All in a Day's Work
At 8:45 a.m. on a frigid Monday morning, Charles Mingo, Whitman scholar, Thompson fellow, and Milken award-winning principal of DuSable High School on Chicago's South Side, begins the second semester in a closed-door conference-room meeting with 20 assistant principals, school directors, counselors, and curriculum specialists. In a way, the meeting, as edgy as it occasionally becomes, is for Mingo a kind of extended respite. For outside the principal's door, from morning until night, a perpetual parade of petitioners wait to make their pleas. An agitated parent wants her son, expelled from his last school for stealing, to get another chance at DuSable (he does); security wants cars blocking the school's delivery zone removed (Mingo summons a Chicago police officer to issue tickets); a substitute teacher shows up in a brand-new suit looking for work (come back tomorrow, he's told). All approach the principal with great deference, sometimes bowing slightly and backing out of his office as they express their gratitude. A soft-spoken man of imposing bulk--he's as thick as a tree trunk--Mingo presides over the meetings like Don Corleone in "The Godfather."
At the morning meeting, Mingo covers a wide range of topics. He tells those gathered that they need to do a better job of tracking down students who have not submitted their free-lunch applications. He also urges them to use the allure of DuSable's state-of-the-art technology to recruit better-quality students from the city's middle schools.
(DuSable has a home page on the Internet, and each student has an e-mail address.) But what seems foremost on Mingo's mind is the just-published "academic watch list," on which DuSable appears with another 131 of Chicago's 560 public schools. Schools on the watch list, Mingo tells his staff, have not met minimum test-score requirements. All kinds of bad fates can befall these schools; their local governing councils, even their principals, can be dismissed.
"We can do better than we're doing," Mingo says. "We can't use excuses anymore. We're on the list, but we have a fighting chance of getting off."
Actually, DuSable is not on the watch list, and, for that matter, neither is any other Chicago public school. Under a 1991 state law, a school gets placed on the watch list if it fails to meet minimum standards on the Illinois Goals and Assessment Program, or IGAP, and its school-improvement plan is deemed unsatisfactory. But no school's improvement plan has ever been deemed unsatisfactory. Hence, there is--at least in an official sense--no watch list. But in December 1994, the Chicago Sun-Times published a list of 149 schools in which 50 percent or more of the students scored badly on the IGAP tests; in January 1996, the paper published a revised list of 132 schools. As far as school administrators and the general public are concerned, this is now the academic watch list.
The fact that DuSable is on the quasi-official list can hardly come as a surprise to Mingo, or to anyone else for that matter. Located in one of the nation's poorest communities, the school draws many of its students from the adjacent Robert Taylor Homes, a public-housing complex notorious for its gangs and violence. The school population is highly transient, with many students attending DuSable for a year or less. Most arrive with academic skills at the 6th-grade level or below. Thirty-eight students, according to school reading specialist Diana Morgan, cannot read at all, though they have never been identified as requiring a special-education program.
"After eight years of doing nothing in elementary school," one staff member at the meeting says, "they think four years of doing nothing in high school will be easy."
"And it is," Mingo replies.
Mingo's announcement casts a defensive pall over the meeting. It's a reminder of just how hard it is for the school to raise academic achievement, as evidenced by the fact that for the 1994-95 school year, 75 percent of all students received at least one F. Mingo has just received the data for the first semester, which indicate that 140 students failed four or more subjects. "Why do I have to point these 140 failing kids out to the counselors?" an exasperated Mingo asks. "Why do I have to be the one to catch them when it's the counselors' job to make interventions?"
One of the counselors, sounding a bit likea scolded child, explains that some of the students had never before failed and hence their F's had been impossible to predict. They were the victims of unforeseen circumstances: pregnancies, parental drug abuse, and countless other calamities. This provokes someone else to launch into a disquisition on tough love and how kids must not be permitted to use adversity as an excuse for failure. But the counselor is unmoved. "You've got to look at individual cases," she insists.
This is not what Mingo wants to hear. "I'm the sweeper," he exclaims. "I'm cleaning up for those who aren't making an intervention. Somebody should have done something over the last 10 weeks to check up on these failing kids. We can't all be sitting here on the watch list and thinking everything's all right."
