All Shook Up: April 1996
When Teacher Magazine called on award-winning Chicago principal Charles Mingo in 1996, both he and his beloved DuSable High were under the gun. The all-black school, located near the notorious Robert Taylor housing projects on the city's South Side, had such abysmal test scores that district officials were considering "reconstitution," an overhaul that threatened to strip the principal and faculty members of their jobs. The word was out: Raise test scores—or else.
But that would not be easy. DuSable students were a transient, ill-prepared lot. Most arrived at the high school with academic skills at the 6th grade level or below. Thirty-eight DuSable students could not read at all.
Since assuming control of the school in 1989, Mingo had come to be known as an innovative principal with a tough but conciliatory manner. As DuSable's educational leader, he knew it was his job to keep the school focused on teaching and learning, but one thing or another always seemed to get in his way. Mingo's days were filled with mundane tasks and interruptions: Chasing down false fire alarms, dealing with substitutes, fielding parent complaints, keeping up with district paperwork, answering endless questions about parking, security, supplies, and field trips. Like Don Corleone in The Godfather, Mingo would wave one petitioner after another through his office door.
With a round of make-or-break tests approaching, Mingo knew he had to do something fast. He opted for an all-out, schoolwide test-prep offensive. During our visit to DuSable, the principal met with his staff to map out his strategy. "We're going to work with the kids on taking this test," he told the teachers. "This has top priority. Everything else is secondary."
As it turned out, Mingo lost the battle. DuSable's test scores did not sufficiently improve, and the district reconstituted the school in the spring of 1997. Under terms of the takeover, Mingo had to reapply to keep his job. He did, and district officials opted to rehire the venerable principal. But there was a catch. The central office also assigned a new associate principal to DuSable and ordered Mingo to share power.
Mingo, who is now the principal at a middle school in Gary, Indiana, has bad memories of the reconstitution experience. "I felt attacked, singled out," he recalls. "You see, we had a good reading program in place before reconstitution. The problem is that reading at national norms—which the city wanted—and school improvement are two different things. I had a lot of kids who made two years of growth in a single year, but it didn't count. All the district looked at were the cutoff scores. They should be looking at improvement scores, not absolute scores."
One of the benefits of reconstitution is that it gives schools additional help and resources to turn things around. But Mingo says the extra help often felt like a hindrance. The appointment of the associate principal, he complains, created an unwieldy "two-headed leader," which blurred the lines of authority. And the reconstitution process left him with less time than ever to focus on student achievement. "Once reconstitution kicked in, I had another layer of bureaucracy to deal with," Mingo laments. "I also got an ethnographer from the university who was paid to study reconstituted schools. He would wander in, and you'd have to explain what you were doing. It was just awful. Then, while you're trying to get reading and math scores up, you've got the monthly district meeting, the monthly reconstitution meeting, the monthly high school meeting, as well as all kinds of reports to fill out."
The first year after reconstitution, DuSable's test scores rose, and Mingo and his staff won kudos from district leaders and the mayor. But last year, scores were flat. With that, Mingo decided it was time to move on. "After a while, I got tired and didn't feel I could make the progress I needed to make," he says. "Besides, I had spent 10 years at DuSable, and whatever I was going to do I should have done."
With 35 years in the Chicago public school system, Mingo at 57 could have slipped quietly into retirement. But instead he chose to take a job as principal at the 550-student Beckman Middle School in Gary, about an hour southeast of Chicago. "I'm not through yet," he says, explaining why he eschewed a life of leisure to lead the predominantly black school. "I want to make an impact on African American children, and if we African Americans can't do it, who can?"
At Beckman, Mingo is concentrating on staff development. He believes that teachers' attitudes toward inner-city minority children—in particular, their low expectations for such kids—are largely responsible for the achievement gap between African American and white students. "There are different levels of knowledge, ranging from basic recall to comprehension to application," he says. "In urban areas, teachers think that kids really have it together when they can parrot back information."
Despite the ordeals of reconstitution, Mingo insists that he is not bitter. "I'm still optimistic, still enthusiastic," he says. "We've got a challenge ahead of us in educating our children, and I'm here to take it on."
Vol. 11, Issue 6, Pages 20-21Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as All Shook Up: April 1996