For the past several years, WGN-TV has been giving you an inside look at efforts to turn around Wendell Phillips Academy in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
School officials are celebrating several milestones in 2014, as the fight continues to keep Chicago Public Schools from turning around more schools. The privately-operated, Academy for Urban School Leadership or AUSL is now in charge of 29 schools, with three more turnarounds recently approved. As reporter Gaynor Hall learned, some progress has been made at Phillips. But overall, critics question whether the turnaround strategy is working.
It’s graduation day for Wendell Phillips Academy, and this is the first graduating class that has been at Phillips through all 4 years of the turnaround.
In 2010, Isaac Jackson was a frightened freshman. “There was no one to pass the baton to and the only goal was to get to the finish line,” said Isaac during Saturday’s graduation at Mandrake Park.
Today, he’s valedictorian.
“I have my whole future set ahead of me and it’s all because somebody decided to take a school that was failing and turn it into a school that is very successful.”
In the weeks leading up to graduation, the hallways were ringing with excitement. Phillips’ latest test scores show some progress. After a big drop in 2012, last year, 18 percent of students were meeting or exceeding standards on state tests. That’s still well below the district average, but Principal Devon Horton had another reason to celebrate. Even though the school is still on probation, CPS moved Phillips from a Level 3 rating to a level 1. Only 24 of the city’s 171 high schools were given that distinction.
We asked Horton, if his school deserves a level 1 rating. “Absolutely,” he said. “Whether you’re level 3, level 1, level 2, there’s still a lot of work to be done at the school. Tons of work. And, we didn’t design the system of how schools are measured. This was something that was designed by CPS.”
But critics say, Phillips’ success has not been consistently matched by other AUSL-operated schools. CPS closed 3 AUSL schools, last year. Dr. Jarvis Sanford from AUSL insists that was due to under-enrollment, not academic performance. Gaynor asks, “Is AUSL fixing failing schools?” Sanford responds, “We are. Look at the results.”
In another vote of confidence in AUSL, with no other bidders, in April, the Chicago Board of Education agreed to turnaround three more elementary schools. Current board president, David Vitale, previously served as chairman of AUSL’s board. Some call it a clear conflict of interest. Gaynor asks Dr. Sanford, “What justifies the board continually, every year, handing over more schools to AUSL? What’s the justification if your scores aren’t going through the roof compared to other neighborhood schools? “I think if you look at the results, our schools are outpacing the district’s schools. Since 2008 AUSL schools have outpaced the district consistently,” said Sanford.
Eric Reyes, an education activist and CPS parent, disagrees.
“The AUSL model specifically, they increase the budget. More money and more teachers tends to lead to success in education. The problem I’ve seen with AUSL is it’s not replicated and transferred across the 30 schools that they have.” Reyes also belongs to the grassroots education coalition, “Raise your Hand.” He says CPS officials aren’t listening to teachers or parents.
Last month, parents staged a sit-in protest to fight the planned turnaround of Gresham Elementary. “It’s Chicago Public Schools, it is not Chicago private schools, ” said Dr. Diedrus Brown, Gresham’s Principal. She was backed by Gresham parent Tiffany Walker who said, “It’s money. It’s politics and it’s race.” Reyes worries about the tension that exists. “The environment that CPS has created, is very, it’s toxic,” he said.
After the board’s vote in April, CPS Chief Executive Officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett defended turnaround schools. “The fact of the matter is we have to do something different if we expect our children to achieve differently,” said Byrd-Bennett. During the turnaround process, every adult working in the school building is replaced.
Deneen School of Excellence in Grand Crossing was turned around in 2010. It also serves as a training site for AUSL teachers.
“We have additional adults in the classroom. So what happens is we’re able to have small group instruction going on throughout the entire day,” said Deneen Principal Annise Lewis.
Physical education teacher LeKesha Triplett has two kids at the school. She says, the first year of the turnaround was rough but now everyone is moving in the right direction. “The thing we talk about all the time is it takes a village to raise a kid. It takes a family to raise a kid. And we at Deneen are a family, raising kids,” said Triplett. Principal Lewis adds, “We feel like our students are achieving at a higher rate and each year we get faster, each year we get stronger, each year we see more and more students that are growing to grade level.”
Each year, several Deneen students move on to Phillips. Though both are neighborhood schools, AUSL officials say they want to create a pipeline of progress from elementary to high school.
Phillips Principal Horton says he’s always trying new ways to build student achievement. This year, the school introduced single gender classes and leadership courses for every student. But, what he’s most proud of is that 90-percent of the class of 2014 was accepted to 2- or 4- year colleges and universities. “We had our senior college selection day last week, and this gets me every time…it’s unbelievable, because it’s students who were told they couldn’t do it,” said Horton.
Phillips’ valedictorian Isaac Jackson is going to Denison University in Ohio on a tuition-free scholarship. “To the class of 2014, I would like to say congratulations. You have ran the race and you crossed the finish line,” said Isaac, during his graduation speech.
His father was there to cheer on his namesake. “Four years of being able to consistently put out the work.. I’m proud to be his dad.” Isaac will be the first in his family to go to college.
The battle continues against CPS turnarounds. The Chicago Teachers Union is pursuing a federal lawsuit that argues the turnaround process discriminates against African-American teachers. In April, Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education filed complaints with CPS’ inspector general and the U.S. Department of Education, claiming there was a conflict of interest in the latest turnaround vote because two current members of the Board of Education have ties to AUSL.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Mike D’Angelo and Steve Scheuer contributed to these reports.