A tale of two schools

John Zorn of the Chicago Tribune recently looked into the details behind a recent speech given by CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. Brizard discussed two schools in South Chicago, 1 mile away from each other, with students of similar demographics, and yet the schools have stark differences in performance.

Zorn concluded that leadership, class size and time were three factors that likely impacted the success of the High(er) Performing High Poverty school. While class size and increased learning time definitely make a difference in any school, and especially in schools that educate high minority and high low-income populations, in my mind, there is no question that the primary cause of the school’s turnaround is leadership.

In a turnaround transformation having a principal that walks the walk, monitors everything (and everyone) in her building, holds everyone (from parents to teachers to students) accountable, and is relentless in the pursuit of high standards makes a world of difference.

First, change the school climate and culture – and this must come from the top down.

Second, the principal and her leadership team focus on basic instruction, teacher PD, and increasing instructional rigor.

Lastly, the principal should distribute the leadership amongst a team of staff members to ensure changes are embedded into the culture and structure of the school – so much so that improvements remain and continue if the school leadership changes.

The principal sets the tone of the building and she must be the one to determine that the old status quo is no longer acceptable and that change is coming, it’s coming now, and reforms are not going away. While we frequently talk about the shortage of high quality teachers (a legitimate concern) creating a larger supply of turnaround principals and school leadership teams must become a higher priority in federal, state and district policy.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

— Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

Excerpts from the original article:

“I was at a school a few days ago, late last week, on the far, far South Side of the city,” said Brizard, speaking at a recent joint appearance with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “100 percent minority, 100 percent poverty. Yet at the 95th percentile in proficiency.”

Brizard went on to ask how the school could be doing so well when there is another school “only about half a mile down the road, same kind of school, same kids, same neighborhood, (but) at the bottom of the pile in achievement. That’s the question I think we also have to wrestle with: How some schools are doing it and others seem to struggle with the exact same situation.”

Intrigued, I followed up. It turns out Brizard was referring to Burnham/Anthony Math & Science Academy (right) and Robert H. Lawrence Math & Science School, kindergarten through eighth-grade facilities located in the same square mile of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood south of 95th Street and west of the Chicago Skyway.

Both public schools are roughly 99 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, and more or less 95 percent of students at each school qualify as low-income.

Neither school is a magnet or selective-enrollment academy. Each has about 10 percent of its students classified as disabled and has daily attendance rates in the mid-90s.

Yet 88 percent of Burnham/Anthony students met or exceeded state standards on the composite 2011 Illinois Standards Achievement Test of reading, math and writing, compared to 47 percent of students at Lawrence (the city average is 73 percent).

Ten years ago, Lawrence’s meets/exceeds score on the ISAT’s was 41 percent, compared to just 38.5 percent for Burnham/Anthony.

How did Burnham/Anthony do it?

“The new principal came in and changed the culture,” said long-time Burnham/Anthony Local School Council President Felicia O’Neal, who has had children at the school since 1999. “She put the focus on academics and she let the teachers and parents know she was going to hold everyone accountable.”That principal, Linda Moore, a former teacher and assistant principal in the system, took over just prior to the 2004-2005 school year. She began using grant money to operate a one-hour after-school academic program four days a week from October through March.“I meet with each new family and share my expectations for them and their children,” Moore told me. “I tell them the child must take ownership, the parents must take ownership, and the teachers and staff must take ownership of the success of that child.”The result is a 94 percent “parent contact” score on Burnham/Anthony’s state report card, compared with 70 percent at Lawrence.Why is Lawrence struggling and still targeted for improvement under No Child Left Behind?

Put it all together and the answer to Brizard’s crucial question — Why do some schools thrive while seemingly identical schools falter? — seems to involve at least three things in Jeffery Manor: leadership, class size and time.

Burnham/Anthony took off after the arrival of a dynamic new principal who inspired and enabled both teachers and parents and who added four hours a week of after-school academics — though teachers there last week voted down the controversial contract waiver that would have added 90 minutes to the regular school day.

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