But even this blast doesn't stifle the grumbling, much of it coming from two counselors who seem to feel singled out for criticism. When Mingo suggests that teachers should get together to discuss failing students, one counselor claims that teachers just don't have the time. Mingo retorts, "Teachers at DuSable have more time than any other teachers in the city."
The counselors then tell Mingo that he should spend more time in the classroom. "You need a presence," one says. "The kids need to see you." Patiently, Mingo explains that it is no longer possible for him to get around to classes as much as he once did. "I told the teachers on the first day of school, 'The instructional role is yours. I'm the resource gatherer, the leader. I have to worry about things like spending three grand a month for security. So instruction is your piece.'"
To raise academic achievement, Mingo plans to bring in experts--master teachers--to work with those DuSable teachers who, as the principal puts it, "want to do well but don't know how." He cites a number of teachers who seem fixated on grammar. "Some folks," he says, "have been teaching verbs for 13 weeks and nothing else."
"And yet the students still can't identify a verb," one woman mumbles under her breath.
A lot of talk centers on the need for more in-service teacher training and the like, but Mingo cuts it off. He wants to get to the bottom line. "This is the only profession I know of where out of a 180-day school year, we plan for 178 days but implement two," he says with exasperation. "We are the world's most talkingest, planningest group. But if all these plans work, why are we still on the watch list? It's like this: There is people, and there is paper. Teaching children is a people thing. But we tend to like doing the paper thing and don't do the people thing. Now, the first semester, we gave teachers time for planning, and I don't have any trouble with that. But from this week on, we're going into the test-prep mode. We're going to work with the kids on taking this test."
For Mingo, then, the bottom line is the test--specifically, the IGAP. This is not only the case for Mingo but for almost everyone else in Illinois, as well: state policymakers (who require it), central-office administrators (who use it to judge their schools), and school administrators (whose reputations are determined by how their students do on it). The test is everything. Newspapers publish school results; parents and politicians alike take notice. In education, whole careers can rise or fall on test scores.
Many veteran observers of the Chicago scene see the redoubled emphasis on test scores as a step backward. "It's destructive," says Donald Moore, the director of the local school-reform group Designs for Change. "People are scrambling to get off the watch list, abandoning strategies for long-term improvement in favor of short-term ways to do better on the test." One nefarious way of inflating test scores, Moore says, is to work with students who are close to the passing line while ignoring those whose scores are considered hopelessly low.
Before the meeting breaks up, Mingo and Assistant Vice Principal Lolita Green lay out a battle plan. For the next two weeks, DuSable students will undergo intensive training specifically geared to getting them through the IGAP. They will receive special test-preparation schedules and rotate through rooms devoted to specific sections of the test. Teachers will go over the IGAP format, sample questions, and various test-taking strategies. They will hold several formalized test-taking sessions before the IGAP is actually administered. "This has priority," Mingo says. "Everything else is secondary."
Tomorrow, Mingo tells the group, he wants to give the students a pep talk on the importance of the IGAP. He also wants to come up with some sort of button, something that "will pep the students up."
"I'm a button person," he explains.
At 11:40, the meeting finally ends, and Mingo strolls through the corridors toward the lunchroom, grousing a bit about counselors who "like to sit in their offices and have everything come to them."
Walking with Mingo is a stop-and-go experience. He's constantly pausing to maintain order. But by most appearances, the school is as well-ordered as most suburban schools. The hallways are quiet between classes, and there is no graffiti anywhere--not even in the bathrooms. Mingo explains that graffiti must be immediately removed, for if it's allowed to stand, students feel compelled to respond to it in kind.
Nevertheless, a few stragglers hang out in the halls, and when Mingo comes across them he peremptorily demands that they show him their ID cards, which all students must carry. If the student hesitates, Mingo bellows, "Show me your ID, or you may go to jail!" One such student is opening his locker when Mingo asks to see his ID. The student slams the door shut and then bolts down the corridor. Mingo yells after him, "Come back here! I know your locker number!"
