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How to fix America's worst schools

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"There was food fighting in the cafeterias, and kids were always fighting in the hallways," recalls Eric Darko, a soft-spoken senior from Ghana, as he builds a complex tower after school for a Science Olympiad. "It was horrible bad. We didn't learn anything." This year, he says, things are better. "The teachers are always on time and on track."

AUSL puts its teachers through a yearlong residency program or offers other specialized training. As a result, all the teachers at Phillips have signed on to a certain curriculum and follow common practices in the classroom. A note on the wall or chalkboard of every class lists the agenda and objectives for the day.

"Do now" items get students busy as soon as they enter the room. Students get an "exit slip" on the way out, in which they are queried about how well they understood the material. The idea is to make sure students know some things will be the same, no matter what class they're in.

"The 'Do Nows,' the agendas, the exit slips – it's all a great format," says Pete Retsos, a sophomore history teacher who left a job at one of Chicago's most prestigious private schools to work at Phillips. He also likes the school's approach to discipline, in which teachers simply send students who break the rules to the dean. It frees up teachers to just teach. "In a conventional [Chicago public] school, the teacher has to deal with a lot of behavior problems," says Mr. Retsos. "Students rule the classroom in a lot of Chicago schools."

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