The turnaround test

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Doug Maclin took over Chicago Vocational Career Academy in August 2011. A few months later, he was told the school was slated to become a turnaround. Typically, principals are fired when schools are turned around, but Maclin reapplied for his job and kept it.  [Photo by Cristina Rutter]

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Doug Maclin took over Chicago Vocational Career Academy in August 2011. A few months later, he was told the school was slated to become a turnaround. Typically, principals are fired when schools are turned around, but Maclin reapplied for his job and kept it. [Photo by Cristina Rutter]

Dressed in a gray suit, Doug Maclin stood behind a podium facing the panel of CPS board members, looking a bit uncomfortable. He was at the May meeting to brag about the changes he had accomplished during his short tenure as principal of Chicago Vocational Career Academy.

Misconduct reports and suspensions were down. Attendance was up, to 80 percent from 68 percent. And though Maclin didn’t know it at the time, academics were on the upswing: The number of students who met or exceeded standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam rose 2 percentage points last year, and the average ACT score increased by 0.4 points, a small but statistically significant improvement.

One factor that Maclin didn’t bring up, and that none of the board members asked him about, was CVCA’s faculty: The very teachers who were responsible for the improvements were handed pink slips when the district decided to pursue a turnaround at CVCA. Under the official turnaround process, every staff member must re-apply for his or her job.

Maclin was not immune, though he arrived at CVCA less than a year ago, in August 2011. He had to go through a three-part interview to keep his job.

“I was put through the wringer,” Maclin later said of the experience.

This school year promises to put Maclin through the wringer again as he faces substantial pressure. He is one of the few principals to keep his job at a badly failing school that became a turnaround. In turn, Maclin kept a significant number of CVCA’s existing teachers.

But if he and his staff can substantially improve CVCA, they will raise a critical question about turnarounds: Is it worth the expense and disruption to fire an entire staff if a failing school can be improved without it, by a principal who doesn’t fit neatly into the district’s mold?

An October 2012 report from the Annenberg Institute on School Reform at Brown University came to similar skeptical conclusions about turnarounds and other strategies that rely chiefly on firing and replacing old staff. The report said such drastic strategies are more likely to further disrupt failing schools than to improve them.

Maclin is skeptical of turnarounds, pointing out lackluster academic results so far at high schools, where ACT scores declined last year. 

He also bristles at the “non-negotiable” procedures—listed in the many binders handed to him by the district’s turnaround gurus—that he had to agree to in order to keep his job. For one, CVCA now must do “hall sweeps” in exactly the same way as all other turnarounds. The only exception is that instead of playing the Chicago Bulls theme song during passing periods, Maclin plays classical music.

Turnarounds also must use the same discipline strategy, the Boys Town Education ModelSM, which has specific behaviors students must engage in and a step-by-step process for interacting with misbehaving students.

The Boys Town model is OK for some teachers, but a hindrance to others, Maclin believes. It ensures that all teachers use a similar language in addressing students. But veteran teachers have their own strategies for dealing with teens, he says, and these are often more effective.

“Sometimes a ‘mama look’ can correct behavior,” Maclin explains. “These systems take what might happen naturally and make it unnatural.”

Rigid procedures and requirements stand in stark contrast to Maclin’s personality—“I am informal,” he says. And, unlike some turnaround principals who have been described as bull-dogs or military sergeants, Maclin is friendly and easy-going, often dressed in dark blue-jeans, CVCA polo shirts and comfortable shoes, such as Timberland boots. 

His background and his aspirations are different, too. Maclin didn’t go through any of the district’s preferred principal training programs. He earned a master’s degree in education and business from Loyola University 15 years ago and then a Type 75 administrator’s certificate. And he plans to stay at CVCA for the long haul, while many of the young go-getters now leading schools are more likely than not to leave in short order. So far, turnaround principals have stayed on the job for an average of three years, and only about a third of all principals now stay in their job more than five years, according to analyses by Catalyst Chicago.

“I want to stay here 30 years,” Maclin says. “I want to retire from here and collect my pension.”

Even so, Maclin exemplifies some of the important attributes that CPS and education experts have concluded a principal must have in order to bring dramatic change to a failing urban school.

CPS leaders recently crafted a set of five competencies, or skills, that a prospective principal must demonstrate, such as the ability to assess classroom instruction and engage and develop faculty. Maclin seems to have those qualities; for one, he has a good relationship with teachers but presses them to improve instruction, assess students frequently and to re-teach material students don’t get.

Maclin also has a sense of urgency—and successful turnaround specialists have a “religious zeal” about them and know how to deal with resistance, says Daniel Duke, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Lucy Steiner, a senior consultant for Public Impact, agrees that turnaround principals need to be intense about their work. Like CPS, Steiner has a list of necessary skills, but hers focuses more on personal traits, such as persistence, self-confidence and a drive to achieve.

Steiner and Duke both say it is tough to figure out who will be the right person for the job when sitting across from them at an interview table.

