If Amundsen High School had a head, it wouldn’t fit through doors. The school has a lot to brag about this fall: Bucking a statewide trend, the school’s scores on the state reading test rose. The school is one of 13 tapped to try for membership in the prestigious International Baccalaureate Association. The school has gotten a head start on what is likely to be a citywide requirement that students perform community service. And it’s the only high school to get off probation.
Meanwhile, a bone of contention among the faculty has shrunk considerably. With increasing flexibility from the central administration, the school scaled back the required advisory program from twice a week to four times a year.
Briefly, its textbook budget shrank as well. In September the allocation from central office dropped by more than $40,000. “We opened up the budget and went ‘whoa!’ ” says operations manager John Gill. In October, Amundsen and other high schools were told they could recoup the lost funds by applying to the state’s textbook program, which came as a surprise to the program’s manager.
SEPT 2 Advisory dwindles to a few days.
After all the fuss last spring, not much is happening with advisory at Amundsen High School. Although teachers approved a contract waiver that paved the way for twice-weekly advisory periods (see Catalyst, June 1997), that plan has been scrapped.
With increasing flexibility from central office and continuing teacher resistance to more work without extra pay, Amundsen opted to start on a much smaller scale. This year, advisory will be held only on previously planned long-division days, which are held four days each quarter. On three of the four days, the 40-minute division will be devoted to advisory activities; on the remaining day, an entire grade will meet with the principal in the auditorium. The first sessions started Friday.
“You know the controversy,” Principal Ed Klunk tells a reporter. “The system never settled the controversy with the union. This is the agreement between me and the teachers on how we’re going to do it.”
Today, housekeeping and lack of materials keep teacher Janet Fennerty from doing any advisory work with her division students. Especially in freshman divisions like hers, housekeeping eats up a lot of time at the beginning of the year. Within 40 minutes, Fennerty guides confused freshmen to the correct division room, takes attendance in a sea of not-yet-familiar faces, answers questions about courses and programming, collects medical forms and introduces her students to Gloria Bader, their counselor. All the while, the public address system crackles with announcements—a total of seven interruptions during the 40-minute period.
After class, Fennerty says, “I just got the book [of advisory activities]. I’ll have to cram tonight.”
The board issued a handbook in time for the beginning of school, but Amundsen received only 30 copies.
The handbook contains 10 weeks’ worth of daily activities—and a sales pitch. In the “Questions and Answers about Advisory” section, the last question is: “Is it really necessary to make this formal time during the day for advisors and teachers [sic] to interact?” Answer: “Definitely!”
At Amundsen, it appears that teachers still need to be sold. Later in the day, two teachers are discussing advisory on their walk up from the basement copy room. “Did you actually do one of those advisory things?” asks one.
“Yes, we played the name game. It took half an hour, but now everybody knows everybody else’s name,” the other replies, laughing with a slightly sarcastic edge. The name game, an ice-breaker in the advisory handbook, asks students to pick an adjective beginning with the first letter of their own name and use it to introduce themselves to the class.
SEPT 3 Getting to know you.
Today, Janet Fennerty will squeeze in her only advisor activity of the four-day session.
“We are going to design our nameplates,” she tells her division. “These nameplates are going to go on the front of your binders. This is the twist. I’m going to pair you up and you’re going to design your partner’s nameplate.”
“Huh? How can you design someone else’s nameplate?” a student asks.
Fennerty turns the question back to the class. Four girls offer suggestions: find out the other person’s hobbies, interests and favorite colors, and make sure you know the student’s name and its correct spelling. After a quick lecture from Fennerty on the importance of talking quietly, students pair off and get to work.
Kuburat Eyiowuawi laughs with Estefania Perez as they pass colored markers back and forth. Estefania prints “Kuby” in block letters inside a Nigerian flag, while Kuby draws the Chilean flag for her partner’s nameplate. A week later, the girls agree the exercise was fun.
Sophomore Maja Spahovic says her division did no advisory activities. “We were just sitting there” during the long divisions, she says.
