The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
The turnaround and transformation vision
Donald Fraynd, the sprightly former Jones College Prep principal, has led the district’s school turnaround effort since its inception. At Catalyst Chicago press time, he was serving as interim chief of schools for a group of high schools on the South and West sides. But his heart remained with the cadre of struggling schools that he’s charged with improving.
Fraynd says these big neighborhood high schools, like Marshall and Phillips, do have a role to play in the district’s future.
On shifting enrollment: Fraynd is counting on the new chief portfolio officer to take stock of the student population and seats available in neighborhoods. “This ‘big picture’ analysis and better planning on the part of our overall portfolio will ease these issues moving forward.”
Fraynd acknowledges that turnaround principals are in a precarious position: They need students, but don’t want to take just any student. “I want to be clear: We do not selectively filter out badly behaved or poor-attendance students. With those who are severely under-credited in a way that makes it mathematically impossible for them to graduate [by age 21], we do educate students and families about alternative options. However, if [they] do not want to exercise those options, we welcome them to stay at the school.”
Creating a school that can serve higher-performing students: “It is a challenging balance to meet students where they are and to prepare them for college and work. We strive to build turnaround schools around the needs of the students. As time has gone on, we are getting better and better at catching our students up. For example, we are getting better at Read 180 (a program for struggling readers) and have seen more and more students gaining two-plus years of reading growth in one year.”
“We have talked about Aventa online credit recovery as well. As we go into our fourth year, we are getting better and better at helping students stay on pace in these courses so that they can recover badly needed credit. We require a double block of math and reading in the freshman year and require all seniors to take math, so we have more time invested in the classes they need to acquire critical skills.”
“As the elementary schools in the region improve and as we improve at striking balance, we are hopeful.”
Budget cuts and sustaining turnarounds: “It is something we think about a lot. We are trying to make sure we build capacity [and] systems. So, for example, in the first couple of years we see a lot around discipline. We might need a few deans. But after a few years, [problems] should slow down and we would only need one dean. Another example is teacher visits. At first we observe them weekly. But in a year or two the teachers should have enough know-how not to need weekly visits.”
On the schools chosen for transformation, a less drastic turnaround model in which teachers keep their jobs: “We made the selection by looking at the schools that were on the upward trajectory. We wanted some sign that things were looking up. Then we went to the school to see which staff were open to it. We needed to know that it could fly with the humans [already] in the building.”
“Each school has a project plan. We are doing weekly risk management meetings in which we check in to make sure that project plan is being followed, and every three weeks we have accountability meetings in which we [shine a] spotlight on the outcomes.”