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Chicago Looks to ‘Turnarounds’ to Lift Failing Schools

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Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, February 15, 2008


Harvard [Harvard Elementary on Chicago’s South Side] is one of several public schools here to get a top-to-bottom housecleaning in recent years — including replacing the principal and most teachers — in a bid to lift student achievement out of the nation’s academic basement. The drastic approach is known as “turnaround,” and Chicago is embracing it more than any US city, though it’s unproven and is controversial among teachers, many parents, and students.


As Principal [Andrew] Cowling [sees it, the risk paid off. Until Harvard Elementary went through turnaround, the school was like “Beirut,” he says — 50 kids running through the halls at any time, holes in the floors and peeling paint on the walls, fights on or near campus, no order in the classrooms.


For an encore, the city is proposing simultaneous turnarounds at eight Chicago schools in the fall: four high schools and four elementary schools that feed into them. Even for a city that already leads the nation in school-reform ideas, the proposal is unusually bold and sweeping. Districts across the US — many with schools facing reconstitution requirements under the No Child Left Behind law — are watching with interest.


The eight schools slated for turnaround are among the worst performers in the district: At the high schools, an average student misses at least 35 days of school a year, dropout rates are above 10 percent, and the passing rate on state tests hovers at about 10 percent.


Teachers, of course, are upset about a reform that requires a school’s entire staff to be let go, even if teachers can reapply.


Administrators acknowledge the challenge of finding enough high-quality teachers willing to work with poor children in low-performing schools. But recruiting is easier if there’s a dynamic principal who can get people to buy into a new mission for a school, they say. It’s also one reason Chicago chose a nonprofit, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), to manage the turnarounds at several of the schools: the Orr High School campus, made up of three small schools, and two elementary schools that feed into them.

AUSL, which also manages the turnaround at Harvard Elementary, trains and recruits teachers for urban classrooms. Its proposal for Orr, in fact, includes setting up the new high school as a teacher training academy, where mentor teachers would be matched with those just learning.


That wholesale staff turnover — giving a new principal the ability to shape who’s working for him or her — is the most crucial element to a turnaround’s success, says Mr. Calkins of Mass Insight, but it’s not the only one. Other key elements are added time for teachers to plan and collaborate, longer school days or school years, clustering turnaround schools so they can learn from one another, local authority over budget and curricula, and support for teachers and administrators from outside the school, such as the district or an outside group like AUSL.

At Harvard Elementary, Cowling had the whole school repainted, moved his office so he was more visible to the older kids, separated the seventh and eighth grades into single-gender classes, and has the teachers work together for five weeks in the summer to map out the school year and start on the same page.


Original article

(Posted on February 19, 2008)

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Some of this might result in slightly better discipline, but it won’t mean that the students are learning any better. St. Louis had a “turnaround firm” (Alvarez & Marsal) run the city’s schools for a year, and it didn’t turn around much.

Posted by St. Louis CofCC Blogmeister at 5:25 PM on February 19

This will be another colossal failure whose costs will be passed along to the taxpayer. I used to hear about the horrible condition of textbooks as the reason for black schools failing. Then the dirty floors, then no computers, now it is the paint. At some point even the most entrenced leftist will have to at least admit to themselves if noone else that the problem lies within black culture.

Posted by Eric at 5:55 PM on February 19

“Get ahead” programs for inner city schools remind me of the night club business in one concrete way. I`ve always thought it profound that the new owner of a bar could spend up to $500,000 dollars on new decor and other remodeling, and yet lose more money and close quicker than the last guy. Sounds like the case here doesn`t it?!?…

Posted by Tim Mc Hugh at 6:04 PM on February 19

“Administrators acknowledge the challenge of finding enough high-quality teachers willing to work with poor children in low-performing schools.”

Assuming that there is such a thing as a “high-quality teacher” these days, why would any self-respecting professional go to work for a school which arbitrarily lays off its entire teaching staff like this? I can’t think of a better way to drive a school into the ground, not that it really matters with schools like these. They’re doomed to fail regardless of how many coats of new paint they get.

Posted by Spengler at 7:37 PM on February 19

There is only one thing Chicago can do to improve its schools. Make going to school voluntary. The problem students (and their parents) really don’t want to be involved with education and can’t benefit from it anyway due to genetic reasons. All they really do is prevent the other students from getting an education. If they were allowed to stay at home if they wanted to, 1) there would be no change whatsoever in the benefit they got from school (lol), 2) most of them would choose to stay home, 3) the aggregate test scores would dramatically improve in a short period of time and 4) the remaining students would do FAR better than they are doing now, causing huge long term benefit.

That’s the truth. It’s an uncomfortable truth but it is the way things are.