During an August inservice day, Amundsen teachers spent an hour preparing for advisory. The five staff members who attended central office’s summer training led groups of teachers in a sample activity and reviewed the schedule with them. “There are some people who will be happy” with Amundsen’s schedule, counselor Katrina Hamb told her group. “But [the trainers] seduced us. Some of us would love to see this happen more than what’s been planned.”
Chicago Teachers Union delegate David Goodman is not among them. Though he too attended the central office training, he dismisses it as “a revival meeting.” He’s delighted with Amundsen’s compromise on advisory. “We’re not really doing what the board planned, but they backed off,” he says. “One, it does not carry credit, and two, they left it up to each principal. Ed has taken a very moderate approach.”
SEPT 8 Board lets state fill textbook bill.
At the first Monday faculty meeting of the year, Principal Klunk has some disquieting news about money for textbooks. “I did a double-take when I did today’s budget. Our textbook allocation has been reduced to $78,000 [from $119,000]. They didn’t tell us why. I’m gonna find out.”
It will take a month for Klunk to get his answer. In an Oct. 8 memo to high school principals, Acting Budget Director Andrew Gilchrist says the board reduced its 1997-98 textbook allocation for high schools by $3 million. Gilchrist strongly recommends that schools apply to the Illinois Textbook Loan Program to recoup the loss. If all Chicago high schools apply, he says, they could receive a combined total of $3.7 million.
Last spring, the General Assembly nearly tripled its allocation to the program, from $9 million for 1996-97 to $24 million for 1997-98.
Board spokesperson John Holden says it’s an “unfortunate inevitability” of the state’s failure to enact school funding reform that “individual budget lines have to come up for scrutiny at the last minute.” He also points out that the board increased total textbook funds to $21 million this year, up from $18.5 million last year.
But the textbook program’s principal consultant, Bill Lohman, isn’t happy that Chicago is letting the state fill a third of the city’s high school textbook budget. Hearing that the CPS had reduced local spending in response to the state windfall, he says: “That’s sad, because we’re only a supplemental program. You almost don’t want to give them [schools] the information.” He adds: “I guess I understand the economics of it.”
Lohman warns that other districts who relied heavily on the state funds in the past were caught short when the appropriation sank to $5 million statewide in the early 90s.
He says this year’s big bucks came as a result of pressure from the Catholic Conference of Illinois to provide tax breaks to tuition-paying parents. To stave off changes in the tax code, the Senate offered an increase in the textbook loan program, which helps students in both public and non-public schools. To avoid church-state separation issues, the state owns the books but loans them to schools for student use.
In early January, the Illinois State Board of Education will send high schools both application forms and a CD-ROM catalog of available textbooks and instructional software. The state board already has determined each school’s allocation, based on enrollment. Schools must complete the application by Mar. 15, and will receive the requested material over the summer.
“It’s really gonna delay stuff,” Klunk says, adding, “we’ll probably also allot some rollover money for textbooks.”
Later in the meeting, reading task force members Gloria Henllan-Jones and Mary Ross briefly outline what’s new this year in staff development. The task force has written its own handbook of the reading strategies teachers used last year.
“The [reading] strategies themselves are not new, [but] the text was written by us here at Amundsen,” says Henllan-Jones. “When you look at the suggestions for making strategies more interactive, those are coming from us.” This year teachers are being asked to encourage interaction among students in their classes using cooperative learning and other small-group strategies.
The school improvement plan says that 40 percent of Amundsen’s teachers “will exhibit successful cooperative learning strategies in their classes” by Oct. 30. The goals rise to 60 percent by December, 85 percent by April and 95 percent by June. Amundsen administrators and the school’s external partner will measure progress. “Are you saying we don’t have 40 percent today?” asks English teacher Tom Hunter. “I find that disparaging to the teacher.”
Klunk says the point was to set goals that could be achieved, not to disparage teachers. “These goals are accomplishable, especially up to the middle of the year. I didn’t want to have people stressed out.”
The staff development program has been christened “Amundsen University” to emphasize that the school’s own teachers have done most of the work. Klunk acknowledges the help the school has received from Northeastern Illinois University, its external partner, National-Louis University and other outside resources, but he tells the faculty, “We are taking the initiative. We are instituting change for ourselves.” He hopes Amundsen University will challenge the perception “that change is difficult, that Chicago teachers are having a hard time with it. I want to discredit that old mode.”
