Local School Troubles, Local Solutions
By Robert Schroeder
Marshall Metro High School and Richard Crane High School on Chicago’s West side are separated by only a five-minute drive. Both are inner-city public schools, both draw students from the same geographical area. Both face similar day to-day issues: lack of resources, competition for funding, stricter standards to meet. Stand on the roof of either building and you can probably even see the other.
The resources teachers need at each campus, however, are vastly different. As one of the city’s lowest performing schools, the Chicago Public Schools Office of School Improvement has designated Marshall as a turnaround school. Marshall is undergoing a transformation implementing coherent and responsive systems, outcomes-focused curriculum and assessment planning, and integrated partnerships with community organizations.
National Louis University’s Dr. Ignacio Lopez has spearheaded a project that brings together community-based organizations, parents, administrators and teachers to provide a community-wide approach to improving turnaround schools. His efforts have spurred community involvement at turnaround schools including W.R. Harper High School, Christian Fenger Academy High School and Marshall, and at Academy of Urban School Leadership schools, namely Orr Academy and Wendell Phillips High Schools.
In 2009, National Louis University earned a grant of $180,000 from the Illinois State Board of Educators to assist Chicago Public Schools with mentoring and induction for teachers in turnaround schools. The project team, led by National Louis University’s Dr. Dick Best and urban school reform consultant John Ayers, focused on strengthening teacher mentoring in the project’s first year.
“We were trying to figure out, what is the difference between a mentorship program in a turnaround school versus a traditional urban school down the street,” said Lopez, an assistant professor in the National College of Education. “We found that there are differences in supporting teachers in becoming part of the process to assist schools and communities in really working for success for all children.”
That discovery led to an independent second phase, which investigated ways in which turnaround school teachers can differentiate instruction using community resources in the classroom. Lopez worked with the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago to create a system of data sharing between school administrators, teachers and community organizations.
“We support community-based organizations with how to look at that data, and then we share that data back with teachers,” Lopez said. “We tell teachers, ‘The community is now aware of a variety of frameworks that now exist in the schools, so you should feel free to communicate back to parents and the community what work you are doing.’
“That second phase is really tricky: how do teachers engage parents and community with this new teaching-learning framework around these sets of data?”
The first community partnership was built at Phillips High School in Bronzeville, an area with health community-based organizations with substantial parent involvement. Eight teachers and 40 community participants joined the effort. In the school’s social studies curriculum, a teacher integrated a community history lesson with a community history library’s literature. The community library offered more than just material; members worked one-on-one with teachers in the classroom.
“The teachers have walked into several epiphanies,” Lopez said. “On the one hand, teachers were so surprised and eager to share information with parents, but really the most enlightening piece of this is that the community has so much to share with teachers.
Lopez says more than ever, teachers need to develop an independent voice to communicate their work in the classroom. With school models and frameworks developing quickly and changing frequently, with national policy taking greater precedence and standards growing stricter, Lopez says teachers need to explore their ideas and share their work with fellow teachers. He advocates a process of communicating not just with a local community but also with external communities to gain greater access to resources and determine best practices.
Community-based best practices are becoming a major part of curriculum at National Louis University. The National College of Education’s new Master of Education program includes a component of community exploration.
“Students here at National Louis are getting to see firsthand the work that is occurring in turnaround schools,” Lopez said. “The same day I’m working with school leaders and turnaround administrators, then that same night I’m coming to work with a graduate course and letting them know, ‘Hey, here’s the reality of what is occurring in Chicago Public Schools turnarounds.’"
Lopez hopes to expand these community partnerships to other Chicago neighborhoods, including Rodgers Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park, and eventually to the suburbs and the rest of the state.
“I’m passionate about getting teachers ways to share that voice, share the work they are doing and really be a part of the community,” Lopez said. “I think both of us have a lot to learn from the other.”