Posted by at 8:59 PM on February 19

“That wholesale staff turnover — giving a new principal the ability to shape who’s working for him or her — is the most crucial element to a turnaround’s success…”

This is of course true. BUT!! Does a principal really have the authority tp pick his own staff? Or will he be hindered by those who insist the staff reflect he “diversity” of the area?

Posted by Mike Harrigan at 9:02 PM on February 19

The world over blacks can’t compete in first world societies because of a general lack of intelligence.

In the US, one thing after another is tried. One thing after another is blamed. One thing after another are held up as excuses for their inadequacies. But nothing has worked.

And nothing will work because blacks should be taught at their own level, not on a level of people smarter than they are.

What part of that don’t they and they’re leftist oddballs understand?

Posted by w.r. at 9:20 PM on February 19

“AUSL, which also manages the turnaround at Harvard Elementary, trains and recruits teachers for urban classrooms.”

Sounds like same kind of training programs that elite military units undergo.

Posted by ZKR at 10:15 PM on February 19

Orr HS is currently being threatened with being closed entirely. I work in that area, and almost all of the felons I deal with daily are Orr dropouts, or soon to be dropouts. Westinghouse HS, just east of there, is being totally demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. Sadly, it wont change much, as the same familes that dropped out at the old school will have new family members dropping out at the new one. I am constantly amazed at the amount of 18-28 yr old black males who cannot read a sentence on a government form. How did they get THIS far? Who let them?

It is NOT an issue of the newness of the facility. Scholastic success comes from caring teachers, parents, and students who all value education, and will not tolerate failure as a fashion statement. In the chicago public high schools I see, there is no pressure or expectation to succeed, and much encouragement to fail.

Posted by Wilhelm at 10:29 PM on February 19

Instead of saying “poor children in low-performing schools”, why not just tell the truth — unruly, out-of-control black youths who don’t want to be there? You can do cosmetics (painting the principal’s office) till the cows come home and it won’t make a hill of beans.
Would’nt the liberals just love to send their 14-year old daughters to this hell-hole?
How ‘bout just making it a reform school and calling it a school?

Posted by at 12:29 AM on February 20

Libertarian and traditionalist reformers alike miss the larger issue. The problem is not a lack of “choice”; it’s an abundance of blacks. That is, the main problem with underachieving black schools is that they’re black. All “reform” efforts not cognizant of this reality are doomed to fail.

Posted by Seeker at 1:45 AM on February 20

How about paint the place, supervise the teachers, spank the students! Police the halls, supervise the parking lots, discipline the parents. Jail the thugs, control the students, encourage the parents. Geezzzz I am sick of the whining and such……

Posted by Trisket at 2:31 AM on February 20

Why would a “high quality” teacher throw away their life trying to educate Blacks? Much more rewarding for the terminally compassionate to work in special ed, teaching retarded kids to use a toilet. At least they don’t have to lie to one another about the prospects of their charges.

Posted by Schoolteacher at 2:45 AM on February 20

What! Single-gender classes? Oh my, oh my…that’s sooo 19th century…

Posted by EW at 5:33 AM on February 20

Instead of saying �poor children in low-performing schools�, why not just tell the truth�unruly, out-of-control black youths who don�t want to be there? You can do cosmetics (painting the principal�s office) till the cows come home and it won�t make a hill of beans.
Would�nt the liberals just love to send their 14-year old daughters to this hell-hole?

How �bout just making it a reform school and calling it a school?

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

It is all about keeping up appearances. Keep the walls nicely painted, spend a few million dollars on multi media rooms and put state of the art computers in every classroom, dumb down the curriculum to a cave man level, and given everyone an A who shows up for class at least 40 percent of the time (or better yet abolish grades altogether), and release them into the wild once they reach 17 and everybody is happy.

Posted by at 10:53 AM on February 20

All of these new ideas are doomed for failure/ The majority of the students have room temperature IQs. donald (retired jr college teacher)

Posted by donald at 2:33 PM on February 20

One can not reform genetics through the application of leftist social engineering. It has been tried and it has failed, but rather than admit the truth those who pander to minorities choose to continue down a path that leads nowhere. One of the accepted definitions of insanity is when one applies the same failed process over and over again hoping for different results…

Posted by at 11:27 AM on February 21

Here’s a ‘turnaround’ for you: let the staff evict unruly students from the classroom and even the school if need calls for it. Try educating the ones who actually give a rip about learning. Start from the top down and go from there.

To be quite blunt the old maxim is true - “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” And most teachers (minus a few heroes) simply CANNOT make a serious, studious young person out of a violence-prone brat. They are under too many restraints of law and time.

Posted by Dark-Star at 12:25 PM on February 21

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I lived in an all White suburb and attended an all White high school. It was the mid seventies. About every month there was an artticle in the Chicago papers about some great reforming black female prinicpal who was going to turn around the chicago public school system.

Didn’t work then won’t work now 40 years later.

Posted by at 10:38 PM on February 24

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