Chicago Looks to ‘Turnarounds’ to Lift Failing Schools

Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, February 15, 2008

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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