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How to fix America's worst schools

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To oversee the school, AUSL brought in one of its most successful school-turnaround administrators, Terrance Little, as principal. A cool-headed manager who banters easily with staff and students, Mr. Little certainly knew the challenge he would be facing: He grew up on the gritty streets of Chicago and attended a poor high school himself that was shut down. To this day, he lives in the same neighborhood as most of his students.

"I thought I was an intelligent kid until I got to college," says Little, recalling what it was like to be challenged academically for the first time.

His approach in the hallways and from behind his desk is decidedly no-nonsense. Though not physically imposing, he is not the sort of person students question. At Phillips, Little's word is law.

As part of the transition to the new school, Chicago school officials dismissed all the Phillips teachers. Little hired back only two of the original faculty, both ROTC instructors. He also mandated the wearing of uniforms – navy blue pants for both boys and girls, and shirts color-coded by grade.

On top of that, he instituted a dress code – no shirt, for instance, could be untucked. Students had to wear visible ID tags, and carry clear backpacks so security guards could see what was inside them.

Little altered the schedule to keep freshmen at school an extra hour each day, and instituted a tougher grading scale. He enforced a zero-tolerance policy on discipline. He removed iron gates in the stairwells that he thought made the school feel like a prison. "If students come back, and it looks like it did when they left, then right there you've started off on the wrong foot," says Mr. Little.

His by-the-book approach was perhaps not surprising, given what Little saw when he visited Phillips last year. He describes it as a "zoo." Students were spending more time in hallways than in classrooms, and when they were in class, chaos reigned.

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