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.
Outside Marshall High, the day is cool but sunny. The school has been power-washed from a dingy red to a bright maroon. In place of the old broken concrete, weeds and rusted poles—remnants of a basketball court—is a newly sodded football field and a newly planted arboretum full of skinny young trees.
Inside Marshall, the smell of fresh paint hovers in the air. It is the first day of school, September 7, 2010.
These renovations have been dreamed about for decades at Marshall, located in the impoverished East Garfield Park community. As far back as four years ago, blueprints for them were on display in the principal’s office. But only last year did the dream become reality, when Marshall joined the district’s turnaround program and got a substantial investment in the physical condition of its campus, a signal that the school is making a fresh start.
Kenyatta Stansberry, Marshall’s no-nonsense new principal, is dressed in a fitted black suit with a short skirt. But she’s ready for a hard, long day—her hair is in a ponytail and she’s wearing comfortable black clogs.
Stansberry is in Room 129, the community room, where portraits of her predecessors line the wall. Today, the room is a holding place for students who show up but aren’t enrolled. Some were dropped from the rolls because of poor attendance. Others want to transfer in, or out. Most of the teens are with their parents, who sit clutching papers, waiting.
At a front table, counselors write students’ names on yellow Post-It notes and hand them to Stansberry. Going over to the families, she asks the parents why their children want to come to Marshall—or leave it, as the case may be.
One mother explains that her son wants to leave Manley High, also in East Garfield Park.
“Why?” Stansberry asks. The mother shrugs.
Stansberry turns to the young man. “Why?”
“I got enemies there,” he mumbles.
Stansberry picks up his transcript and looks it over. His grades are not horrible, so she quickly decides to accept him. As a mother of two sons, Stansberry is not one to send a young man to a school where he might not be safe, especially if he is doing OK academically.
In this case and others, Stansberry has the student sign a contract with her. “We will try this out,” she says.
Other students get turned away. One of them, a tall, thin young man with cornrows, comes in with his mother. Stansberry glances at his transcript. He’s also from Manley.
“We can’t take him,” she tells his mother. “Look at all his Fs.”
A hint of desperation in her voice, his mother says that the young man can’t go back to Manley, but doesn’t give specifics. “Sorry,” Stansberry says, unflinching.
Later, realizing that her radio is missing, she rushes to her office and finds it on the desk, crackling with static. Before she can sit down, her secretary asks her to meet with some parents who are waiting.
Stansberry has told her counselors not to give schedules or uniforms to current students with attendance or discipline problems. Instead, students must bring in a parent for a meeting.
In this case, a young woman has shown up with her mother. Stansberry asks the girl why she cut so many classes last year.
Then she makes her expectations clear. “I am not going to hold you responsible for last year. I am just letting you know I am not dealing with that nonsense. You will be on a contract, and you will have to check in with me.”
Marshall is Stansberry’s second turnaround high school—she came to the school from Harper High in Englewood—and her third time as an administrator of a low-achieving high school. That experience gave her the idea to put problematic students on a contract, warning them that they must abide by stipulations such as attending class and keeping their grades above a certain level.
Within the first weeks of school, nearly 80 students at Marshall are required to sign a contract.
Stansberry tells the girl to go get a school uniform, put it on and go to class. But the girl says she is going home today and will come back tomorrow, ready to start.
“You are starting out real stupid,” her mom tells her, though she does nothing to make the girl comply.
The challenges evident on the first day of school hint at the deep problems facing Marshall. After decades of academic decline, and on the heels of a failed attempt to transform the school by bringing in better curricula, the turnaround could well be viewed as a last-ditch effort at reinvention.
The success or failure of the turnaround has national as well as local implications, since U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made the strategy a centerpiece of federal reform efforts.
But the odds are clearly steep. For one, the high price tag is unsustainable over the long term. And turnaround schools, both in Chicago and in other urban districts like Philadelphia, are experiencing significant enrollment loss—driven largely by the rapid expansion of charter high schools—that in some ways hinders improvement.
The enrollment decline also raises a difficult question for policymakers: Is it worth a substantial taxpayer investment to try to fix a failing school that is losing students?
Chicago Public Schools and the federal government have invested millions in Marshall and four other turnaround high schools: Fenger, Orr, Phillips, and Harper. Nationally, the federal government budgeted $3.5 billion for the school improvement grant program, which awards money to schools that adopt one of four turnaround models.
But in the past three years, Marshall’s enrollment has dropped by a third, as fewer freshmen enroll for the first time and fewer sophomores, juniors and seniors return. Last year, only 16 percent of students in the attendance area enrolled at Marshall—a decline of 10 percentage points in five years.
Overall, turnaround high schools enrolled 20 percent of students in their attendance areas last year, down from 31 percent five years ago.
Fenger experienced the sharpest population loss last year, enrolling 418 fewer students than projected. Observers note that a new charter high school, the Larry Hawkins campus of Chicago International Charter Schools, opened in the Altgeld Gardens area and drew in students who otherwise would have enrolled at Fenger. The school also experienced negative publicity the year before, because of the beating death of student Derrion Albert.