“There is no magic formula,” Duke says.

Both experts also doubt that an educator can really be trained to be a “change-agent” principal, someone who can transform a high school that has been failing for decades. So much has to do with who the person is and how he or she approaches a situation.

Even a principal who has all of the desired qualities is more likely to fail than succeed, as evidenced by the low success rate of high school turnarounds, Duke notes.

At CVCA, Maclin resisted pressure from above to make wholesale change. At turnaround schools, at least 85 percent of the staff is usually sent packing, but Maclin kept about 40 percent of his teachers (which is the limit under turnaround policy). Nationally, most school districts opt for a less-drastic turnaround, called transformation, because of the difficulty of finding enough new, stellar teachers. With that same concern, Maclin was apt to keep the good teacher he already knew, unless a new applicant was a superstar.

In general, Maclin is hesitant to hire brand-new teachers, given the challenges of working in urban schools. The exception: Central office required him to hire at least one Teach for America candidate. Maclin decided to hire two because he didn’t want the TFA teacher to be alone in the new environment. Both rookies have a mentor.

On the flip side, Maclin also required older teachers to take on student teachers, who might be able to clue them in to some innovations in teaching.

“It goes both ways,” Maclin says. “You can’t fire everyone.”

Eight percent of the new hires are teachers and staff who followed Maclin from South Shore High School of the Fine Arts, a former small school at the old South Shore campus on 70th Street. Under Maclin’s leadership, it was the only one of the four small schools to make it off academic probation.

Lamont Bryant, the former championship basketball coach at Marshall High School in Garfield Park, worked with Maclin at South Shore until it was closed. Bryant then got a job at Dunbar Academy, but halfway through last year, when Maclin had an opening, Bryant jumped at the chance to work with him again.

“Mac is special,” Bryant says.

Maclin’s relationship with his staff even endured September’s teachers strike. Whereas other principals say the strike created a rift between administration and teachers, Maclin picks up an oversized greeting card that was signed by the teachers. He brought them water and coffee.

And while he worried about the momentum with the teachers being lost, a strange thing happened while teachers were picketing together. The veterans became friends with the newbies, developing a sense of camaraderie  that hadn’t been there before.

But Maclin says the looming strike might have kept some students from coming to school on Sept. 4, the true first day. CVCA was projected to have 996 students—up from 655 the year before. The first week of school 137 students did not show up. Once the strike was over, 80 of those 137 arrived.

“We are still trying to locate the rest of the students,” says Maclin, noting that some of them got last minute spots in charter schools or other places. 

Inside the massive CVCA building, the first thing that Maclin shows off illustrates his approach to his job. In the space that formerly housed the main office, Maclin removed staff mailboxes and the time-card machine, relocated the clerks, had the room painted light blue and transformed it into a student center, with computers and desks for each of the class presidents.

Maclin wanted to give the space to the students because it has the best Internet connection in the building. The move also lets students know they are the focus of the school, he says.

One summer day, junior class president Matthew Covington stops by and Maclin tells him to get with the business manager to pick out office furniture.

“He runs the school,” Maclin says of Matthew. “He is the real principal.”

Matthew smiles.

Tracey Johnson, the former chair of the local school council and current head of the parent advisory committee, says she has had good relationships with all of the principals who have led the school since her daughter first enrolled. But Maclin stands out because “he’s all about the students,” Johnson says.

Maclin says his philosophy as principal stems from two sources: his training to be a small schools leader and the wisdom handed down to him by his parents—his mother was a teacher and his father worked in the steel mills.
The small schools training taught him that a key to being a principal is communicating the idea: “I see the potential in you. You can count on me.”

“For me, it is about personalization,” Maclin says. He sees himself in the teenagers walking the halls at CVCA and in fact, grew up nearby in Roseland. “They look like me,” he says. “I want these kids to be successful.”

Vernal Breashears, a retired assistant principal at South Shore High School of Entrepreneurship who initially hired Maclin as a teacher, believes the attention Maclin gives students encourages them to behave and achieve. “You can’t get around love,” she says.

Though the small schools concept has lost much of its luster in the education world, Breashears and Maclin both insist that many of the concepts remain valid, especially for struggling schools in poor neighborhoods.

Student cohorts are one of those concepts, keeping students together throughout a school day so that all their classes are with the same group of teachers. Teachers can communicate better with each other about their students, who otherwise might get lost in a big school, says Breashears.

“So if Johnny is coming to one class and then ducking out every day at 1:30, the teachers might realize that and try to figure out what is going on,” Breashears says. “Is he leaving to go to a job? Does he have to pick up a little sister? It allows teachers to do a deep dive.”

Maclin plans to put the cohort model in place at CVCA, as enrollment grows.

Another small schools carryover is the idea that students should have some contact with their school five times over the summer. To accomplish this, Maclin used his own discretionary budget to pay for Freshman Connection and Step Up, programs that give extra academic support to incoming 9th-graders who are behind. He also held an orientation for each grade level, plus two school-wide social events.

