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Chicago looks to 'turnarounds' to lift failing schools

The unproven reform includes firing a school's entire staff.

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A new order: Students at Harvard Elementary School in Chicago collect themselves before proceeding down the hallway. Last year, the school was like 'Beirut,' says the new principal.

Stephen J. Carerra/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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It looks like a typical day at a typical American grammar school: Students proceed in single file down hallways, a class of fourth-graders listens to their teacher read aloud, and students in another class work in small groups on independent projects.

But Andre Cowling, the tall, imposing new principal of Harvard Elementary on Chicago's South Side, shakes his head in wonder at it all. Last year, he says, "this wouldn't have been possible."

Harvard is one of several public schools here to get a top-to-bottom housecleaning in recent years – including replacing the principal and most teachers – in a bid to lift student achievement out of the nation's academic basement. The drastic approach is known as "turnaround," and Chicago is embracing it more than any US city, though it's unproven and is controversial among teachers, many parents, and students.

"It's risky in that it's new and has an untested track record," says Andrew Calkins, senior vice president at Mass Insight, a nonprofit group focused on school reform, and coauthor of a report on turnaround schools. "It's logical in that the other choice is to keep on doing what's been tried before, and we know what the results of that will be. What you try to do if you're Chicago is to minimize the risk and maximize the possibility of a good outcome" by thinking through everything that's needed to improve the climate for learning at a school.

As Principal Cowling sees it, the risk paid off. Until Harvard Elementary went through turnaround, the school was like "Beirut," he says – 50 kids running through the halls at any time, holes in the floors and peeling paint on the walls, fights on or near campus, no order in the classrooms.

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