SEPT 9 A head start on community service requirement.
Tonight’s local school council meeting kicks off with a photo shoot. While members pose in front of the library’s check-out counter, they joke about the nights last spring when they met until 1 a.m. to finish the school improvement plan.
During the meeting, community representative Harriet O’Donnell wants to know how effective the discipline office has been in controlling student smoking. “I have stopped a number of them,” she says, describing a recent encounter with a smoker on the school grounds. “Is it made really clear to the kids?”
“When a student is caught smoking, the student is brought to 128,” says Assistant Principal Sherwin Bulmash, who handles discipline.
“He was a bit big for me to bring in,” quips O’Donnell.
Later, Klunk addresses the question of whether the council is hearing only the good news about Amundsen. “I know it’s been an issue that everything’s all roses,” he says. He alludes to “minor gang dealings last Friday” without giving specifics.
The talk quickly returns to good news. O’Donnell is coordinating Amundsen’s latest volunteer effort for USA Today’s annual “Make A Difference Day.” This year the school will engineer “10,000 Acts of Kindness” in the week leading up to Oct. 25. To be counted as an act of kindness, a pair of students, one older, one younger, must spend about two hours volunteering in the Ravenswood neighborhood. Amundsen has invited all 17 schools in the Ravenswood community, public and private, to participate. Amundsen students will take requests and match them with volunteers.
O’Donnell tells the council that the project will qualify for a forthcoming community service requirement for high school students. She says that when she heard about the requirement, she thought: “Let’s ask Mr. Vallas if this can be the No. 1 project.”
“Yesterday, Vallas said yes. He’ll be here Oct. 25.”
“This is an opportunity to take the lead again,” Klunk tells the LSC. “I can see this going systemwide to ‘Half a Million Acts of Kindness’ next year. You know there’s over 400,000 students in CPS. … It’s positive not only for us, but for the system.”
“And we will be the ones asked for technical assistance,” adds O’Donnell.
While Amundsen is proceeding under the impression that their project is the first official CPS community service project, Carlos Azcoitia, deputy chief education officer, isn’t so sure. In a telephone interview a month later, he tells CATALYST that the criteria for projects and even the number of hours students will be required to serve have not yet been set—in early September, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said 60 hours would be required, beginning with the Class of 1999.
A task force is still meeting to develop guidelines, says Azcoitia. “We want to include everybody. You don’t want to just write up something and send it to all the schools to implement.”
Meanwhile, the Amundsen LSC meeting ends with an unsuccessful attempt to fill a parent vacancy on the council. Four candidates were recruited during freshman parent orientation, but only two attend the meeting to introduce themselves. Long after they have departed, the council narrowly rejects both candidates.
SEPT 15 Probation no more.
The news everyone has been waiting for finally arrives during the 8th-period staff development meeting. Interrupting, Klunk reports: “I had my day made, and there’s some information I need to share with you. Someone from Mr. Vallas’ office hand-delivered the letter officially removing us from probation.”
The room goes silent.
“They keep telling you, but you’re not officially told,” he says. “It’s finally official.”
Everyone beams; one or two people applaud. But within minutes, it’s back to business as usual: Some teachers return to the assigned reading, others chat with each other instead.
A few days later, Ken Hunter wonders: “Why aren’t people happier?”
Beverly Rawls, who has been at Amundsen for a year as part of its external partnership with Northeastern’s Chicago Teachers Center, thinks they’re happier than last year. After Klunk’s announcement, she circles the room, giving recalcitrant teachers a mock-stern eye and gently persuading them to use a graphic organizer to arrange information from an article about whales. “At least this year they’re joking,” she says afterward. “Last year, they weren’t.”
SEPT 18 Students struggle in International Baccalaureate program.
Amundsen put another notch in its belt this fall with the start of its International Baccalaureate (IB) program. As part of its plans to improve neighborhood high schools, the Reform Board chose two in each region to begin preparing freshmen for the rigorous curriculum and internationally recognized diploma.
