Story Summary

Fixing Failing Schools

With Chicago Public Schools preparing to release a final list of school closings, we’re looking at another effort to fix failing schools.

Story Timeline
Previous Next
This story has 3 updates

Chicago Public Schools officials are asking students not to take part in a demonstration Wednesday.

A group of students are expected to protest school closures outside the Chicago Board of Education.

But, Wednesday is also when Juniors are scheduled to take the state-mandated PSAE test.

It’s required to move onto Senior year, and to graduate.

The test is also used to evaluate teachers and schools.

CPS sent home letters and made robocalls urging juniors not to miss the test.

With Chicago Public Schools preparing to release a final list of school closings, we’re looking at another effort to fix failing schools.  Last year, we gave you an inside look at the inner workings of a CPS turnaround.  WGN’s Gaynor Hall takes us back to Wendell Phillips Academy, where a lot has changed.

In the fall of 2010, a non-profit group took over management of Phillips Academy in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, vowing to give the chronically failing school a fresh start.  Every adult working in the building was replaced.  And student test scores showed almost immediate improvement.  But, nearly 3 years into the turnaround, some of those gains have been erased.

“Me and Phillips have a love-hate relationship,” says Junior Janel Harmon.  She left Phillips Academy in October.  She says the teachers were too hard on her, the standards too high.  But after a few months at another school, she came back.  “Even though people say they want to go to a school say they don’t have to do nothing, it’s not true because when you go to a school like that you’re coming out with nothing.  So, it’s good to have a turnaround school that wants you to learn and be successful in life.”  Principal Devon Horton says Phillips is on the right track.  “There’s more to this than the numbers with these students.  I feel like we’re really in here changing lives every day.”

Before the turnaround, only 8% of Phillips’ students were meeting or exceeding standards.  One year in, that number doubled to 16%.  But in year two, it dropped to 6%, far below the district average.   “One year’s test score whether they rise or fall, does not really represent what has gone on at the school,” says Dr. Jarvis Sanford, the Managing Director of AUSL Turnaround. “ I think what we’re doing is we’re laying the foundation for great dividends in the future.”

Julie Woestehoff, who is the Executive Director of Parents United for Responsible Education – PURE for short – says the turnarounds don’t really work.  “We think it’s very disruptive, that it destabilizes our communities and that it has not really been the panacea, the silver bullet that it’s been promised.” There are 27 CPS turnaround schools.  Most of them, including Phillips, are managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

The rest are operated by the district.  “Everyone in the building, from the principal to the janitor was let go.”

Last year, Robert Green lost his job teaching auto body repairs at Chicago Vocational Career Academy.  Green, two other teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union filed a lawsuit in December against the Board of Education.  The suit, which seeks class action status, is claiming the turnaround process discriminates against African American teachers, because turnaround schools are exclusively in South and West side neighborhoods.  Attorney Robin Potter represents the teachers in the lawsuit.   “We ask for a moratorium. No more turnarounds. They’re not fair in form. They’re not fair in application. They’re not fair in the impact in African American teachers and staff.”

Teacher Green – a long time tenured teacher calls his layoff devastating.   “It doesn’t just affect us as teachers, it also affects students and it wreaks havoc in the community when you uproot such a pillar in the community such as these schools.”  Supporters of turnarounds argue sometimes drastic change is necessary.  At Phillips, more than a quarter of the students are considered special education.  Many of the grade schools that feed Phillips are also failing.

And, Principal Horton says nearly half of this year’s freshman class  started high school reading below a ninth grade level.   “The students that perform at a level that’s above the mark, typically don’t attend Phillips Academy, they get accepted into some of the other selective schools.”  So, new this year; the academic skills center where students can get one on one help in core subjects, plus note taking and study skills.

The school also beefed up ACT Prep.  So despite the see-sawing test scores, the shift in school culture appears to be steady.  Junior Isaac Jackson is but one example.   “It’s more than just a test score you know.  You have to actually be in this school every day and be in every class and look at every teacher to understand what it’s like to be a Wildcat.” Community activist Dr. Sokoni Karaja, who is President and CEO of Centers for New Horizons, says fixing failing schools means fixing families and the economy.  “They have a learning environment.

There’s no doubt about that.  It can’t happen just with the schools. The schools can do excellent work and not move the kids but one grade level.”  PURE’s Julie Woestehoff is critical of Chicago’s top down management approach.  “Part of the problem is there have been too many experiments. We’ve had probation, reconstitution, reinvention, remediation, every tion in the world and none of them really seem to take hold.  And that’s because I believe that the CPS refuses to accept the input of the people who really know the best what needs to happen.”   But, Principal Horton, whose roots run deep in Bronzeville, promises things are changing.

The drop-out rate is down.  Attendance is up.  And he believes  test scores will follow.  “We’re on track to make history.  When we talk about neighborhood high schools, turn around high schools Phillips will definitely be on the forefront of what it should look like. I truly believe that.”  Junior Janel Harmon is a believer  in Phillips too.  “With Phillips, they’re doing a really good job.  I mean, I came back, so they must be doing something right!”  Records show student turnover at Phillips since the turnaround has been extremely high.  Janel is an example of that.  Some critics question whether lower performing students have been pushed out in an effort to boost test scores/  But, school officials deny that, saying any student who lives in the neighborhood is welcome to enroll.

