Saturday, July 11, 2009

From excellence to exodus, Harlan strives for rebirth Part 2

I promised in last Sunday's post a part 2 the next day, well there were other things of interest going on. Indeed I haven't posted the last two days so it should have been either Thursday or Friday, but I didn't commit. Today I commit.

So Part 2 is supposed to be about leadership. I mentioned that one of my classmates had his two cents about our principal during our time there. Of course let me preferace that by saying he doesn't blame her for everything and nor would I for that matter. Although in that position well the turnaround either didn't take or she was in over her head.

So we take you back to December 2001 when that Catalyst article was written and the excerpts will focus on the school's leadership:
Achievement continued to decline, the building to decay. Harlan’s principals may have felt too overwhelmed to fight for the school or were simply resigned to their circumstances, Foster speculates. “Somebody should have been over at the board beating on the table, ‘We’re dying out here.’”

By the mid-‘90s, only 7 percent of Harlan students scored at grade level in reading on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency. Oehmen recalls that era as a low point for student morale. “Most had been sent here and didn’t want to be here. Somehow, Harlan had become the school of last resort.”

In September 1996, the mayor’s new school team placed low-scoring schools like Harlan on academic probation. Schools were to select a university or non-profit organization from an approved list to help them improve instruction and school management.
My algebra teacher went off on us one day. He was temperamental guy, but he wasn't always. I think he may have brought it up. The school being on probation was likely the first time I have ever heard that. I don't know if we were supposed to know about that. If we were then just as easily the parents should have known about this. I would imagine that many would have shrugged it off, parents or students wouldn't have had any interest in either transferring or turning that school around or whatever.

To the first paragraph of the excerpt, I wonder how overwhelming was the problem. Prior to the takeover of the schools by the City of Chicago, I remember there was always talk of budget deficits, something amazingly enough we still don't hear much about. Even though before former CPS CEO Arne Duncan became the Secretary of Education he was talking about more money for schools.

I remember this concept suffered a quiet death. We had small schools then the next year there were no more small schools...
Harlan went through a revolving door of external partners. The school dropped the University of Illinois’ Small Schools Workshop, reasoning that dividing staff into smaller “schools-within-schools” was impractical given the small student body, an administrator recalls.
There were other partners, but for some reason these partners didn't fit very well with the school. The article doesn't explain but all this switching was taking its toll on the school's faculty:
“Each time, it’s all new paperwork, all new routines,” one veteran teacher says of the constant switching. “You learn to use new materials and next year, start all over again.”

Teachers say they were inundated with paperwork. Under probation, staff are required to document their efforts to improve achievement, such as contacting parents and planning curriculum.

“Each year it became more and more insane,” one teacher recalls. “There were 1,000 things to do.” Between the spring of 1997 and the spring of 1999, Harlan had the fourth highest teacher-turnover rate of any high school in the district, according to data provided by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Over 20 teachers left.

“It got to the point of ‘Why are we doing this?’” another teacher explains. “We get paid the same as people who don’t have to put up with this.”
This is when I found out that my classmate was telling the truth about our former principal. Not that I didn't believe him but this next excerpt brought what he said home:
Some describe their principal at the time, Barbara Edwards, as likable but ineffective. She failed to clamp down on teachers who were repeatedly late to work or neglected paperwork, one veteran recalls.

The school’s test scores remained stagnant. In the spring of 2000, the board ousted Edwards, and scrambled to find Harlan a new leader.
Then it came time to find a new Principal for Harlan, the one selected used to be a principal at a  grammar school. The students weren't very happy:
Students were less receptive. Grissett introduced herself at an assembly and laid down some new rules. “Everyone booed,” recalls Anthony Ellis, a junior. “We liked our old principal—she let us do whatever we wanted.”

Several honors students say they viewed arriving at class on time as optional and, the day before vacations, routinely cut out after 3rd period— right in front of the security guards. “National ditch day,” they called it.
You know, it wasn't until senior year when I started cutting. Of course it was only on days before vacations or when I knew there was no class. Perhaps there was no excuse for doing it, but then there was a reason why students ditched. Perhaps student morale was low as well as the staff no one wanted to do anything.

But with a new regime things have changed, it's a wonder what leadership would do!
Now, with consequences like Saturday detention, tardies are down 50 percent, one girl estimates. The same security guards are more alert, too, the kids say. “They’re going to chase you,” another girl reports.
...
Since 1996, the School Board has sunk billions into school renovation and construction, and Grissett got Harlan its share.

“She wrote letters, she called people. ‘How can we not have basic things?’ She just stayed on top of it,” says Associate Principal Gertrude Hill, who is Grissett’s second-in-command.

Foster observes that in this system, principals must squeak to get grease. “She squeaked loud and hard down at central office about her needs.”
...
Joyce Woldemariam, who has a master’s degree in mathematics, decided to switch schools this year. She says she chose Harlan for its small size and because it was her first interview. She reports she has a cabinet full of supplies and easy access to administrators. “They tend to ask a lot—what do you need? And I like that.”
You may want to know where's Harlan today. Well they have a new principal and are poised for new success in the future. They have an academic center (AC), if I recall before I went to school at Harlan I had this 8th teacher who claimed that he opposed sending 7th & 8th graders to Harlan. Although since ACs are touted at advanced for 7th & 8th graders it might be one way of changing the student culture of a school. I think my former 8th Grade teacher lost that battle. I can't tell you how he viewed this development.

This fall a magnet program in engineering is starting up there. If only there was ROTC when I was there, because I would have been involved, I was already interesting at that time in the military. It's possible that there was a lot Harlan missed out on back then that now today's students will take advantage of.

You know if Harlan's reputation was for violence or lack of academic rigor, it takes time to change that rep. I hope that Harlan can become as well know for it's reputation as a school that can send students to the top schools in the nation. I want to see that happen. It doesn't have to be Whitney Young or any other selective enrollment or magnet high schools.

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