Like other schools starting the program, Amundsen had a tough time recruiting top students because most of them were spoken for by the time the program was announced last May. By August the school had a pool of 40 prospects, 31 of whom chose to take on the challenge. Two-thirds come from feeder elementary schools, one-third from outside the school’s attendance area. Full demographic information is unavailable at press time, but IB coordinator Brian Rogers says about half the students are native Spanish-speakers.
Recruiting teachers took much less effort. Highly respected teachers jumped at the chance to start a program they hope will improve curriculum throughout the school. “I will hopefully influence my colleagues to adapt some of the things we’re using in the IB program,” says English department chair Mary Kay Cappitelli. “As we get further in the process, it can circulate.”
During algebra today, Amundsen’s IB students play a version of the TV game show “Jeopardy.” The categories are: properties and formulae, orders of operations, equations, general algebra, and, as teacher Minh Nguyen tells his students, “non-math stuff—the most popular category.”
Students play in teams of six, desks pulled together, with the leftover student keeping score. The game proceeds with high energy but plenty of wrong answers. Three of the five teams finish with negative scores. During the game, Nguyen kids his students about their lack of strategy; every team would rather guess, risking a wrong answer, than pass. But the real problem seems to be their knowledge of math.
Very few students have had experience with algebra, and some still have not mastered basic arithmetic, says Nguyen. Over lunch, freshman Lynette Brentano readily admits she’s having trouble. “In reading I did tremendous [on the ITBS],” she says, raising her hand over her head. “But in math I’m all the way down here,” she adds, laying her hand on the cafeteria table.
She’s not alone. Although it’s early in the quarter, about 15 IB students are in danger of failing algebra. Because so many students entered the program with weak math backgrounds, the school altered the science sequence, beginning with physics instead of biology because it would reinforce algebra instruction. Physics teacher Mark Vondrasek says he slowed the pace of his class to give students time to learn the algebra they need.
Yesterday, Amundsen’s IB coordinator, Rogers, gave the students a pep talk and sent an encouraging letter home to their parents. “Several of you are probably already questioning your existence in this program,” he said during their division. “These are normal concerns you are going to have. We’re certainly not going to let you fail.” He and other IB teachers, including Nguyen, are planning tutoring sessions before and after school to help students stay on top of their classes.
Students Catalyst interviewed generally agree the program has been more work than they expected. They estimate they spend about 2 hours a night doing homework, which is half an hour less than the board’s “requirement” of 21/2 hours per night for high school students.
Today’s division reveals a new crisis: when to eat lunch. Six IB students have been scheduled for lunch and gym at different times from the rest of the group, and everyone’s programs are being changed to bring the group together. Klunk and Barnette say this year’s master schedule was the most difficult they’ve ever programmed. In addition to special scheduling for IB and common planning time for department chairs, they worked 150 freshmen into a school-within-a-school known as Global Village. Common planning time for those teachers has yet to be worked out.
This morning, the IB students are caught in a Catch-22. If they try to enter the cafeteria at a time other than their officially programmed lunch, they will be sent away and not permitted to eat. If they go at the programmed time, the teacher in the class they soon will be programmed into will mark them absent.
“God willing, I’ll solve this,” Rogers vows. “I’m gonna come to you 6th [period] with an answer for what you do 7th. Do not bust and get mad. I will try to solve the problem. It sounds like what you need is lunch today.”
“You are so cool,” says Arely Salinas.
“That’s why I’m your division teacher,” he answers.
Rogers outdoes himself; he shows up 5th period with a solution. He hands out special passes with Klunk’s signature and says, “You all have 3rd-period P.E. You all have 7th-period lunch. If you already went, you’re going again.” Approving murmurs arise from the students.
Once he leaves, the students return to preparing for tomorrow’s social studies test. Teacher Leonard Evans has divided the chapter on India into three sections; during the past week, students, grouped in threes, have taken turns teaching each other these sections. Each student’s teaching is evaluated by the other two for a grade.
Amundsen’s schoolwide push for interactive teaching has firmly taken root in the IB program. Today there were small-group activities in three of the four core subject classes.
