Background: Hartigan has been on probation for six years running. In 1998, the percentage of students reading at or above national norms came within a percentage point of the mark then needed to climb off probation, 20 percent. Then, counter to all expectations, test scores took a two-year tumble. Last year, Hartigan’s scores rebounded to 18 percent at or above norms, seven points shy of the new, higher standard.
Obstacle: Too many programs. The school spread itself thin by adopting too many new programs at once, according to Jessie Williams of the CPS Office of Accountability. “The sharing and collaboration was not what it should be because everyone was going all those directions.”
Since the early 1990s, Hartigan had successfully partnered with a university to work on curriculum design and reading comprehension strategies. Reading scores had risen steadily for five years but dropped in 1999. That year, the school’s regional education officer urged schools on probation to try a new program that sought to match instructional strategies with each student’s interests and achievement level, for example by setting up “learning centers” throughout the classroom. At the same time, a foundation contacted several struggling schools, including Hartigan, and offered money to adopt Direct Instruction (DI), a phonics-based reading program.
With one program a virtual directive from her supervisor, and the other a bargain for her cash-strapped school, Principal Betty Greer felt obliged to accept both. Test scores hit a five-year low. In retrospect, Greer says she should have selected one or the other. “We were overwhelmed, we really were,” she says.
Staff members say that compounding their frustration over different directions, the DI training proved insufficient. Foundation funds covered only one visit a month by a training consultant. As a result, teachers lacked the coaching needed to manage the complex program. “DI without support is ugly. It’s that simple,” explains Pamela Carlson of the Office of Accountability. “Nobody was getting what they needed: the teachers weren’t, the kids weren’t.”
Role of the reading specialist: New to Hartigan this year, Sandra Crowther is helping teachers follow the board’s literacy framework, which calls for a focus on fluency, word knowledge, comprehension and writing. Teachers say the framework has helped them further refine what they were already doing.
For instance, teachers who use learning centers are now designing center activities to match the four literacy components. Examples include vocabulary card games that build word knowledge and questions that inspire personal essays.
Crowther’s methods include visiting classrooms, attending grade-level meetings, conferring with individual teachers and conducting workshops.
Earlier this school year, Crowther presented a workshop entitled “Good bye, Round Robin,” which was aimed at eliminating this traditional method of whole-class reading instruction, where students take turns reading aloud. Instead, Crowther encourages small reading groups and pairing students to practice fluency, strategies that promote greater reading fluency.
Staff members say they sense Hartigan’s reading program beginning to gel. The school used a grant to hire two consultants this year to observe and model DI lessons two or three times a week. Teachers say they are finally getting the support they need. Crowther and a lead teacher are in training to take over the DI coaching once the consultants leave.
Staff members say the reading specialist is an integral part of the school’s progress.
Background: McNair elementary has been on academic probation for four of the past six years. Last spring, 17 percent of students scored at or above national norms in reading.
Obstacle: Disorganized leadership. Teachers complain of a lack of instructional materials, poor collaboration and high staff turnover. In the past two years alone, half the teaching staff departed, school records show. Citing poor working conditions, several current teachers say they intend to leave at the end of this year.
Several years ago, the school adopted a basal reading series, but crucial parts, such as assessments and some teachers’ editions, were either never ordered or lost in storage, staff report. Meanwhile, textbooks, science kits and other materials are stacked in boxes up to the ceiling in the resource room, making it an ordeal for teachers to get them.
Teachers say there’s a lack of cooperative effort; they blame it in part on uncoordinated school schedules. For one, teachers at the same grade level do not have a common free period to plan instruction, as do faculty in many Chicago schools. In addition, McNair runs on a year-round schedule that puts a quarter of the faculty on vacation at any given time. The schedule was originally intended to ease crowding, but the school is no longer crowded.
School politics also prevent the teamwork that could improve instruction, many teachers say. “At McNair, we’re more interested in getting someone in trouble than in educating the child,” one comments. “We’re not a team here,” another agrees.
DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education has been the school’s external partner for two years, but director Barbara Radner says she has yet to see her program fully implemented. She blames that on inconsistent monitoring by administrators and scarce planning time for teachers.
Principal Solomon Gibbs says he does not know why teachers are leaving, or why test scores have fallen. “They just dropped,” he explains. “For what reason, I really haven’t been able to pinpoint.”
Role of the reading specialist: Debra Fitzgerald, who is new to McNair, wants to win teachers’ trust and ease their workload by providing them with needed classroom materials. First, she inventoried the basal reading series, discovered the missing components and getting them ordered. She supplied primary students with personal sets of reading flashcards. Now she intends to organize the resource room so teachers can find what they need.
Next, she plans to outline the school’s curriculum so that teachers can see how DePaul’s program fits with the district’s new reading strategies.
Fitzgerald encourages teachers to replace traditional, whole-class reading lessons with strategies that give students more individual practice, such as reading with a partner. She observes reading lessons, takes detailed notes and offers suggestions. Many teachers report having tried the new strategies and liking them.
Fitzgerald is having a bigger impact on the school than DePaul because she’s there every day, some note. Still, teachers doubt that her efforts will lift the school off probation. Radner of DePaul agrees. “If you don’t have a principal who is leading the school in a clear direction focused on instruction, the reading specialist is probably going to have a very marginal impact.”