School districts throughout the United States are struggling with low-performing schools which require creative thinking and problem-solving. Chicago has faced some of the most significant challenges including high dropout rates, as well as low academic achievement, and poor standardized test performance. The city of Chicago contains 37 of the 40 public high schools targeted for intervention, and it’s important to understand that the majority are in low-income and high crime areas. There has been a lot of change: in 1987, Education Secretary William Bennett said that Chicago had the worst schools in the country, but it is now the fastest improving district in the country (Cunningham).
The turnaround work has been overseen by the Office of School Improvement (OSI), and they have also partnered with the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) for schools that are deemed to need a “restart”. The turnaround efforts focus on teacher skills, setting goals and data collection, student support, and community engagement while acknowledging that flexibility is key as there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For teachers, the OSI focuses on providing training in behaviour management, developing relationships and instructional practices. To support teachers there are coaches placed in schools for the first three years who observe and provide feedback. For the first year, the focus is on behavior management to create a culture of learning, followed in subsequent years by a focus on instructional practice. There are instruction by department and then by course. Core subject periods have also also structured times provided for teachers to collaborate and support one another including two 90 minute periods per week to plan curriculum and been lengthened to 90 minutes to provide teachers with more time to teach, staff accountable and provides support. Staff also meet to analyze data and assess and re-teach skills. To ensure that schools are on-track, there is a management system that sets and monitors benchmarks and expectations, holds forward-plan.
Students are provided with additional academic, behaviour supports and there is a focus on improving school culture. Time is provided for teachers to identify at-risk students who are then referred to a care team to manage social and emotional supports or to the acceleration lab where students are pulled out of electives for a period of time to address their learning needs. To create a welcoming environment and create positive behaviors, students are asked about their interests and extracurricular activities are implemented before and after school based on their responses. There are also strategies for improving attendance including calling families and providing incentives to students. Finally, there is a concerted effort to honor student achievement including, for example, Fenger’s “Half Cap” ceremony for those students who were passing all classes and were on track to graduate (School Turnaround in CPS).
The AUSL, in particular, focuses on parent and community engagement and has many effective strategies in place. When they are assigned a low performing school they immediately host multiple community meetings to form relationships and meet with educators and parents to explain the transition, providing transportation and translation services to parents as necessary. Parents are also offered regular opportunities to volunteer to support their children and the school. Finally, and most importantly, designated AUSL sites have parent empowerment programs with research-based courses for parents. These provide specific steps and activities parents can take to ensure their children are on track and obtaining specific skills, providing the necessary materials to parents (Strategies for Community Engagement).
Progress has been made as a result of these efforts, with student attendance increasing, dropout rates declining, improved ISAT scores and more students on track to graduate (Profile). Most noteworthy: it is now outperforming other districts across the state, a huge accomplishment (Cunningham).
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