Walking through the school, one gets an overwhelming sense of sheer functionality; the building is aged, Spartan, and clean, in part because Mingo constantly orders lingering students to pick up litter. At one point, he notices that there are no trash receptacles in a corridor. He immediately seeks out a custodian. "Where are people supposed to put their trash?" he asks. "Let's get something in here now."
In the computer room, which is lined with new Macintoshes, students cluster around a terminal, putting together the school newspaper. In another room, the air thick with the scent of plants and caged animals, students gather around a glass tank, spellbound by a snake devouring a rodent. The room is both a horticultural garden and a miniature zoo, supervised by science teacher Emile Hamberlin, whose students tend to the flora and fauna. A door opens onto a courtyard outside, where peacocks emerge from the shadows. "I work for the students, and Mingo works for me, and that's exactly the way it's supposed to be," Hamberlin explains. "Other principals wanted me to get rid of this stuff, but Mingo lets me run with it."
Back inside, Mingo has stopped to talk to some staff members. They are standing beside a poster from the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national reform group that DuSable belongs to. The poster enumerates the coalition's nine common principles: A school's program "shouldbe shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that students need"; "no teacher should have direct responsibility for more than 80 students"; students should be workers and teachers coaches, as opposed to the "more familiar teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services."
In at least some respects, DuSable has tried to translate these and the other principles into practice. The school of 1,500 students has been divided into 10 small schools organized around clusters of subjects, such as health, athletics, and technology; journalism and communication; and performing arts and humanities. Students will remain in their school-within-a-school and have at least some of the same teachers for all four years. Classes consist of 100-minute blocks so there is, in theory, more time for thorough exploration of the subject at hand.
Yet almost directly across the hall from the coalition poster is another that seems to belie everything the coalition stands for. In bright red letters, it reads, "ZAP THE IGAP." But Mingo is quick to explain the obvious contradiction between the emphasis on standardized tests and the progressive principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools: "That's one problem I have with the coalition," he says. "They just don't understand the importance of these tests. You've got to play the game."
Mingo's office has a curatorial aspect, so packed is it with memorabilia, honors, and framed newspaper articles. Photographs of Mingo with George Bush, Fred Rogers (of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"), and Harold Washington, the late mayor of Chicago and a DuSable graduate. Plaques from the Milken Foundation, the Urban League, and a half-dozen other prominent organizations. And a grainy 1960s newspaper photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. being escorted down a path by a somber-looking bodyguard who happens to be Mingo's father.
Mingo, few would disagree, fully deserves the accolades he has received. From his first administrative position as assistant principal at Chicago's Austin High School in 1970--Mingo began his career as a high school math and biology teacher--he has developed a reputation as an innovative yet no-nonsense educator who knows how to establish discipline and decorum within a school.
Still, tough as he is, Mingo is no Joe Clark, the notorious bat-wielding New Jersey principal who transformed his urban high school into something of a police state to maintain order. Mingo has presence, but it's not, for all of his apparent authority, an ominous presence. While he occasionally shows flashes of anger, he is a listener and conciliator by nature. He can be intimidating, it's true, but that's on account of an almost congenital inability to abide foolishness. He lets people talk themselves out so dissemblers and quibblers eventually wilt under his gaze.
After four years at Austin High, Mingo became an assistant principal at Whitney Young, a new magnet school that quickly developed a reputation for academic excellence. He remained there until 1985, when he accepted a position as a district administrator. One of his duties involved trying to "clean up" a school--he requests that it remain unnamed--that he simply describes as "a mess." When Mingo first arrived in the building, he found kids running through the halls when classes were supposed to be in session. He asked the students to return to class, but they told him there were no teachers in the classrooms. Sure enough, they were telling the truth; the teachers were truant. Mingo went undercover and spotted several teachers in the school parking lot trying to slip out midday. Some, it turned out, were holding down second jobs when they should have been in class.
Surveillance is not typically part of the educational calling. But, in a way, it prepared Mingo for DuSable, where he assumed the principalship in 1989. "It was wild and woolly," Mingo says. According to one staff member, the students so intimidated the previous principal that she hid in her office, leaving teachers and students alike "to do whatever they wanted to do." Mingo, on the other hand, ran a tight ship. Teachers were pretty much free to teach as they saw fit, but the principal came down hard on those who neglected their duties. Mingo describes his philosophy this way: "You explain what you want from teachers, give them a chance to buy in, and then hit them with a stick."
