Fixing Failing Schools: Revisiting Chicago’s Phillips Academy

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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:

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  • Just Angry

    Bottom line is turnaround does not work. It would be great if more than two students sung the praises of Phillips which struggles to maintain a 70% student attendance rate. It also boggles my mind to hear their principal talk about not looking at the schools data as a true indicator of the schools effectiveness while it was that same data that CPS used to turn the school around in the first place. The staff there are young and transient and from my observation of the classrooms standards and curriculum are superseded by rules and consequences for disobeying them like at a correctional facility. I am sick and tired of our kids being used as educational practice test dummies because trust a new plan is in the works after this turnaround runs its course. Mark my word.

    • Luceretia

      Although Phillips is a neighborhood high school, it is housed with homeless and other students who do not live in the attendance area boundaries. A couple of years ago, the Principal sent out a mailing to validate students adrresses and the stack came back return to the sender. This means that manyny of the students do not live in the neighborhood boundaries at all.

      • sum1 gotta hate

        Please elaborate on your statement that turnaround does not work….because Phillips IS working. Kids are learning. Kids are not on the streets. Kids are developing and executing social and life skills that can accelerate their lives on whatever journey they choose to pursue.
        Biggest take away –> Phillips is providing their students with options that pushing a student through the school system, not only does not offer, but also two-folds ill potential as it robs students of opportunities. Pushing a student through the system results in a few select outcomes –> Where like at Phillips, investing in a student -investing in their improvement -and investing in their self worth- in-turn places investment in option-particularly important for minority students trying to establish success in the "white man's" world.

        Why down Phillips-an institution packed wall to wall with adults overly invested in their students-when you have thousands of other schools in CPS failing their students, failing their communities, and virtually only perpetuating the war on the streets…if you want something to be mad about…….get mad at the people you pay that do not do their job. At least at a turn around, you can rest assured that those employed will do their job and will do it with the upmost integrity, perseverance, and most importantly resilience.

        AUSL-those in charge of the Phillips turnaround- have and continue to train and produce high quality educators that rank nationally among the best. This is not a fact droned by AUSL, but rather one evident through the slew of national awards that former AULS residents currently hold.

        When has raising the expectations ever been a bad thing? AUSL requires this from its educators, its staff, and most importantly its students. Point made.

      • Horace

        "Kids are not on the streets." Actually, they are. Phillips and other AUSL turnarounds use research-refuted zero tolerance discipline policies. The NAACP calls this the school to prison pipeline. Certain kids are not only suspended repeatedly to encourage them to go elsewhere, but they are often sent home (assuming they have one) for extremely minor infractions. It is not a coincidence that the rise and fall of their test scores coincides with their student mobility. They are clearly pushing out students who they are unable to educate (I mean prep for tests).

  • retiredinaz1

    “Me and Phillips have a love-hate relationship,” says Junior Janel Harmon

    Yes, the school has improved greatly! Even though this junior cannot use proper English! What a joke!

    • aliveandwell

      Yes, the school has improved greatly, even though this junior cannot use proper English. You are the joke!!!!

  • Luceretia

    Dunbar is a few blocks away from Phillips and is also failing (20 years) and filled with students from the far southside who do not have the aptitude that a CTE program requires. If they have been pushed from grade 6 to 8 because the've flunked several times and was promoted because of their age, then they are being set up to fail. Enrolling them in Dunbar is causing the CTE programs to be eliminated because they are not ready for them. They are traveling across town to Dunbar when they should really be in a tutoring program in their own communities. CTE programs are for carreers and their standards should not be lowered.

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