Chicago Program Rebuilds Failing Schools from Inside Out

Published October 1, 2009

While the Chicago Public Schools system struggles with high dropout rates, failing schools, and crime, one program is turning its worst schools into successes.

Since 2001, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) has worked with CPS to train teachers and create a program that can turn around struggling schools.

Initially AUSL was a training program for CPS teachers, but the group soon found the teachers’ new skills were not being fully utilized.

“We started off training teachers in the one-year residency program and then put them in a high-needs CPS school,” said Bridget Altenburg, AUSL’s director of development and communications. “We found they were having a big impact in their classrooms, but the schools themselves weren’t being transformed very much. So we decided to take over whole schools and use our teacher-training program to get people ready for the hard work of turning around schools.

“We’ve found this is having a much bigger impact on the school, the students, and the teachers,” Altenburg continued. “They feel much more supported and get more coaching support. In turn, we’re finding teachers are staying longer and having a bigger impact on students in terms of attendance and test scores.”

Real Training

AUSL—one of only three Urban Teacher Residency programs nationwide—currently runs 14 CPS schools, including three high schools. Teachers chosen to take part in the highly selective program undergo a stringent one-year residency in a CPS classroom with a training teacher who is paid to spend extra time working with the trainee after school. Urban Teacher Residency United, a two-year-old nonprofit group that runs teacher training programs based on the medical school residency model, also works with school districts in Boston and Denver.

“Our teachers are in the classroom Monday through Thursday with a mentor teacher for an entire school year,” Altenburg said. “They get to understand the rhythms of the classroom. They get to understand what it’s like to get to know a student, what it’s like in May when the weather is nice and [the children] start goofing off.

“In a traditional teacher-training program, you do your student teacher training for eight to 12 weeks, and it’s plopped into your academic schedule wherever it fits. You don’t get a chance to feel the rhythm of a whole school year,” Altenburg noted.

CPS grants AUSL five-year contracts to take over some of its worst schools. Next year the contract for AUSL’s first school will expire.

“After the five-year performance contract is up, we will request another five years,” said AUSL Executive Director Don Feinstein. “We want to maintain our schools and to continue overseeing them. We want to make sure they continue to improve.”

Big Changes

AUSL also incorporates a great deal of parental involvement, which is seen as key to a successful turnaround.

“As we rebirth schools, we give parents the opportunity to finally say, ‘Well, this is the way this should happen, and if you really want to get it right, let us have a voice,'” said Feinstein. “We certainly listen to them in informational and parent meetings. We knock on doors and have open houses and barbecues. We want to hear what they have to say and what they want for their children. By any means necessary, we have to provide a quality education to every child in every school we run. It’s that important.”

‘Dramatic Intervention’

When taking over a school, AUSL brings in all-new, trained teachers, which means the school’s original teachers are left without a job. That causes pushback from time to time, Feinstein noted, but he said AUSL is not the reason the teachers lose their jobs.

“We put children first,” said Feinstein. “It’s not like these schools have been underperforming for one year and then all of a sudden we are going in there and making a whole school transformation. These schools have been chronically underperforming for five, 10, or even 15 years, and children only get one chance at an education. It requires dramatic intervention.”

Rays of Hope

Some of the key differences in AUSL schools compared to others in CPS are the large investment teachers make in after-school programs and the group’s autonomy in firing principals and teachers. Teachers also have the option to extend their school days.

“The students say, ‘My teacher expects more of me; she or he doesn’t let me goof around, and I get in trouble when I do, but before I didn’t,'” Altenburg noted. “They say they feel challenged for the first time, and that their teacher really cares about them and is pushing them to do well.”

Parents of children in AUSL schools often say they had all but given up on the idea of their child going to a good school before the program took over.

“We’ve had parents and guardians say the transformation at their school has been a miracle,” Altenburg said. “They say they really didn’t think the school could turn around like it has. They were frustrated and didn’t have any options. They couldn’t afford private school, and their child didn’t win the lottery to go to a charter school. They felt terrible having to send their children to those schools before we took them over. Now they feel like their kids are getting the education they deserve.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.