When Rogers isn’t putting out fires for the IB students, he’s thinking about accreditation and recruiting for IB. “The biggest hurdle’s gonna be that application, that’s all there is to it,” he says of the accreditation process. “There’s certain things we feel very confident about the mission of the school.”
But it’s clear that one of the hurdles toward accreditaion will be convincing the International Baccalaureate Association that Amundsen’s program can take students whose test scores are much lower than IB’s traditional minimum of 90th percentile and successfully prepare them for college-level examinations. Although Amundsen has had Advanced Placement courses available for years, IB considers AP exams easier than their own.
Rogers has a plan: beef up the skills of this year’s group, and start recruiting soon for next year. “Can we take a kid in the 6th stanine and have him successfully complete an AP exam? Sonia [Barillas] has done that most successfully,” he says. Last year, 14 of Barillas’ 15 AP Spanish students scored at least a 3 on the exam, qualifying them for college credit. But not every subject promises such smooth sailing. Rogers admits “the greatest challenge will be math and science.”
Turning to recruitment, Rogers reminds a reporter that Lincoln Park receives far more applications than it can possibly accept. “We’ll try to ease their pain,” he says, smiling broadly. Turning serious, he says, “First and foremost is the feeder schools in the area. I’m going within the month [to visit them]. First of all, they’ve gotta be educated. I can’t just walk in and say, ‘We want your top kids.’ Some people think that’s what it’s about, but we don’t.”
Rogers says educating feeder schools requires more than just publicizing IB. Although he says “Amundsen sells itself,” he acknowledges that area residents need persuading to send their children to his school rather than a highly regarded magnet like Lane Tech. “Lane has a 50-year history, where ours is an 8-year history of strides toward improving school climate. Curriculum and achievement weren’t the most pressing issues 8-10 years ago,” he says, citing safety as Amundsen’s prime concern then. “Now we have an opportunity. We’ll put it on the map. We’ll become a Lincoln Park, we’ll become a [St.] Scholastica. That’s what a program like this can do for you.”
SEPT 20 Saturday classes at Amundsen University.
Last year, in addition to the required Monday staff development sessions made possible by flex time, the school started optional paid staff development sessions on Saturdays. Teachers are paid $20 per hour using a combination of funds: state Chapter 1, federal Title I and a $7,000 staff development grant from the Office of High School Reorganization. The goal is to train interested teachers so they can pass on their added expertise to their colleagues.
This year, in keeping with the home-grown focus of Amundsen University, Ken Hunter hopes to increase the number of workshops presented by the school’s own teachers. Today special ed teacher Pam Nge and chair David Goodman will take the spotlight.
It’s 9:15 a.m., and 10 teachers are in the library flipping through a variety of famous diaries: Frieda Kahlo’s, Dag Hammarskjold’s and others as part of Nge’s workshop on journal-writing in the classroom.
Nge covers the basics: supplies, finding topics to write about, different kinds of journal entries and managing all that paper. To avoid carting a boxful of spiral notebooks home to read in one sitting, she suggests teachers stagger their assignments by class.
What sets this workshop apart from those with outside presenters is Nge’s ability to tailor her suggestions to individual teachers. While describing ways to grade journals, she and social studies teacher Joan Rasman figure out some guidelines; for example, students must reference the history text three times in each entry.
At the end of the session, teachers applaud Nge and thank her profusely. “I thought it was wonderful,” says English teacher Laura Jacobsson. “I feel more comfortable talking to her because it’s someone I know.”
Although Rasman says she has no preference between outside presenters and fellow teachers, she notes, “When I have a question, I can go talk to Pam. I have someone available for ongoing advice and counsel.” But now it’s harder for Rasman and other Amundsen teachers to catch Nge on the fly. Earlier this week, she transferred to Lakeview High, saying she needed a change.
SEPT 22 Fewer students for English and ESL teachers.
According to Amundsen’s school improvement plan, “the urgency of reading improvement cannot be overstressed.” As a result, English teachers are receiving both special perks and special tasks.