Yet the story of Mingo's tenure at DuSable is, at least in part, one about the intractabilityof certain problems endemic to urban high schools. Yes, DuSable is safer than it once was, and teachers may be working harder. But academic achievement, according to both failure rates and test scores, has not improved to any significant extent. A summation of midterm grades, published in the student newspaper, indicated that 75 percent of all freshmen failed at least one class and that only 63 out of 180 seniors passed all of their classes. And, according to the 1995 school report card, chronic truancy at DuSable is at 40.3 percent, substantially more than the district average of 5.7 percent. (The rate refers to the percentage of students who miss 18 or more of the school year's 180 days.) It should be noted, however, that when Mingo arrived at DuSable, the chronic truancy rate was 79.8 percent; one year later, it had fallen by 14 percent.
At 1 p.m., a DuSable student and her mother are escorted into Mingo's office. Following close behind is a math teacher. As it turns out, the girl and her mother have a number of complaints about the teacher. The girl begins, claiming that the teacher refuses to answer her questions in class. As a result, she does not know how to solve the problems. The teacher, defending himself, says he uses cooperative learning in his classroom and that his students know they must try to solve the problems themselves before coming to him for help. Besides, the teacher says, and at this point he looks the student directly in the eye, the girl doesn't come to class.
Mingo, who apparently hadn't been aware of this fact, turns toward the student. "When you come to school but not to class, what is that called?" he asks. "Tell your mother."
"I'm aware, already," the mother says wearily.
"Are you telling me she's cutting class with full parental knowledge?" Mingo presses. "Is this correct?"
The mother shrugs the question off, shifting the conversation to how the teacher had embarrassed her daughter in class by using her name in a word problem he had written on the blackboard. The teacher explains that this is his way of personalizing problems. The girl begins to cry, saying she felt ridiculed.
"He humiliates her," the mother says.
"When I tried to erase it, he grabbed my arm," the girl adds.
Mingo admonishes the teacher. "Anytime you personalize a situation, you're asking for trouble," he says.
The discussion gets prickly when the parent glares at the algebra teacher and says, "This is not an isolated incident. You are failing as a teacher to teach our kids." Indeed, the fact emerges that 16 of the 30 students in the algebra class have failed.
At this point in the meeting, Mingo abruptly gets up, walks over to a microphone in his office, and makes a brief all-school announcement. "Starting tomorrow," he says, "I want all of you to take breakfast and lunch in the school cafeteria, even if you have not paid. There are too many students in this school going hungry."
When Mingo sits back down, he finds the young algebra teacher articulately laying out his defense. He had given the students 10 weeks to prepare for a test, he says. He even had allowed them to take the test home. He put "recipes" on the board, which he instructed the students to copy. He spent $200 of his own money on a video that demonstrated how to work through the problems--problems that were as easy as three minus five. And still, after 10 weeks, kids like this one did not know what three minus five was. And the parent had the temerity to suggest that he was a poor teacher?
"We have people who pass this class," the algebra teacher concludes with some indignation. "I have standards, and so I'm not going to grade this class on a curve."
"You may give the students recipes," the mother retorts, "but if the recipe calls for one-fourth of a cup of sugar, and you don't know what one-fourth is, you still can't follow the recipe."
The teacher continues with his proud appeal to uncompromising standards, but Mingo is unswayed. He's concerned, in particular, about the teacher's apparent unwillingness to answer the students' questions. "I'm hearing that one-half of the students are failing the class but not getting help when asked," he says. "Unless you're certain that the answer is within the group, you're obligated to answer. You must take questions as a legitimate call for help."
Finally, after the discussion has gone on for almost an hour, Mingo concludes that no resolution is possible. "We're dealing with strong feelings," he says, "and feelings are facts."
He agrees, therefore, to transfer the girl to another class. But before he validates the transfer, he tells the mother that the girl, to some extent, is probably blaming the teacher as a "smoke screen for her own failures." Mingo summons the girl's records and discovers that she has also failed English and is on the verge of failing other subjects. "You must monitor your daughter," he tells the mother.
