Turning Around Troubled Schools

Signs of how Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to fix failing schools, via his work in Chicago

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan speak to elementary school children December 16, 2008 at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago. Obama called Duncan, a former professional basketball player in Australia, '... the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners...' of school reform.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan speak to elementary school children at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago. Obama called Duncan, a former professional basketball player in Australia, '... the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners...' of school reform.


U.S. News recently visited the new Howe School of Excellence to find out how the turnaround process is affecting students and faculty.


Howe, which was overhauled over the summer break of 2008, reopened as the Howe School of Excellence, with a new principal, 27 new teachers, a new curriculum, and a new attitude. It is the start of the school day at Howe, and uniformed students stand in single file, quietly waiting for their teachers' instructions. After grabbing a free breakfast, a group of sixth graders follows first-year teacher Laura Carey to the classroom. "I am looking for teams who enter excellently," she tells the class, giving students exactly three minutes to put away their coats and get their homework out. Like the rest of the staff, Carey has been given strict guidelines to follow on how to improve behavior and academics. For example, she takes away recess or assigns a silent lunch to any student who doesn't follow these rules. In years past, teachers struggled to keep order. "It was crazy," says Kimyatta, an eighth grader. "There were fights, and the teachers were acting like they didn't care." Another eighth grader, Kayla, offers an even more blunt assessment of her former teachers, saying, "They didn't motivate me." The result: Only 43 percent of last year's students passed the state's reading, math, and science tests, an improvement from the previous year but still disappointing.

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.