New Blood

By Lynn Schnaiberg — April 01, 2000 6 min read

Chicago’s Dynamic Duo

Five young leaders make the progressive tradition their own.
Chicago’s Dynamic Duo
Pragmatism 101
Mind Travel
Keeping The Faith

Sarah Howard and Michelle Smith have a long history together as crusaders. In 1992, as rookie teachers at Harper High School on Chicago’s South Side, they walked into the faculty lounge and found whites camped at one end of the lunch table, blacks at the other. Howard and Smith, however, ate together. “Oh yeah, we were the only mixed pair in the room,” says Howard.

Today, the two are well-known champions of social justice and progressive teaching. While others cheer Chicago’s recent gains in standardized-test scores, Howard and Smith rail against the district’s reliance on exams. Three years ago, the duo opened one of the city’s first charter schools, joining—albeit, with trepidation—a movement that some decry as anti-public education. Their goal: nothing less than breaking the cycle of poverty and shattering the stereotype that teachers shouldn’t expect a lot from disadvantaged kids in the classroom.

The school, called the Academy of Communications and Technology Charter, or ACT, is in a largely poor and working-class African American neighborhood—precisely the kind of community where progressive teaching can be a tough sell. “Not a lot of African American parents have been exposed to progressive education before,” says Smith. “This is very far-fetched to many of our parents. And they do struggle with it at times. What we do here, you’re much more likely to see in wealthier schools, not in a community like this. But we’re trying to give poor kids a chance at the same kind of education rich kids get.”

Equity and justice are at the heart of virtually everything the two do, says Michael Klonsky, director of the small-schools workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Sarah and Michelle are the definition of activist teachers. Their dream is to reform the whole public education system.”

In the cramped office that Howard and Smith share as teacher-directors of ACT, their desks sit face to face. The two boss each other around good-naturedly, and they think so much alike that one frequently interrupts the other to finish a sentence. (“It’s truly uncanny,” Smith says.)

A snapshot tacked to the wall captures the day the two showed up at school to find that they were dressed in identical outfits.

But the native Chicagoans arrived at ACT from different paths.

Sarah Howard

Age: 31
Job: Teacher- leader and co-founder, Acadmy of Communications and Technology Charter School in Chicago.
Education: University of Michigan, B.A. in public administration; DePaul University, M.A. in curriculum development.
Heroes/Mentors: Barbara Pulliam, superintendent of a suburban Minneapolis district: “She was my elementary school gym teacher and later the principal at my first teaching job. She taught me a lot about what a principal should do for teachers, what schooling should do for kids, and what it means to be a professional.”
Favorite Education Books:The Girls in the Back of the Class, by LouAnne Johnson; Holler If You Hear Me, by Gregory Michie; The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier; Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?, by John Nehring.

Howard, 31, grew up in a middle-class home, the product of a father who’s a civil rights lawyer and a mother who’s a university-professor-turned-doctor. Hers was a household with a social conscience: She remembers attending a women’s march as a child atop someone’s shoulders and running errands with her dad to the African American police league, one of her father’s clients. “The people around me were of all colors; my parents’ social circle was diverse. So I think we were taught by example,” Howard says. “Yes, I was brought up liberal with a big L."Smith, 32, grew up poor, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, a civil servant, not far from ACT. Her mom always made it clear that Michelle, her only child, would go to college. So Smith worked hard in school and became one of the few students from her neighborhood to be admitted to one of the city’s premier high schools, the Whitney Young magnet school.

Smith straddled two different worlds at the school. “At Whitney, I saw this life other people were living,” she says. “I remember asking people at school what their parents did and my jaw would just drop: doctors, lawyers. I really saw the stark differences among people and communities in this city.”

It was at Whitney that Smith met Howard. Though the two had common acquaintances, they became friends later, during their first year as teachers at Harper. By their second year, they had helped to create a small school within the 1,000-plus Harper. But leadership for the project eroded, and Howard and Smith got antsy for change.

Michelle Smith

Age: 32
Job: Teacher-leader and co-founder, Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School in Chicago.
Education: Northern Illinois University, B.S. in mathematics education. National-Louis University, M.A. in educational leadership.
Heroes/Mentors: Like Howard, Smith names Barbara Pulliam. She also picks two former teachers: Marie Jernigan, now a consultant for math and science instruction, and Barbara Clayton, now a Chicago drug-abuse prevention specialist.
Favorite Education Books:Beyond Discipline and Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.

The chance for change presented itself in 1996, when state lawmakers passed a charter school law. Howard and Smith had serious reservations about charters, fearing they would lead to private school vouchers, which they oppose. And they worried that the schools would cream off the district’s best teachers. “We basically started out convincing ourselves why we shouldn’t do this,” Smith says with a laugh. “But eventually we decided that we needed to get in there and shape what charters would become—at least in Chicago—or just be quiet. And neither of us is the type to be quiet.”

ACT opened its doors in 1997. Its 240 grade 6-11 students (the school eventually will grow to grade 12) are active participants in their learning; the curriculum is project-based, with an emphasis on communication arts, community service, and internships. Students are asked to demonstrate mastery of a subject in multiple ways; before they leave grades 8 and 10, they must complete a comprehensive set of assignments and defend a portfolio of their work before a panel of faculty and community members.

For many parents, the school’s progressive approach is puzzling. Where are the textbooks? they ask. Where are the workbooks? Why not uniforms? Some also have taken issue with the school’s rigorous requirements. Last year, when it became clear that most of the 10th graders would remain in 10th grade because they hadn’t yet met the school’s standards for promotion, some kids left ACT.

A recent round of low scores on standardized tests hasn’t helped. When ACT’s 9th graders took a nationally normed reading test last year, none scored at or above grade level. Howard says that was a fluke: Those 20 students were new to ACT and had arrived with extremely poor reading skills; on average, students in all other grades have posted gains in reading and math.

Despite such troubles, most parents love ACT. Many applaud the fact that standardized tests aren’t driving its academic program. “I don’t like those tests; they don’t help kids learn,” says Dorothy Wilson, whose son is in 9th grade at the school. “I want my son to learn to love learning. And I think that’s starting to happen at this school.”

For others, ACT’s teaching style isn’t as important as the fact that their children attend a school that is small, safe, and serious about learning. “Everybody knows all these kids in here and what they’re doing—and what they’re not doing,” says Abbie Pounds, a postal clerk whose 7th grade daughter attends the charter school. “These kids have to do a lot more than just show up and not make trouble.”

Howard and Smith acknowledge that the reality of Chicago’s testing scheme has forced them to compromise some of their ideals. Knowing that exam scores ultimately will help determine whether ACT survives, they now dedicate some class time to test prep. But the two aren’t about to give up on their big dreams. “We’re still holding out hope,” Howard says. Smith jumps in: “I think you could say we’re somewhere between idealistic and realistic now.”