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In 2006, Emma Cobbins was ready to transfer her two children out of William T. Sherman Elementary School, a struggling neighborhood school in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest and most violence-plagued communities. As Ms. Cobbins tells it, students fought and misbehaved constantly. And district data show that fewer than one-third of students that school year met or exceeded state testing targets in reading and math.
That summer, Sherman became Chicago’s first official turnaround school.
Arne Duncan, then Chicago’s schools chief, developed the turnaround model as an alternative to the district’s unpopular strategy of closing low-performing schools and dispersing students. Now, as U.S. secretary of education, Mr. Duncan is attempting to do much the same thing on a far wider scale as part of a multipronged effort to revive at least 5,000 of the nation’s worst-performing schools.
Nearly five years after Sherman’s metamorphosis began, the improvements appear to have taken root. Ms. Cobbins said recently, “It’s much better than before.”
But the struggle is not over. Although Sherman has made progress on state tests, its scores still lag behind city averages. A brand-new principal, Joel Pollack, hopes to take the school from good to great.
The school, nonetheless, offers a case study in the importance of having a deep bench of talent ready to tackle the complex challenges of reversing its academic fortunes. Sherman’s experience also raises questions about whether turnarounds can come about as quickly, or dramatically, as the architects of the federal program might hope.
Under the federal grant program, school systems are encouraged to use one of four models to revive their lowest-performing schools: turnaround (replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff), restart (become a charter or give control to an education-management organization), transformation (replace the principal and improve instruction while offering more learning time, autonomy, and community support), and school closure coupled with reassigning students to better-performing schools.
Sherman, with an enrollment of 591 students, is primarily an example of the first approach. The principal, the entire faculty, and all but one of the building’s staff were replaced in one fell swoop. The district also shares management of the school with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL, an independent nonprofit founded by local education philanthropist Martin “Mike” Koldyke. It started out as an alternative-certification program for career-changers entering teaching but has become the city’s premier turnaround manager.
After Sherman’s turnaround was announced, Lionel Allen, the principal hired by the AUSL to engineer the process, held meetings with parents to explain the changes. “We thought it was going to be the same thing as before—they come in and tell us something, but things don’t change,” Ms. Cobbins recalled.
The ausl struggled that year to remake the school and win the trust of parents and community. Although the group made mistakes along the way, school climate, test scores, and community relations improved, according to early reports on the school’s progress.
One key early hire in the process was Assistant Principal Elizabeth Meyers. She began her teaching career at the school in 2000 as an intern with Teachers for Chicago, a now-defunct program that brought career-changers into district classrooms to teach while earning a master’s degree and a teaching certificate, but left after four years. “It got to the point where I would put construction paper over my door,” she said, to keep students focused on her, not the mayhem in the hallway.
In 2008, when Ms. Meyers came back to the school, the community responded positively. “ ‘Oh, they’re bringing somebody back, it’s not just this takeover,’ ” Ms. Meyers said of the local reaction.
She quickly became an ambassador to parents and the community, a role that is even more important this year with a new principal.
She spends time talking with parents about their struggles. “I’m talking to another woman about woman things—making myself available for anything they need,” she said. “I’m a black woman and you’re a black woman. I may not have had the same struggle you’ve had, but I know somebody who has.” She’s also made space and time available for the fathers of Sherman students to meet—a small men’s group is now meeting regularly at the school.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pollack knows he is in a trust-building phase. “I’mthe white guy with the fancy college degree,” he observed. “I’m here with eyes open, ears open, and a thick skin if need be.”
Ms. Cobbins seems to approve. “He’s never too busy for his parents,” she said.
Drafting the Team
One day this month, math teacher Ryan Eggert led a split class of 7th and 8th graders who were practicing substituting values into equations. He wrote an equation on the board—4ap-3d+5p—then gave values: a=5, d=8, and p=-1. Students copied it on their desk in dry-erase marker—a trick Mr. Eggert learned from his teacher sister—then substituted the number values to solve the equation.
