Bogan, a school with test scores above the citywide average, scored one of the city’s best course “recovery” records last year.
Of freshmen failing math first semester, 36 percent bounced back second semester to earn half a credit; citywide, only 21 percent bounced back. In science, the percentages were 36 for Bowen and 26 citywide; in social studies, 31 for Bowen and 25 citywide. In English, there was only one point difference, 24 versus 23.
Both Prosser, a magnet-like career academy with top test scores, and Wells, a school on probation, have seen dramatic reductions in their overall freshman course failure rates over the last few years.
All three schools credit hand-crafted, well-run programs aimed at stemming failure. The people who run the programs credit their principals.
Though Bogan teacher Meg Venckus speaks of her principal, Linda Pierzchalski, her words apply to all three. “The principal is committed to reducing the failure rate,” she says. “She has committed the dollars and the people.”
The principal’s role in successful efforts like those at Bogan, Prosser and Wells is deceptively simple: decide on a strategy; commit time, money and strong staff members; and then let them do the job, including making mid-course corrections.
Good principals delegate authority, provide resources, and clear away distractions so staff can plan, execute and evaluate results. Like a film director, the principal is the invisible hand behind the action on the screen.
Good cop, bad cop
It’s the Saturday before Lincoln’s birthday, a three-day weekend in CPS. As expected, it’s a light day for tutoring at Bogan High—a “mere” 191 students show up. Before semester finals, a quarter to a third of Bogan’s some 1,200 freshmen and sophomores were coming for the weekend sessions.
According to Deputy High School Development Officer Edward Klunk, Bogan’s tutoring effort is “one of the better programs” high schools have mounted to reduce course failure. The school receives $25,000 to $30,000 a year from the School Board’s High School Lighthouse program— depending on enrollment and course failure rate, a school can receive up to $50,000.
Bogan Lighthouse coordinator James Artese chalks up the program’s success to “selling the concept of improvement rather than preventing failure.” Artese has his senior economics students create posters advertising the program. The messages they’ve created emphasize meeting friends, boosting grades and learning something.
Sophomore Rolando Calderon started coming last year after spotting one of their posters. “I pretty much come every time,” he says. He’s working on boosting his grade in history, a subject he finds “kind of confusing.” His larger goal is to push his GPA from a 3.0 to a 3.5.
Fellow sophomore Curvre Fitzpatrick, another regular, credits the program with making the difference between passing and failing his toughest courses and with bringing his GPA up “about one letter grade,” almost to a C. Today, he’s making up work he missed when absent.
Teachers say that Artese’s fine-tuning also has boosted attendance. At first, the school uniform policy was enforced on Saturdays, but when that meant turning students away, the requirement was dropped. “We’re here to help them, and that was getting in the way,” notes Meg Venckus. Of Artese, she says, “He has constantly evaluated the program, [asking] ‘What can we do to get more kids?'”
Artese, a veteran social studies teacher, is equally savvy at selling his colleagues on the program. He had trouble getting Saturday tutors at first,” recalls inclusion teacher Pat Mason. Then, the shirts arrived. Tutors receive heavy-weave beige shirts with “Bogan Lighthouse” stylishly inscribed on the chest below the left shoulder. They hit a fashion home-run. “When he got the shirts, people were stopping in the hall and asking, ‘Can we do tutoring? You got any openings?'”
Even teachers who don’t work directly in Lighthouse pitch in by sending make-up and extra-credit assignments to the tutors. Artese says all his department colleagues send weekly enrichment assignments for students who have completed their regular classwork. Many in other departments do, too.
While Artese, staff and students emphasize the positive, Principal Pierzchalski is willing to play the heavy as necessary. Her letter plugging the program, which goes out with mid-term progress reports, sends parents a strong message: With Saturday tutoring available, she says, “Don’t come to me and complain if he still gets an F.” Though Pierzchalski’s most obvious role here is the bad cop, she makes it possible for the good cops to do their job.
Recruiting a team
In 1997, Wells Community Academy adopted the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), a four-year program that stresses the teaching of concepts and relies heavily on hands-on problem solving. At the time, about a third of its freshmen failed algebra. Last year the failure rate was down to 19 percent.
“Principal support is critical,” says Anne Horn, director of the Chicago Secondary Mathematics Improvement Project, which trains teachers for the program. (See Catalyst, October 1997).
Wells Principal Carmen Martinez delivers, providing materials and supporting staff development. “She doesn’t give us a hassle” when teachers attend outside IMP workshops on schoolwide inservice days, notes math teacher Joan O’Brien.