"Yes, Mr. Mingo, thank you," she tells the principal as she rises from her chair.
After the parties depart, Mingo says, "They always want you to say who's right, but it doesn't work that way."
The principal offers no apologies for forcing the teacher to explain himself in front of hostile plaintiffs. "Look," Mingo says, "you can't let the teachers hang out with each other in private. If you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, a situation can be an open book. The problem is that he doesn't want to acknowledge that there's a climate problem in his class, that he's not in their corner. When you start off the year, you should give the kids something they can pass. Once they have something positive on the table, you can gradually raise standards, bring them along with you. But if they have three F's right from the go, they give up."
Mingo's days have no rhythm, no steady flow, and now, after this meeting, it's just one thing after another. People come in with field-trip requests, payrolls to sign, batches of pink telephone slips. Conversations take up everything from parking to security in the computer room to the good deal the school is getting on paper towels.
Late in the afternoon, Mingo receives new academic statistics for the first semester. They indicate that only 51 percent of his students have failed one or more classes, down from last year's 75 percent. This is good news, and he enthusiastically shares it with almost everyone he runs into. This year is shaping up as a big improvement over the 1994-95 school year, which, he says, was a "down year."
Tuesday, 8:30 a.m. The day begins with a heap of administrative details. The new list of failures from the first semester necessitates closing some classes and creating a number of "self-contained" classrooms where struggling students can be closely supervised throughout the day. Mingo spends the first hour of the day wending his way through sheaves of computer printouts with a variety of staff members.
At 9:30, it's time for two more meetings with parents and their children. The first case concerns the boy who was expelled from his previous school for stealing. "Do you know what will happen if you steal here?" Mingo asks.
"What?" the boys asks.
"We will prosecute you," Mingo answers. The boy is solemn, seemingly contrite. Mingo admits him to DuSable, admonishing him to "fall in with the right people."
"Remember," he adds, "water tends to seek its own level."
The second case is more complicated. A 15-year-old sophomore wants to be admitted to DuSable from South Shore High School, where she is still officially enrolled. "She was raped, attacked on school grounds during her freshman year," her mother says by way of introduction. This so traumatized her, the mother explains, that she was absent virtually the entire first semester.
"So you want me to accept an underage child whose parents will not make her attend school?" Mingo asks.
"That's not true, Mr. Mingo."
"Where'd she go while not in school?"
"To a friend's house."
"Why should I take her?"
"She's 15 years old," the mother says. "According to the law, you must take her, Mr. Mingo."
Mingo vacillates. "Show me her grades," he finally says. But the mother has no transcript with her; she'll get them to the principal in the next day or two, she says.
Mingo tries to get hold of the girl's counselor at South Shore but cannot reach her. He hangs up the phone and then leans over the table. "Let me be very frank," he says. "It is customary for kids around here to choose to go to other schools. Then when they fail, or have problems, they come back to DuSable. Now, I already have enough kids not coming to school, and I don't need any more."
He tells the parent he wants a bit of time to mull it over.
Getting kids excited about taking a multiple-choice test is no easy matter, but the staff at DuSable does its best at what is a sort of IGAP pep rally in the auditorium. "The Chicago public school bigwigs have come up with a new way of talking about instruction," Assistant Vice Principal Green tells the students. "We're on the watch list, which means we haven't done well enough on our test scores. The next step is remediation, which means your school becomes a jail--outsiders come in and tell us what we have to do. We want off the watch list, which means we must show improvement in our test scores. Now, your teachers will help you prepare, but it's your responsibility to study hard."
Talk of the IGAP doesn't exactly capture the students' imaginations. A lot of casual chatting can be heard in the audience. Green tries again. "The next five days of test preparation will be exciting," she says. "Study hard, listen to your teachers, and we'll move off that watch list."
Mingo takes the microphone; the chattering suddenly dies down. "I have a new rule for students at DuSable," he says. "If you're over 16, and failing, and not attending school regularly, you've got to go somewhere else. This is a strict, no-nonsense program we run here."