Around Marshall on the West Side, at least 12 new schools have opened in recent years, including nine charters, two military schools and the new Westinghouse High.
Citywide, all but six of the 27 charter high schools that have opened in Chicago since 2005 are on the South or West sides and serve primarily black students—the same students who not too long ago would have ended up at one of the schools that have become turnarounds.
Nationally, 27 percent of the schools that have received federal school improvement grants have lost 20 percent or more of their students in recent years, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of federal data.
Like Chicago, these urban districts—such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, St. Louis and Cleveland—are struggling to figure out the role of failing neighborhood high schools that have been on life support for decades.
In Philadelphia, schools are facing a double whammy similar to Chicago’s: losing students while opening charters and other new, small schools, says Eva Gold, senior research fellow at Research for Action, which examines Philadelphia’s education initiatives.
Under former Superintendent Paul Vallas—who came to Philadelphia from CPS—the goal was to open new schools so that big neighborhood high schools could shrink, Gold says.
But Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s plan was to focus squarely on improving neighborhood high schools, and the federal school improvement grants are a centerpiece of that. Ackerman says the key to improvement will be fixing the high school selection process. (At Catalyst press time, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission had fired Ackerman, giving her a $900,000 buyout of her contract.)
Some of the turnarounds in Philadelphia are managed by charter operators and students must apply to attend. Meanwhile, others are run by the Philadelphia school district and must take any student who walks in the door.
“These schools don’t know who they are going to get until the first day and sometimes they have to reconfigure and re-roster in October,” Gold says. “That is very disruptive.”
Phillip Lovell, vice president of federal advocacy at the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, which focuses on high school reform, says that there are simply not enough good charter school providers to take the place of all the low-performing, large urban high schools.
Even if these schools serve a smaller population, he adds, the investment is worthwhile.
“If the school has half the population, that should aid them in creating a personal learning environment,” Lovell says.
But as large high schools shrink, they lose the benefits that a comprehensive high school provides. Schools like Marshall and Phillips lacked stellar academics, but they were able to offer perks to attract students and keep them engaged. They had enough students to support strong sports programs and band classes, vocational programs and numerous after-school clubs. Students also had a host of electives to choose from.
“We are working in a different world than just two years ago,” says Debbra Lang, the managing director of high school turnarounds at the Academy for Urban School Leadership. CPS contracts with AUSL to run Orr and Phillips, as well as 10 elementary school turnarounds.
Like Marshall, Orr has scrapped career and technical tracks, such as those for information technology and health occupations. Lang says Orr will focus on academic enhancement and art and music education.
“When you have such a small population, it really limits the options,” she says. “At New Trier, with 4,000 students, you can offer 20 different English classes.”
Lang doesn’t believe the district should abandon the idea of a neighborhood high school. “It is an honorable idea to have a school that says, ‘You all come and we will design a program for you,’” she says. “Schools should be anchors of their community.”
As Marshall’s turnaround got underway, Stansberry faced a dilemma: She needed students to keep her budget from bottoming out and to justify the investment, but she was under pressure to show improvement at the school and didn’t want just any student.
Over the summer of 2010, Stansberry told her staff to send out letters to students who were woefully behind in credits, suggesting that they enroll in an alternative school. But sending out the letters was risky. Teachers are allocated based on enrollment, so if too many students were no-shows, the school would lose staff and have to reshuffle schedules late in the game.
In all, some 161 students who were supposed to be sophomores, juniors and seniors did not come back in the fall.
During the summer, Stansberry got word from central office that only 720 students were likely to enroll, instead of the originally projected 841. She staffed the school accordingly.
Then, in September, 772 students showed up, as sophomore enrollment exceeded projections.
Marshall’s sole sophomore English teacher, Christina Tilghman, suddenly had classes of more than 40 students. Tilghman grew up in Boston, and earned her master’s degree from the Harvard School of Education. When she took the job at Marshall, it was the first time she had a classroom of her own.
Two months after school began, on November 11, two new sophomore teachers arrived to relieve some of the pressure on Tilghman and her colleagues. The day she got the news, she stood by the stairwell on the first floor, looking shell-shocked as she watched students pass by.
In a completely flat tone, she says she was ecstatic. Her excitement was tempered by an incident earlier that day. A student, one with whom she thought she had developed a bond, exploded in anger and cursed at her. She threw him out of her room.
“I have had better days,” Tilghman says. “These are not the conditions I imagined them to be. I am trying to merge reality with my goals.”
The disruption caused by enrollment fluctuation continued throughout the year.
After January—a time when enrollment usually slowed down—about 100 students asked to transfer into Marshall, says Matt Olson, the school’s programmer. Some were from charter schools, others from traditional schools.
Those who lived outside Marshall’s attendance area were generally sent to their neighborhood school. But Marshall had little choice except to take those students within its attendance area, and ended up enrolling more than 65 new students mid-year, Olson says.
