In 2010, 48 high schools in Illinois were eligible for federal School Improvement Grant funds. Ten schools received grants ranging from $5.8 million to $1.1 million. Academic performance at these schools stands in stark contrast to state and national averages.
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.
For years, the percentage of teenagers who attend their neighborhood high school hovered around 50 percent. But since the district has increased school options, primarily charter schools, that percentage has fallen and is now just 38 percent. As a result, principals scramble to find students and district officials admit that they need to take a hard look at the role of these schools—many of which are struggling academically.
With a big federal grant and a brand-new staff, Marshall is one of more than 800 high schools across the country that have launched turnarounds. Many of these schools face a dilemma: They need students to keep their budgets and staff intact, but find it tough to improve academics with too many low-achievers.
Donald Fraynd, the sprightly former Jones College Prep principal, has led the district’s school turnaround effort since its inception. At Catalyst Chicago press time, he was serving as interim chief of schools for a group of high schools on the South and West sides. But his heart remained with the cadre of struggling schools that he’s charged with improving. Fraynd says these big neighborhood high schools, like Marshall and Phillips, do have a role to play in the district’s future.
Tamoura Hayes began and finished high school as the district debuted first one, then another, grand experiment to improve Marshall and other failing high schools. Freshman year brought High School Transformation, which later withered and died. Senior year brought a turnaround, a fresh start from scratch.
When CPS leaders announced that Marshall would become part of its turnaround program, there was an additional push beyond low test scores: The state had sanctioned Marshall because of its badly-run special education program. Nationally, schools like Marshall—in the bottom 5 percent in a state—enroll a disproportionately high number of students who need special services.