A student confused herself by writing “x” to indicate multiplying in her problem. “It’s better to use the dots,” Mr. Eggert advised. Then he turned to the class, “It’s better to use the dots because ‘x’ can mean ‘times’ or it can mean a—”
“Variable,” most students chorused.
“Addition,” one voice called.
“Variable,” Mr. Eggert confirmed.
It has literally taken years for Mr. Eggert to achieve this relaxed-yet-focused atmosphere in his room. A graduate of DePaul University’s alternative-certification program, the teacher began his career here in the first year of the turnaround. The AUSL training and his own initiative have kept him growing since. For example, having learned that building relationships with students is a key to classroom management, he “looped” with his students.
“I’ve had some of these kids two years, three years,” he said. “They know my expectations are really high.”
Though in recent years the school’s test scores in math have improved dramatically—from 46 percent meeting or exceeding state standards in 2007-08 to 68 percent last year—the city average in math is now in the low 70s, and the state average is still higher.
Mr. Pollack and Ms. Meyers hope that taking data-driven instruction to new levels of depth will provide the boost they still need. This year, they are pushing teachers to differentiate their instruction by looking more closely at their students, grouping them by level of mastery, and teaching to tough-yet-appropriate objectives for each group. They are also encouraging teachers to make performance data visible to students and exhort students in the middle range of achievement on state tests to push themselves harder.
Skills in ‘Short Supply’
The real key, Mr. Pollack acknowledged, is finding, training, and keeping teachers with the right skills. “The people who have the skill as well as the will to do this work are still in pretty short supply,” he observed. While the ausl has the advantage of its own teacher-training program and last year began training principals as well, Sherman was off the ground before that happened. Today, only three Sherman teachers are AUSL-trained; at newer turnarounds, 60 percent are.
Before becoming Sherman’s principal, Mr. Pollack worked with the ausl’s principals at new turnaround schools. He likes to talk about the “playbook” to turn a low-achieving urban school around successfully. “In year one, you’re really shaping climate and culture, building the scaffolding” to make learning possible, he said.
Although the work gets easier, it doesn’t end. Over the last three years of available data, the number of discipline referrals has bounced up and down, from 137 in 2007-08, to 69 the following year, to 90 in 2009-10.
Parents say security has improved markedly since the turnaround effort started. Geraldine Cobbins, sister of Emma and mother of six Sherman graduates and current students, said before, “there was so much gang-related activity going on.” Students from Tilden, the feeder high school, would come back to Sherman to beat up students leaving the building. Now, she said, school staff members “protect the students when they come out.”
Plus, they work with students like one of Ms. Cobbins’ own sons, who fought frequently and would leave the school building. She said her son, an 8th grader, now wants to attend a high school “where the kids are peaceful, like him.”
High School Options
In another dramatic change, Sherman will help Ms. Cobbins’ son and other students find high schools where their chances of success are greater than at Tilden, where district data show only 38 percent of the class of 2008 graduated within five years. Traditionally in Chicago, elementary counselors are tasked with helping students transition to high school as well as managing special education caseloads. Often, though, transition duties take a back seat to special education paperwork.
Not so at Sherman. Counselor Marge Zwolinsky makes sure students know their options and get their applications in. For the last four years, every graduating Sherman student has applied to about 10 high schools.
The day is coming when Sherman won’t be known as a turnaround school anymore. A slow demographic shift in the neighborhood—Latinos are trickling in to what was once an African-American community—means that increasing numbers of Sherman parents had no experience with the school prior to the turnaround.
One such parent is Elisa Lomas, who has lived in the area for two years. Her children used to attend Carson Elementary, a Southwest Side neighborhood school recognized as one of the highest-performing nonselective schools in the city.
Here at Sherman, Ms. Lomas said in Spanish, “it’s about the same. Both are very good schools.”
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Progress Takes Root at Chicago’s Pioneer Turnaround School