points—only to decline slightly in the first year of the turnaround. Since then, though, scores have rebounded and the most recent scores show that almost 60 percent of students at Dulles met standards.

“Dulles and Deneen are truly higher-performing than they were,” Feinstein says. “I am cautiously optimistic about them.”

Most of the gains by Dulles, Deneen and Bradwell have been in math and science.  Reading gains have been less pronounced.

It is sometimes easier to make progress in math because there are better, more defined curricula in the subject, says Paul Zavitkovsky, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and a former principal. “When it comes to reading and literacy, there are a lot more curricula and children learn in different ways,” Zavitkovsky adds.

To some degree, AUSL’s progress also stems from helping to get students “over the bubble”—that is, getting students just over the line from not meeting standards.

“As a whole in the district, there is a lot of talk about working with kids on the bubble,” says Zavitkovsky. “This is not good policy. For one thing, you don’t pay that much attention to those [students] way below or above. The way I see it, nobody wins.”

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Much of what AUSL brings to schools is a better climate. Walk into one of their turnaround elementary schools and the similarities are immediately evident. Teachers are given checklists for setting up their classrooms. They must have curtains, and encouraging little quotes posted near the clocks to give students something to think about instead of watching time tick away.

As CPS schools, AUSL schools must follow the CPS code of conduct. But there are some additional expectations. For one, halls are expected to be at a Level 0—perfectly quiet—and this is evident as students walk noiselessly through the hallways. When lined up for the bathroom or for lunch, they are supposed to read books.  

“We don’t curse,” Turner says. “We don’t yell.”

The strict discipline also opens the door for more students to get into trouble. AUSL elementary schools have double the student misconduct rate of regular CPS elementary schools.

The rules are also a deterrent for parents whose children are not calm or studious. Morton has experienced an enrollment surge, with nearly 100 more students enrolling this year compared to last year. But Turner does her best to discourage parents whose children won’t fit in. She sits down to talk one-on-one with parents who want to transfer their child to the school, explaining the expectations. She also takes them on a tour so they can see how orderly the environment is expected to be.

“I ask the parents, ‘Is this a school that will work for your child?’ ” Turner says.

No parent has ever answered ‘No,’ she explains. But some parents have left without completing the enrollment process, and never returned.

Turner believes most children can abide by the rules without a problem. She notes that she was raised in Englewood and was an assistant principal at Collins Academy, a high school run by AUSL, before coming to Morton. Her experiences, she says, have taught her that all children can meet high expectations.

“Kids rise to the occasion,” says Turner, who trained at the University of Illinois at Chicago principal preparation program. “They are looking for structures and routines.”

Bradwell Principal Stacey Bennett says she has a similar philosophy about discipline. Problems occur when staff let down their guard, she believes.

“We have 820 students. We are one of the larger elementary schools,” she says. “In order to create a safe and orderly environment, we have to be at Level 0. We are not doing it to be hard-core.”

Bradwell’s leadership has emphasized the creation of a warm environment. Air fresheners are abundant and the smell of fresh flowers wafts through the air. There are little nooks, with cozy chairs and books, in corners and on the landings of some stairwells. 

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When Turner talks about the programs she has implemented at Morton, much of what she describes are standard curricula and strategies. But it’s also evident that the turnarounds get good support and have overcome some of the parental skepticism.

In some grades, students stay with the same teacher for multiple years, a practice called looping. Turner also created departments in the middle grades, a strategy that is designed to better prepare students for high school by assigning them to different teachers for each subject.

“This means that you don’t have teachers [who were] trained to teach reading trying to teach math,” Turner says. “Math teachers teach math, reading teachers teach reading.”

At AUSL schools, teachers all use basal readers, which have stories calibrated to specific grade levels. It is part of a balanced literacy approach, Turner says.

Like Turner, Bennett says Bradwell is using balanced literacy and guided reading. She says the school is also trying to move toward differentiated instruction, or tailoring teaching to individual student needs. Bradwell now has a two-hour literacy block, with students spending time in small groups.

It is usually easier to raise math achievement than reading, Bennett points out. “In reading, there are so many more skills to teach.”

Turner says being part of AUSL is important because the organization responds quickly to her needs. For one, she receives usable data on student performance from a performance manager. And AUSL provides professional development based on teachers’ needs.

“I can call someone and say, ‘This is what I need,’ ” says Turner, “and they will go find the national expert on it and bring them in to work with me.”

Bennett points out that the data is used on a daily basis. At Bradwell, teachers use something called an exit ticket. After they teach a skill, they give an assessment on it. If the data from the assessment shows a student knows a skill, they are given an exit ticket. Otherwise, the teacher re-teaches it.

“Data is not about a test,” Bennett says. “It is about instruction. It guides our instruction minute by minute.”

Between the extra adults, the updated technology and resources and the orderly atmosphere, AUSL turnaround schools are attracting students.

Schools are abundant in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, seemingly on every corner. “So we are all fighting for kids,” Turner says.

Feinstein says the enrollment at several AUSL schools is going up because more students are coming back. Bradwell also has seen a growing population.

“We are bursting at the seams,” Bennett says. “Parents are happy. They believe in the turnaround.”

But she doesn’t want to oversell the progress. “We don’t have a magic wand,” she says. “This is not magic.”