AUGUST 12, 1997
In an effort to increase test scores, the Chicago Public Schools are taking a hard look at the current curriculum. The mayor is concerned with skyrocketing dropout rates, and is looking into mandatory summer school to bring the scores up to par.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, the Chicago school shake up. It began two years ago, and the results are starting to show. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This is not the way Quantina Washington had planned to spend her summer. But when her scores on national tests showed that her reading and math skills were two years below grade level, she was told she could try and bring up her scores in summer school or repeat eighth grade. The policy was a blow to Quantina. Since her grades were good, she and her family thought she would graduate with her eighth grade class.
QUANTINA WASHINGTON: My mother and my grandmother was helpin' out a lot. They paid $75 for the graduation fees, and all of it got sent back.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: These third graders thought they would be playing outside for most of the summer until they got their test score.
VRYLON CASTON: I said, "What? I don't want to go to school." And I had to. So I just went.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Across town at the Brintano School Karen Neace had her eighth graduation plans put on hold.
KAREN NEACE: My mom bought me my dress, my graduation dress. And it's yellow. And it's really beautiful. And my dad, he was planning some surprise party he told me about.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: One hundred and fifty thousand students are in Chicago's expanded summer school program, making it the largest in the country. Summer school is now mandatory for third, sixth, eight, and ninth graders, who scored two years below grade level on nationally norm tests. Those are the critical transition grades, according to school administrators. The policy makes sense to Chicago's mayor.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY, Chicago: Historically, you socially promoted people because of age, and, well, just get ‘em ahead, who cares, get ‘em in high school, maybe they'll drop out; get ‘em out of the system. And so what we had to do was we said there are no more social promotions.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A lot of promotion policy comes from the mayor's office. Two years ago the state legislature dumped the control of the long-troubled system in the lap of the mayor. His first goal: Make the schools accountable.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY: Some students were at 70 percent dropout rates. Some only read at third or fourth grade reading levels. So everybody kind of gave up and walked away. It was like a ship that was sinking, and everybody was getting away from it. It was just sinking each year. And so I knew the accountability. And I'm going to be held accountable, which I wanted to. As mayor, you should be held accountable.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Daley immediately put in his own management team; at the top, a former city hall staffer, who understood what the mayor meant by accountability.
PAUL VALLAS, CEO, Chicago Public Schools: I will tell you this. If we don't continue to move the system forward, the mayor will just, you know, find another CEO and find another education team to turn it around. The bottom line is failure is not an option for us.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The mayor and the new school officials see test scores as the clearest measure of success or failure. Scores have improved slightly in each of the first two years of the new administration, but 109 schools were put on probation last fall when less than 15 percent of their students tested at or above grade level. As the school year ended, Vallas removed 16 principals from schools on probation. The move shocked Beverly Tunney, the head of the Principals Association.
BEVERLY TUNNEY, Principals and Administrators Assoc.: We have not been able to equate removal with the criteria that has been established for why a principal should be removed. All of these principals wrote corrective action plans, were following corrective action plans. In all but three schools there were improvements in reading scores. All the schools improved in math scores. All the schools improved in attendance, so these are our concerns. You know, did they have a fair chance, were they evaluated fairly?
PAUL VALLAS: We don't remove a principal unless that--unless the removal of that principal is based on a very strong and very documented recommendation on the part of the probation manager. In fact, we probably could have argued for the removal of another dozen principals, but the bottom line is--if anything--I believe that we've probably moved too cautiously.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For seven high schools on probation the changes went beyond the removal of the principal. The schools were told they were to be reconstituted. Every job in the school was on the line. Last month the notices went out. One hundred and eighty-eight teachers in the seven schools were to be replaced.
At the Paul Robeson High School 26 teachers, 1/3 of the school's teaching staff lost their teaching jobs. Robeson students are 100 percent African-American. 73 percent come from families living in poverty. Only 4.7 percent of the students are reading on grade level. 8 percent are at grade level in math. 60 percent of the students failed to graduate last year, just the kind of school the mayor says needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY: The private school that's been in the 70/75 percent dropout rate for five years. And their reading rate is at 3 or 4 or 5 percent at a national norm. Anyway, let's wake up, you know, let's wake somebody up in that school. You just think of all the service we've done to children who have failed, who have dropped out, who've been in the system, who got a degree, or can't read today. You have to shake that system up, especially in the high school system you have to.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Robeson did not lose its principal under reconstitution. But there's no doubt that the school has been shaken up. Standing in front of a mural designed by students to commemorate the life of the school's name sake, actor and civil rights pioneer Paul Robeson, principal James Breashears vowed that the school would be different.