Among the initiatives that Maclin is most proud of is an incentive program based on something he learned from his steelworker father: Students should be rewarded for doing well.

“He would give money to me and my siblings for grades, and he would get 100 White Castle hamburgers and give them to the kids in the neighborhood who did well,” Maclin recalls.

At CVCA, honors students are not just those who get good grades, but also those with good attendance and behavior.

“Perfect attendance is $50 [off of the student fee]. Good attendance, less than three days absent, is $25,” Maclin told parents and students at freshman orientation last summer. “A’s are $10. So if you get seven A’s, multiply by 10 and you get $70. I know you are going to clap for that.”

“Students feel themselves on the right path, and they feel proud,” Maclin says.

In addition to individual achievement, Maclin wants students to feel that they are working together with their classmates. Senior Maque McMiller says Maclin told her class that if they did better on the ACT, he would take them all to Great America amusement park. McMiller is one of the stars of her class—she is on the honor roll and is taking dual-enrollment classes at a local college—but she took the challenge to work with her classmates to get everyone prepared. The result: Scores rose, and the class made the trip.

Of the three principals who have come and gone since she enrolled at CVCA, Maclin is the best, says Maque.

“Things have changed dramatically,” she says. “People are not always fighting and arguing. He asks us what we want and rewards us for what we do.”

Maclin says he has a secret agenda with the trips he chooses. Rather than take students to a movie theater in the community, he takes them to Schaumburg or another suburb, to a different Chicago neighborhood or to an unusual restaurant. He also takes them on college tours.

“I want them to be exposed to things,” Maclin says. “I don’t want to take them from one poor neighborhood to another poor neighborhood.”

His larger message is simple, but important to counteract the negative messages many of his students get in their communities: “Good kids win.”

Maclin is clearly excited about all the new initiatives at the school, including plans to turn CVCA into a specialty STEM school with a curricular focus on science, technology and math. But he is quick to admit that it is a work in progress. “Not everything is perfect. Far from perfect. But we are trying.”

In addition to the incentives, he has brought in a lot more supports, including six off-duty police officers and 10 City Year volunteers.

Maclin explains that the students respect police officers and that he wants them around to prevent students from acting out, not to arrest more of them. The off-duty police officers also do house visits, something that he wouldn’t make the teachers do, considering some of the dangers in the neighborhoods.

“Our teachers are here to teach, not to be truant officers,” he says.

One day in September, it is evident why he wants the extra staff on hand. Maclin walks into a science class where the teacher has a food label on a projector and is asking questions based on it. “How much protein does tofu have?” she says.

A girl, named Jasmine, answers.

A boy is sitting on a desk near a window. He is out of the eye sight of the teacher and she acts like she doesn’t see him. Maclin walks over to him. After a minute or two, the boy gathers his book and heads to a desk toward the back. Maclin rests his hand on the boy’s shoulder and directs him to a desk in the middle.

On his way out of the class, he stops and talks to a City Year volunteer. He hands her a sheet of paper with the boy’s name on it. “I want daily updates,” he says. “I don’t like that the boy is being isolated.”

As Maclin walks down the hall, he spots a skinny boy with dreadlocks. “Why aren’t you in class?” he asks him. The boy continues walking, but gets intercepted by Dean LaTasha Taylor. Maclin has deans on every floor who work the hall along with the security guards. “Where are you going?” Taylor asks.

“To ROTC,” the boy says.

“You are late,” Taylor says.

As he walks away, but still within his earshot, Maclin tells the dean that the boy is smart as he tested into an accelerated math and science program. “I saw him do math. He is a genius,” Maclin says.

Taylor bristles a bit at this description. “He is getting his schedule changed by next week,” she says.

Maclin later says he suspects Taylor is trying to get him put in the regular education track because he is acting out and perhaps not performing in class. But Maclin won’t let that happen, he says. The freshman boy has several cousins in the school and they are not studious. “They are street,” he says. “He needs to be away from his cousins.” 

Next week, Maclin starts his monthly town hall meetings with students. At the meeting, Maclin tries to impart some of the wisdom his parents handed down to him. His favorite saying, one he repeats often to students, comes from his mother. “She would tell me that by the time you are 30, you should be doing something,” he says. “I always knew I had up until I was 30” to get out of school and get a job.

He also talks to the students about resilience. In glowing terms, he talks about his father, who had a 6th- grade education but brought up a cadre of responsible, respectable children. There’s also the girl Maclin remembers from South Shore High School of Fine Arts, who had one leg markedly shorter than the other but was one of the best dancers at the school.

After talking about everyone else, Maclin mentions, off-hand and seemingly as an after-thought, that he goes to dialysis three times a week. Being sick didn’t stop him either.

“I tell [students] that there are no victims here, that no one owes them anything.”

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below or send an email to karp@catalyst-chicago.org.