Fixing Failing Schools

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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:”


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