JAMES BREASHEARS, Principal: We use that kind of theme and Robeson as a backdrop to say to the students there's nothing you can't do. You can do it. And, again, if he could do it 50 years ago--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How many of your teachers here do you think believe that those students can do it?
JAMES BREASHEARS: I think the old Paul Robeson maybe 60 percent; the new Paul Robeson 85/90 percent.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Breashears says replacing 1/3 of the faculty has been painful, but he sees it as the best chance to turn the school around.
JAMES BREASHEARS: Expectation is often low here. I think that's a big factor. And, of course, with the new opportunity to re-staff the school, to bring in new blood, new ideas, new expectations. I believe that that is the strongest tool in the entire restructuring effort. And I think it will show a difference.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Veteran teacher Stuart Switt is one of those who won't be part of the new Robeson. He was stunned and angered by the principal's new power.
STUART SWITT, Replaced Teacher: Does that mean he has the right to say, well, your 30 years of experience doesn't mean anything? The fellowships, the grants, the awards that you've received don't mean a thing; your relationship with the students isn't important; your standards are not important. The fact that the students come back and talk to you, say thank you, that's irrelevant. If that's the way he wants it, this is his building, and I will--I will survive.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Switt and the 187 other displaced teachers have 10 months at full pay to try and find another school that will hire them. But Teachers Union President Tom Reece says that won't be easy.
TOM REECE, Teachers Union: Now, if you're a principal, they've got a brand on their forehead and it says I was thrown out of the seven schools that are being reconstituted. Who's going to hire them? So this is--that's--it's absolutely unfair to those people.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY: It's not an assault upon teachers. It's an assault upon the quality of education that we're producing in various schools.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The remaining faculty at Robeson is struggling to rebuild the school with help from educators at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The school has decided to divide the 1350 students into seven small schools. Project coordinator Mike Klonsky says that should change the entire climate of the school.
MIKE KLONSKY, University of Illinois, Chicago: They've chosen a program that they can feel a part of. And it's small enough so that they get to know the teachers, and the teachers get to know them. A small group of teachers, no more than can fit around a good sized table, stay together with a group of kids for four years.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Robeson and the other high schools should get some help at raising their test scores from the mandatory summer school program. No longer will students be coming through their doors in the fall reading at a second or third grade level.
Now, students must be reading at least a seventh grade level to get out of grammar school. The summer program is specifically designed to raise scores. Classes are small, each teacher has an assistant; only reading and math are taught. And the curriculum is highly structured. Eighth grade teacher Michelle Evans.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you feel like you're just teaching for a test?
MICHELLE EVANS, Teacher: They really are learning. They really are learning because we're not teaching problem one, section two. We're teaching skills.
QUANTINA WASHINGTON: In summer school the teacher goes step by step and she like give you notes and things and problems on the same activity that you are doing, so you can understand more on what you're doing.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There's a lot more homework too. Quantina brings books home every day, but as one of seven, it's sometimes hard to find a quiet time to study. Despite her disappointment at seeing her daughter's graduation plans ruined, Quantina's mother likes the changes at school.
LAQUITTA WASHINGTON, Parent: Once upon a time they weren't held responsible for their grades, and if they failed or not failed. And now they're being held accountable for it. And I think that's better.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That is the kind of change the mayor is looking for.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY: I go to these schools and I can pick the poorest kid in the school and he or she is achieving. And they come from a dysfunctional family; they have environmental problems, you name it, but they're succeeding. There's a lot of success stories in both the elementary and high schools.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And Daley wants the success measured. He has been one of the first elected officials to sign on to President Bill Clinton's plan to administer a new nationwide test to measure student achievement. That, says the mayor, is the clearest way to bring accountability to the schools.