The success of Carey and her colleagues will ultimately depend on their ability to help students meet the federal accountability standards. They face serious challenges. Ninety-three percent of the students at Howe are low income. Many of them come from broken homes; some have lost relatives to the violence that plagues the desolate neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. In May, a well-known 16-year-old former student at Howe was gunned down a block away from the school.
To get better results on the tests, teachers have worked on winning their students' trust in the classrooms. At a school where other interventions had failed, the promise of a "fresh start" sounded hollow to students. "They were like 'Who are you?'" says new eighth-grade science teacher Shanna Jackson, a graduate of the AUSL training program.
Each year, high-needs schools like Howe lose nearly one fifth of their teaching staffs. It is estimated by the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America's Future that the constant teacher turnover costs the United States more than $7 billion annually. Both Carey and Jackson could have been early casualties of the profession. Carey had a teaching degree from a Lutheran university but didn't feel well prepared to teach in an urban school like Howe. "You have only 8 to 16 weeks of teaching experience, and you're not leading a class," she says of the traditional route into teaching. "I wanted more." During her yearlong residency at another turnaround school run by AUSL, she picked up strategies from a mentor teacher for how to deal with class disruptions and help students whose reading skills are all over the map. She organizes students in small reading groups and uses rewards such as pizza parties to encourage good behavior. Jackson, who spent six years teaching at a Catholic school before working in turnaround schools, says of the work, "I didn't realize the magnitude of the challenge." But she says her residency training and the coaching she continues to receive (teachers videotape lessons and receive weekly feedback from coaches) have made the job less daunting for her. She has been able to win over students who were skeptical of her and the other new teachers. "It's still challenging, but it's definitely not where we were in September," she says.
District officials who had tried other remedies in the past, including hiring reading coaches, adopting a new math curriculum, getting community groups involved, are seeing promising results under the turnaround model at Howe. In the first month, discipline referrals went down by two thirds and attendance rose 4 points, to 94 percent. Some parents who were skeptical of the new school now volunteer. Earlier in the year, a parent who showed up at the school began to weep as she talked about the days when her children didn't want to go to a school where teachers were chronically absent and fighting broke out regularly. She told new principal Keisha Campbell that now her kids are eager to get to the new school on time. Math and science teacher Javier Velazquez, also new at the school, says; "I feel that we have set high expectations and changed the culture. The next step is raising academics." Feinstein, AUSL's executive director, has set high expectations for teachers like Velazquez. When the test results for Howe's first year are released, he wants at least half of the students meeting state academic standards.
While it's too early to call Howe's transformation a success, the progress at other AUSL turnaround schools in Chicago is encouraging. Dodge Renaissance Academy, where President Barack Obama announced Duncan as his choice for U.S. education secretary, has made a leap of 50 percentage points in scores on state tests since being overhauled in 2003. At the Harvard School of Excellence, where middle school students are separated into classes of girls or boys, test scores rose 8 percentage points in one year. In 2008, 93 percent of the first graduating class at Chicago Academy High School went to college. By contrast, only 50 percent of high school students citywide go to college. But the work is grinding on teachers. Besides raising achievement, they must constantly work to keep students alert and to maintain order in the classroom.Jackson, for example, says her work has put a strain on her family life. Besides teaching and caring for a young daughter, she is working toward a doctoral degree in education. "It's kind of wearing on my husband a little," she says. But, so far, 90 percent of the 300 graduates of the AUSL residency program are still in education.