A raft of past programs have failed to substantially improve the reading skills of middle grade and high school students. CPS is trying once again, as part of a federal project that aims to help teens learn how to analyze complex non-fiction.
How Beethoven beats the odds
Half of the students forced to repeat a grade under the School Board's promotion policy are concentrated in 100 of the city's schools. Not surprisingly, these schools serve a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students. But even in the poorest communities, some schools beat the odds and end up retaining relatively few students. Beethoven Elementary is one of them.
For the last four years, Beethoven has posted test scores that topped the city average. That translates into fewer student retentions. For example in 2002, the district as a whole retained 21 percent of 3rd-graders; Beethoven retained just 10 percent
Faculty members cite a wide variety of reasons for their relative success. Principal Dyrice Garner also has a ready list of resources she believes the school needs to reach all children.
What has helped:
Leadership. A supportive administration has made teachers willing to put forth extra effort, such as tutoring students on their own time.
Professional development. Most teachers have earned state endorsements in teaching reading. Many have them in teaching math.
Long school day.Beethoven insists that all students stay for the after-school program unless a parent explicitly objects.
Health clinic. The clinic is run in partnership with the Illinois School of Professional Psychologists and John Stroger Hospital. Students receive immunizations, physicals, emergency care and counseling from a full-time nurse, two part-time physicians and graduate students in psychology.
Mental health program. In partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago, the "Phases" program provides a full-time social worker and two trained parents to work with students having emotional or behavioral difficulties.
Communities in Schools. This nonprofit connects students and their families with needed social services.
Boys and Girls Club. The club operates on site from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily and provides 350 Beethoven students with recreation and a homework center.
College tutors. Columbia College sends four tutors four or five times a week.
What is still needed:
Full-day kindergarten and preschool. Beethoven can afford only half-day programs.
Free eyeglasses for every student who needs them and a backup pair.
More training to help parents support their children's learning at home.
Computers with educational software for families to use at home.
Home libraries for students.
More field trips to help children build the background knowledge they need for better reading comprehension. State Schools Superintendent Robert Schiller, who visited Beethoven last October, says the school is impressive not only for the number and quality of its support programs, but also for the staff's sensitivity.
During his visit, a small boy arrived late carrying a bag of chips and a soda. Frances Oden, the principal at the time, gently took the snacks away, promised to return them after school and sent an assistant to find him a nutritious breakfast.
"It was just touching," says Schiller. "That caring nature exemplified the whole school."