As for teacher turnover, only five out of 60 teachers left the school in the past year. We will continue to monitor the progress at Phillips Academy, and the ongoing struggle to fix failing schools in Chicago.  Gaynor Hall, WGN News.”

For more information log on to these websites

Wendell Phillips Academy High School :

Chicago Turnaround Schools:

Parents United for Responsible Education:

Centers for New Horizons:


Fixing Failing Schools

Tonight’s Cover Story is an inside look at what’s being done to fix Chicago’s most broken public schools. A non-profit group, armed with noble goals and dedicated staff, has been awarded contracts for eighteen Chicago schools, with a mandate to turn them around. WGN’s Gaynor Hall was given unlimited access to what’s happening inside one turnaround high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Two years ago, Wendell Phillips Academy, at King Drive and Pershing, was the second worst high school in the state of Illinois. This school year, the principal says nearly a third of Phillips’ incoming freshmen were reading at a third grade level or below. And, some couldn’t read at all. No one would deny that drastic change was needed at the school. But we also found that change is hard.

Wendell Phillips Academy has the distinction of being Chicago’s first predominantly black high school, “This is an art project,” and Principal Devon Horton tells us that with that, comes a long list of accomplished alumni. “Gwendolyn Brooks,Nat King Cole,Marla Gibbs.” He wants today’s students to have the same opportunities to succeed. “The number one goal is to give them a chance. Give them a chance to develop. Give them a chance to actually learn about life and what options they have outside of what they see every day.”

And for many Phillips’ students, what they see every day is difficult. “Many of them live in communities that are drug-infested, a lot of violence and gangs. You have children having children, a lot of fatherless homes. We have over 200 students out of the 600 plus, that are classified by CPS guidelines as homeless.” For years, Phillips had suffered a devastating academic decline. Horton grew up nearby in the Robert Taylor homes.

But, Phillips’ reputation was so bad, his mother wouldn’t let him go to the neighborhood school. And, Sunseray Morson, who’s now a junior, was disappointed when she had to. “I remember one experience I had, there were boys, they were upper classmen, seniors. They were walking around smoking weed. I was like, is this what all high schools are like?” Bronzeville activist Dr. Sokoni Karanja, with Centers for New Horizons, has a decades long history with the school. He witnessed it going from good to bad to worse.

“It had deteriorated to such a level that it was unacceptable, totally unacceptable. We just wanted something to change that would make the school better.” And, many believe it is better since drastic change swept through these hall nearly two years ago. Every adult working in the building was replaced under the management of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, A-U-S-L. Donald Feinstein is Executive Director. “We train teachers for the district and we fix failing schools. The goal is really to have a 90-90-90 school. 90% low income, 90% minority, and 90% high performing on state tests.”

A-U-S-L’s extreme makeover is centered in the classroom with signature strategies designed to boost achievement for students who are nowhere near where they should be. Reading coach Joi Tillman was hired in january to address the literacy problem at Phillips. This class is for fluent readers, who struggle with comprehension. But, she says too many incoming freshmen can’t read at all. “There’s no way students should be in high school non-readers, I can’t fathom that.” Gaynor asks Principal Horton, “How does a kid get to 9th grade and can’t read?” This was his response. “We say social promotion is out of the window. That’s not true, it still happens.” Isaac Jackson is a sophomore at Phillips.

“I don’t want to put all the blame off on the teachers, they got some part in it. I think it’s like the background of where the kids grew up at and parenting. Like I was learning how to read and write before I went to school.” The 2011 Illinois school report card shows modest progress at Phillips since the turnaround. Statewide, nearly 77 percent of students were meeting or exceeding standards on state tests. But, at Phillips that number was only 16-percent! And, as dismal as it sounds, that’s double what it was the previous year. Math teacher Kelly Dean is also playing catch-up with her students. But, she says test scores alone don’t add up to the whole story. “If a kid comes in at 5 grades below grade level and I move him 3 grades, he’s still not at grade level when he left me. So on paper he still might not look that great, but if you’re looking at growth then it’s a whole different thing.”

Critics question whether the A-U-S-L model is even working. Donald Moore heads “Designs for Change” which studied turnaround elementary schools in Chicago, comparing them to those controlled by local school councils. ‘The locally controlled schools are far outperforming the schools where AUSL has gone in and taken over.” Senior Jeremy Brown will graduate next week, and is heading to college. “We trying to develop just like every other school and it’s gonna take time and we gonna get there.” Two years into the turnaround, Principal Horton says they have made some progress, but, they’re not there, yet. “We’re not the only school dealing with these challenges, but we’re doing something about it.”

Chicago Public Schools:

 Academy for Urban School Leadership:

Designs for Change:

Centers for New Horizons:

Huffington Post‘s Jacqueline Edelberg:

New York Times: “As Schools Face Closing, New Lines Are Drawn:”