About half of Amundsen’s new federal Title I funds are paying for five new English teachers. This staff expansion allows English and ESL teachers to teach only four classes and to replace the previously required fifth class with staff development and special projects. But they have less discretion in their teaching. For example, all students are to keep journals, typically writing in them the first 10 minutes of each class. And every English class will spend six weeks using reading kits published by Science Research Associates. These kits were used in the reading portion of the Summer Bridge Program.
With fewer students and more time, English teacher Tom Hunter can assign his juniors a weekly essay. He calls the reduced class load “fabulous. I could not give as many essays [before], and I had to do a much more general approach to grading them.” He adds: “The kids are getting much more individual attention. If you have 150 papers to grade, you just can’t do it [weekly].”
Even with the lighter load, Hunter takes a stack of papers with him everywhere, squeezing in red- penned comments during meetings, over lunch, etc.
He’s not so sure, though, about the reading kits. “It’s easy to get somebody up to 8th or 9th grade,” he says. “It’s hard to get from 9th to 11th. The difference is the inference. … [but] I can’t say that SRA doesn’t do it.”
Klunk likes them because they are cost-effective. “I pushed it as a strategy because it’s old technology that’s still appropriate,” he says. “We couldn’t buy a computer for every kid, but we could buy an SRA kit for every classroom.”
In the SRA series, students work through progressively more difficult reading assignments, answer follow-up questions and are tested to pass into higher levels.
“I think it’s working,” says Laura Jacobsson. “Many, many kids felt it was helping them. They’re pretty good about judging ‘OK, maybe I should wait to take the test and practice more.'” Even so, she’s concerned about the time SRA takes. “I’m trying to give them some writing for homework and the journal. We’re trying not to ignore everything else; I don’t think I should.”
Sophomore Philsheena Adesina passed the reading test at the end of the Summer Bridge Program; she was among the 65 percent of students in Jane Moy’s class who did. Asked what Moy’s secret was, her student doesn’t cite SRA. “She got me to read more,” Philsheena says. “She told me to read something I liked.”
This Monday teachers meet in their departments. Social studies meets in chair Mary Ross’s room, where she displays her department’s agenda on an overhead projector. But the agenda is put aside for a few minutes when Ken Hunter stops in to discuss the board’s proposed end-of-course exams.
Hunter has been attending meetings about the exams, but he wishes more teachers would join in. “These curricula are being developed essentially outside the system,” he asserts. “People are going to be held accountable for them.” He notes, for example, that central office is not paying much attention to geography, which is a priority at Amundsen “Six or seven years ago, geography was the hottest thing going. With this, it’s not.”
“How does this affect us?” asks Joan Rasman.
“This is what you have to follow. Your syllabi are being written for you,” answers Hunter.
Teachers press him hard to see how seriously they should take this information. “Is this a long-term thing?” asks Janet Fennerty.
“Or just a phase we’re going through?” adds Ross.
“I’d certainly be concerned,” says Hunter. “As far as long-term, how long is Paul Vallas going to be there? I don’t know.” But he fears that the exams, however long they last, will do little to improve instruction.
Later, Rasman asks why teachers should attend end-of-course exam meetings “if it’s a done deal.” Hunter says he’s been attending to raise an alternate viewpoint, but he thinks classroom teachers would have more credibility. He also fears standards will be made without significant input from the people who ultimately will teach them.
No one from the department immediately commits to attend a meeting. But Fennerty asks: “You’ll let us know when the next meetings are, Mr. Hunter?”
In an interview later, Chief Accountability Officer Phil Hansen says all freshmen will take pilot exams in the four core subjects the first week of June. A team of 20 Chicago teachers will develop them. All teachers of freshmen will receive inservice training about the exams by April 30.
Told of teachers’ skepticism, he says: “Oh, the old ‘this too shall pass.’ I was guilty of that when I was a high school teacher. That probably is our biggest challenge in this third and fourth year [of the Vallas administration], to institutionalize what we’ve done, so it’ll be there years after we’re gone.”
As for the exams, he says, “What we know teachers understand is: here it is, it’s in your face, this is how you do it. They’ll come around when they see concrete evidence it exists.”