CHICAGO—For years, the Julia Ward Howe School in Chicago's Austin neighborhood was beset by discipline and academic problems. At one point, only 20 percent of the students at the K-8 public school were meeting state academic standards. In 2008, Arne Duncan, then leader of Chicago Public Schools, was so fed up he approved what usually is seen as a nuclear option: To save the school, he fired the entire staff and put a nonprofit group in charge. New principals and teachers were brought in to set the school on the right path. "Sometimes it takes a fresh start," says Don Feinstein, executive director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the nonprofit group that took over Howe in September and now runs a total of eight "turnaround" schools along with six teacher-training academies in the city.
Encouraged by the early results he saw at Howe and other turnaround schools in Chicago, Duncan, the new head of the federal Department of Education, now wants additional cities and towns to take similar steps to fix their most troubled schools. It helps that he has an unprecedented $5 billion in federal funding he can commit to the effort. His goal is to rehabilitate the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the next five years. "If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom, and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children," Duncan recently said. States and local districts can seek these funds to completely or partially replace the faculty at a school, bring in a charter school operator, or try another strategy to improve student performance. School districts can pick a school for turnaround based on test scores, dropout rates, the number of students going to college, or other criteria.
Fixing these schools won't be easy. In Chicago, the teachers union has vigorously protested school closings and staff overhauls, calling the tactics disruptive and disrespectful to teachers. Parents of children at those schools also objected, saying they were tired of their children being treated like "guinea pigs." John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, the largest union representing teachers, says that federal turnaround funds should not be used for short-term fixes. "You have to look at the things that we know make a difference, and that's having a strong leader and having a stable and well-trained staff," he says.
Reopening a school with a new staff—a central idea of the No Child Left Behind law—is considered a last resort for several reasons. Besides being unpopular, school overhauls are costly and don't always produce the desired results. One of the main challenges is finding enough experienced teachers who are willing to work at a struggling school. AUSL, the nonprofit group that partnered with Duncan to tackle the worst schools in Chicago, has had some success meeting the challenges and offers one model other school districts could consider adopting. The nonprofit was founded by venture capitalist Martin Koldyke in 2001 and has focused its program around an alternative approach that trains recent college graduates and midcareer professionals to work in turnaround schools. Instead of a summer crash course in teaching, teacher candidates spend 10 months as paid interns in urban schools shadowing veteran teachers, who coach them on the best practices. They also take graduate-level courses that lead to a master's degree in teaching. AUSL teaching candidates compare the training to the rigorous clinical residency programs that prepare doctors. After the training, graduates must commit to spending five years teaching in an underperforming Chicago school. It is one of three such urban teacher residency programs in the country (Boston and Denver, the other two, are operated by different organizations). Other residency projects could soon take off in New York, Philadelphia, and Chattanooga, Tenn.
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.
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.
This success hasn't come cheap. Urban teacher academies cost more upfront than most other pathways to teacher certification. The turnaround schools receive federal and state funds, but AUSL must raise private funds to support the teacher-training academies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is contributing $10 million over four years to AUSL. There is also no definitive research linking urban teacher academies with improved student performance. But supporters, including Obama, who has proposed creating 200 such teacher residency programs nationwide, say the investment is worthwhile. "If you want to make a fundamental change in the lowest-performing schools, you need to have dedicated and capable teachers who have high expectations and are willing to go the extra mile," Feinstein says.
At Howe, students say the new teachers are making a difference. The school was recently abuzz with excitement over the wrestling team's win at the city championships. A new teacher introduced the program at the beginning of the year to help students cope with anger and keep them motivated in school. "Last year we had no core values," says Devonte, an eighth grader. "Now, we got rules and teachers who want you to learn." Kimyatta, the student who returned to Howe after leaving last year, interrupts, summing up perhaps the biggest change at the school, "There are other students who care."