This month, Gage Park High School on the Southwest Side joins Gale Community Academy on the Far North Side in our series on the the school system’s new leadership and policies, viewed from the bottom up.
PRINCIPAL CONTRACTS The following administrators, teachers and assistant, acting and interim principals have received full principal contracts: Marjorie Adams, Nettlehorst; Alejandro Alvarez, Bowen High; Shirley Antwi-Barfi, Jensen/Miller Child/Parent Center; Renaud Beaudoin, Newberry; Beverly Bennett, Simpson Alternative High; Myron Berger, Near North Special Education Center; Lona Bibbs, Westinghouse Vocational High; James Burns, Henry; Arlene Coffey, Esmond; Isabel Mesa Collins, Drummond; Michael Connolly, Canty; Carolyn Draper, Cullen; Lloyd Ehrenberg, Prussing.
Program ‘working well’
In 35 of the 42 cases, parents were placed under court supervision and required to get their child back in school. In most instances, the student’s attendance improved, and supervision was dropped, reports Ernest Grant, director of the the board’s Student Truancy Retrieval Assistance Program (STRAP). In the remaining seven cases, parents failed to show up in court.
Gage Park High sits a couple blocks west of what used to be the Southwest Side’s “color line.” As late as the 1980 census, almost no black families lived west of Western Avenue in the Gage Park and Chicago Lawn communities. The school itself had been desegregated by court order in the 1970s; some veteran Gage Park teachers remember the riots that followed.
To help fix what was ailing their schools, Lubov, Tyson and O’Connell turned, with our assistance, to a model that was originally developed for use in corporations. It’s a model of continuous-improvement leadership principles that had proven itself capable of turning failing companies—Ford and Xerox to name just two—back toward success, but is only now being applied to an educational environment.
Q One of the key criticisms of whole language is that kids need phonics to learn to read and that whole language doesn’t teach phonics.
The phonics approach to reading was popularized only since about 1915. So the first question is, how the hell did everyone learn how to read in the 4,000 years of written language before phonics was invented?
In fact, whole language is a return to the eternal fundamentals of education: kids reading whole, original books, writing whole, original texts of their own in a community of fellow learners with an experienced adult guiding them. That’s whole language. That’s the ancient way, the “primitive” way, the truly back-to-basics form of education.
What are teachers doing differently?
We view reading and mathematics as the school’s most important subjects. For example, music and art teachers devise methods of teaching their subject in such a way that it reinforces the importance of reading and mathematics. All of our teachers compile statistical profiles of each student’s progress and make adjustments necessary to assure success.
“Many African-American educators have spent large portions of their professional lives protesting the cultural biases of tests and protesting their nearly universal use to no avail,” she writes in the 1989 book Effective Schools: Critical Issues in the Education of Black Children. “Today, it seems that the way to eliminate tests is to help minorities to pass them. … Effective, high achieving, African-American elementary schools are now doing this. … Perhaps in a decade SATs, CATs, MATs, ITBS, and all the other ‘T’ tests will be extinct. … Tests can then become the diagnostic tools they were meant to be instead of the mechanism for separating winners and losers.”
Technically a part of Dyett Middle School in Washington Park, Perspectives has only two classrooms, which are located in donated space at Columbia College. Most of its students—half of whom are African American, half Latino—enrolled in 1993 as 6th-graders. While a few were high achievers, many more had academic and social problems. “These were not cream-of-the-crop kids,” says Shulla.
Who, or what kinds of people, have advocated it?
Lots: political conservatives who want to get “social issues” out of the curriculum, taxpayers who want to reduce their tax bills by cutting “fluff,” employers who complain they can’t find high school graduates who can read or calculate, inner-city minorities who argue that their children have been ignored or shortchanged in instruction in basic skills. Of course, these groups don’t all conceive of back to basics in the same way.
Brodinsky noted that when a school system gets a new superintendent—especially one who is young, activist and black—a dramatic shift to the basics often follows, not because of outside pressure but because that’s what the new leader wants. Ruth Love took that course when she came to Oakland, Calif., in 1975 and, to some extent, when she came to Chicago in 1981.
STANDARDS At each grade level, there will be achievement standards in core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies. The existing Chicago Learning Outcomes “may form the basis of this plan,” said Vallas. However, the outcomes, written as a joint project of the former board and the Chicago Teachers Union, are in for streamlining. “If you take a look at the outcomes, maybe 50 percent at best are articulable and able to be understood by a broad group of people,” said Chico. “I think we can write better standards that are agreed upon by the broader community and that we can get our arms around and actually get behind, school by school.”
Intensive phonics, scripts and highly structured lessons are all central to Direct Instruction, a form of teaching Joplin adopted a year ago. DI relies heavily on drills and worksheets to reinforce learning, and teachers are taught to follow verbatim the scripts that come with the curriculum. Lessons are scripted to make communication with students as clear as possible.
Teachers also learn to immediately correct mistakes, such as a mispronounced word, and to praise children frequently. Those techniques are key, says Joplin Principal James Murray. Without correction, “children commit a mistake to memory and keep doing it,” he says. “And teachers must give constant praise [and] continuous positive reinforcement.”
Days like Nov. 9, 1977, when the administration announced plans to check the reading progress of students every two weeks to find out which students were slow and which were fast and, by extension, which teachers were good and which were not so good. Teachers were to put together remedial plans for the slow students and devote extra time to reading. For its part, the administration said it would recruit volunteer tutors, including college students, to assist pupils three times a week.
During a taping of a public affairs radio program with three City Hall reporters—Bill Cameron of WMAQ-AM, Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times and John Kass of the Tribune—Chico talked mainly about plans that already had been made public: Alternative schools for disruptive students. Putting pressure on parents of chronic truants. Getting out of a desegregation consent decree requirement for racial balance on school faculties.
While Chicago schools have been spared mandates, they are being pushed strongly in one direction. So far, the School Board has invested only in programs that focus on the discrete skills measured by standardized achievement tests. These include Barbara Sizemore’s School Achievement Structure, the direct instruction program of Malcolm X College, and Sylvan Learning Systems. Schools that accept these programs—at the moment, they have little choice—likely will do better than they have in the past. For one, there’s no doubt that phonics should be taught.