At Wells, this support amounts to maintenance of an earlier investment. Math teachers are scarce, and math teachers trained in IMP are even scarcer. But Martinez resolved to hire only IMP-trained teachers and landed three this school year. Horn says all three left schools “where there was no administrative support for the program.”
Barbara Nayder is one of them. She decided to leave her former school because of strife among her math colleagues over IMP. “The principal there allowed me to start it, and there were three teachers who were teaching with me, but when you don’t have department support, it’s hard,” she says. “At the other school, there was a lot of competition and criticism and antagonism.”
Once her mind was made up, schools lined up to court her. “All I said was ‘I think I’d like to leave,’ and I got 10 calls,” says Nayder. But she held out for Prince Charming, a school supportive of the program.
Hearing through other IMP teachers that Wells was such a place, she made the first move and called Martinez. She recalls the reply: “Well, we only teach IMP here, so I don’t have an opening unless you teach IMP.”
“That’s why I’d like to come,” Nayder assured her.
So far, the match seems to have been made in heaven. Nayder raves about her new colleagues. “It’s just so nice that we can talk together, work together, share,” she says. At weekly department meetings, teachers present real-world problems they have created for their students to solve. “It’s amazing for me coming from a school where nobody shared anything.”
While Bogan’s marketing savvy brings in crowds of students from all parts of the academic spectrum, Prosser Career Academy focuses intensely on failing freshmen and sophomores, making tutoring mandatory for them. Since the school started mandatory tutoring four years ago, freshman core-course failure rates have dropped by a third and stayed below 20 percent.
“It’s a big investment,” says Principal John Jursa, citing a tab of over $100,000, principally for paying 11 teachers to work an extra half hour before or after school each day. Some work both shifts. Four career service staffers, who check attendance, also stay an extra hour daily. To get the job done, Prosser kicks in more than $80,000 from its discretionary funds. “We had to make a choice between a second AP [assistant principal] or this program. We chose this program,” says Jursa.
The investment has drawn attention to individual kids that is rarely seen in high schools. Every two weeks, core subject teachers refer failing students to tutoring. In most high schools, failure warnings go out only twice a semester, five weeks into each quarter.
Counselors Patricia Foreman and Barry Shapiro, who manage the program, send letters home to parents at the beginning of each two-week tutoring cycle. They also make thoughtful decisions about which tutor should receive which student. “If x student has x teacher for math, sometimes we assign [the student] to another teacher because it helps to have a different explanation,” says Shapiro.
Foreman and Shapiro review the referrals to find students who are failing more than one course. In addition to attending the tutoring program, those students must meet with a counselor. “It’s actually a good means of identifying students with special problems,” says Foreman. Students failing more than one course are likely to have poor attendance and may have harder-to-reach families, she observes. After a meeting, counselors often refer such students to the school social worker or psychiatrist for extra support.
If someone misses tutoring without an excuse, it counts as a class cut, and Prosser’s well-oiled attendance machine comes into play. Career service staff work after hours to ensure that division teachers learn of cuts the next morning. The student must then go to Prosser’s “alternative attendance area” and await a parent conference before returning to class. (See Catalyst, June 1999.)
Resource teacher Ron Kolman says that the program’s structure provides the positive motivation. With two-week sessions, students can raise their grades and get out of tutoring quickly. “If they had to go to tutoring for five weeks, they’d think it was hopeless.”
On a Wednesday in January, algebra teacher Mary Harkins is teaching what looks like a dream class, even though it’s after school. Students are working in groups and asking each other questions about solving equations with two variables. Harkins circulates freely and has enough time to help the one student who still has trouble solving a single-variable equation. Though Harkins spends a few minutes fully occupied with him, the other students remain engaged in their work. No heads on desks, no goofing around when she’s not looking.
Harkins says that during tutoring, she feels less pressure to cover curriculum and more freedom to work with students where they are. “You can take the time on those basic skills that maybe they missed the first time,” she observes. “And sometimes you see the light bulb go [on]: ‘Oh, that’s how you do it! I get it.'”
Despite the program’s success and teaching rewards, lining up teacher tutors remains a challenge. “It’s a struggle to find enough teachers who are willing and available to do it,” says Jursa, especially for math, where it takes almost the entire department to meet the need for tutors. “We might have to twist an arm.”
Math teacher Ron Sienkiewicz stresses that administrative backup is key. His advice to schools considering a similar program is: “Make sure that you have the right administrative structure. It’s more than just me being in a room. … You have to have a way to get [students] there and keep them there.”