Having scolded them, he now shares the good news. "You've made progress since last year," he says. "Then, 75 percent of the students had at least one failure; now it's 51 percent. Our goal is to get under 50 percent."
At 11, Mingo meets again with the 15-year-old girl and her mother. "Here's what I'm going to do," he says. "I'm going to admit you on a probationary basis to the school of health, athletics, and technology. But I expect her"--and here Mingo looks directly at the mother--"to come to school every day." The mother nods.
To the girl, Mingo says, "Choose your friends carefully. Remember, water seeks its lowest level. Any mess whatsoever, and you're out of DuSable." The girl nods.
"Thank you, Mr. Mingo," the mother says as they get up from their chairs.
At 11:30, Mingo turns his attention to a news release that will be sent to Chicago media outlets. The headline says: "Dropouts Given Second Chance To Graduate." The release reads in part, "Serious students are invited to seek a regular high school diploma and prepare for the world of work. DuSable's Second Chance program's success was featured on CNN national television in 1995 as a fresh approach to dealing with the dropout problem in large urban areas."
With the release in hand, Mingo heads for a classroom, where he asks one of the 20 "Second Chance" students to read it to the class. "Did I tell the truth?" he asks when the student finishes.
"Yes, Mr. Mingo," answer the students, some of whom attend DuSable with their own children in tow. The men wear neckties, the women skirts.
"This program is no green-stamp approach," Mingo tells them. "You have to be functionally literate to graduate. Speaking is key. You have to be able to speak extemporaneously."
Mingo turns to the teacher. "Give me three guys and three ladies who are pretty smart," he says.
Moments later, they're standing in Mingo's office with copies of the press release in their hands. "Now," Mingo tells them, "you're going to fax these releases to the press. Then, I'm going to show you how to answer their calls."
Later, Mingo refers to this as a lesson in public relations.
After a late lunch, Mingo drives to a Chicago principals' association meeting at a school a couple of miles away. An hour and a half later, he emerges from the meeting room, grabs his coat, and heads for the parking lot. In the car, he uses an expletive to describe the meeting as a waste of time. "But if I don't go," he says, "they'll all say, 'Where's Mingo? Why isn't he here?'"
On the way back to the school, Mingo points out a building that he would like to convert into a dormitory. His dream, which he hopes to see realized in the next year or two, is to transform DuSable into a boarding school. "It would be modeled after a New England preparatory school--like Phillips Exeter or Phillips Andover," he says. "We'd have all day to educate them. And the kids would rather stay here anyhow than go back to public housing."
School is letting out when he gets back to his office, and Mingo finds 15 minutes to expound on his philosophy of school leadership. "The role of the urban principal is a lot different from what it used to be," he explains. "It's no longer the friendly person stopping into classrooms or walking down the hall patting everyone on the head. I've got to be the vision keeper. I've got to put together a master plan, making sure all the pieces come together. That's my job. My instructional role is actually getting smaller and smaller. I'm less likely now than I once was to tell teachers what to do. In high school, I shouldn't have to be telling teachers how to do their job. What I really need are master teachers who can work with teachers so that they can improve their craft. I've got to go from visiting classrooms for evaluative purposes to having area experts work with them. For a principal to evaluate teachers is foolish. You can give them three marks--superior, average, unsatisfactory. So what?"
As if on cue, DuSable's star math teacher, Phillip Berry, shows up in the principal's doorway. Mingo invites him in, and the teacher, exhausted from a day in which a film crew set up in his classroom, slumps in an empty chair. "You must be tired," Mingo says.
"A little bit," Berry says.
"Look, I want you to be a master teacher," Mingo tells him. "So set aside a time of the day when you can meet with other teachers. I'll give you one less class to teach if necessary." The teacher agrees and is gone.
Mingo leans back in his chair and stretches a bit. "I'm not burned out," he says, when asked if the demands of his job wear him down. "I like being a principal, though it sometimes scares me to death. I'm very conscious that my job is to somehow shepherd these 1,500 kids. I knew some of the parents of these kids before they were even born. It's a lonely feeling, being a principal."
The phone rings. Mingo picks it up and says, "I'll be right down." Then he vanishes into the corridor.