AUSL’s Lang says that Phillips and Orr were in the same situation, taking in students from military schools, charters and elsewhere during the year. She makes another important note: These students show up mid-year, well after the district’s deadline for nailing down enrollment and allocating money for staff, but do not bring any extra dollars with them.
The schools that these students left keep the money and teachers, but no longer have to deal with the students or be held accountable for their test scores.
“There are benefits of competition, and there’s the price of competition,” Lang says.
Even with the considerable investment in Marshall, nearly a quarter of the students who enrolled in September 2010 left before the school year ended. Most of these students went to alternative schools, or simply disappeared. CPS data show that Marshall sent more students to alternative schools than any other district high school in 2010-11.
The investment at Marshall included staff that other schools typically do not have: a social worker, a counselor and a psychologist to work with troubled students; data analysts; additional security guards; and an in-school suspension room attendant.
Extra supports, such as anger management group sessions, did help some students who appeared to be on the wrong path. At the end of the first year, Marshall’s attendance rate had improved and the environment was calmer, with fewer students getting in trouble.
Recent test scores show marked improvement as well. (See graphic on page 14.)
But some students were too much in the hole academically, or too distraught emotionally, for the interventions to succeed.
The challenge is evident one day in November, a few days after the first report cards come out. Stansberry starts the day in a good mood. Shawn, one of her “starting five,” a group of young men she took under her wing and meets with weekly if not daily, has received a report card with no F’s for the first time in his two years in high school.
But as soon as Stansberry sits down at her desk, she gets bad news. Another young man, Kevin, has just stormed out of the disciplinarian’s office. She tells a security guard to bring him to the office. While she waits, Stansberry puts a tea bag in a mug, fills it with water and puts it in the microwave.
“Why did you just walk out of 136?” she says to Kevin when he arrives.
He tells her he just wanted a uniform.
“What makes you think you can walk into my building without a uniform on [already]?” she says. “You either are going to follow the rules in my house or you are going to get out.”
Stansberry gets on her walkie-talkie and tells Assistant Principal Angel Johnson to stop by her office with a shirt for Kevin.
“You don’t get another shirt,” she said to him.
After Kevin leaves, Stansberry tells Johnson, “This is why we are transferring him.” Johnson says that his guardian doesn’t have bus fare for him to get to school.
Stansberry nods as she dumps a large heap of sugar into her tea. She and Johnson agree that the situation is ridiculous. Kevin is a ward of the state, and his guardian should be making sure he gets to school and has clean clothes to wear.
“It is so sad,” Stansberry says.
Next, she calls Shawn to her office. She acknowledges his improved report card, but she’s not entirely happy with him. Stansberry has taken a deep interest in these boys, and gets emails every time they mess up. Shawn struggles with his temper. “He will walk out of class without even thinking,” she says. Stansberry says it is her job to keep him grounded.
When Shawn walks into her office, she asks him what happened at Saturday school, where he reportedly had some kind of incident. “I didn’t want to be there,” Shawn says.
Stansberry tells him, “I do not want to have emails about you walking out of class. You have grown. You don’t need to do that anymore.”
By spring, one of the starting five has transferred to an online credit recovery program inside Marshall. Three of the young men, including Shawn, are still in school, getting mediocre grades but not failing.
The fifth young man, Deion, is having problems. Since school began, Stansberry has tried to convince his mother to transfer him to an alternative school that might be better able to help him. But so far she has refused. “He is in special education, has an explosive behavior problem and is 19 with only one credit,” Stansberry says. “He can stay here until he is 21.”
In May, Stansberry and her two assistant principals run into Deion in the hallway. He is a tall, thin young man with an unkempt afro, his khaki pants sagging and an oversized black hoodie enveloping him. He tells the three that he was kicked out of a class because he didn’t have his uniform on.
Johnson notes that she tried to give him a uniform shirt, but he wouldn’t put it on.
“I am not walking around here with a 5X shirt,” Deion says.
Johnson says that is the only size available. Stansberry sighs. “I have a shirt in my closet. Go get it,” she says.
“What are we working on?” Assistant Principal Matt Curtis says to Deion, getting in his face. “Progress, not perfection.” Deion unzips his hoodie and walks away.
Curtis says that Deion would like to go to another school, but they are reluctant to take him because of his difficult behavior. “He can’t sit still for too long,” Curtis says.
The in-school suspension attendant, Lonnie Felters, is also getting sick of Deion. “He refuses to do any work,” Felters says.
Deion winds up in in-school suspension often, for a range of problems—no uniform, walking into class with no books, being disrespectful. “It seems like the moment he gets to class, they shoo him out,” Felters says.
A week later, in mid-May, Deion stops coming to school. He misses one week, then two. He never comes back.
“You can’t save them all,” Stansberry says.
(Editor’s note: Kevin and Deion’s real names are not being used to protect privacy.)
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