Just a few months before Sherman Elementary became the Sherman School for Excellence in September 2006, deep waves of skepticism rolled through the low-income, mostly black Englewood neighborhood that is home to Sherman.
The new principal, Lionel Allen, had never led a school before. He was in charge of hiring a new staff because the old one was fired as part of a sweeping turnaround project approved by the Chicago Board of Education.
Paint chippings fell from the ceilings of the school’s corridors and classrooms. Un-repaired holes dotted walls. It was a broken-down school with no staff and test scores among the worst in the city. Nearly 80 percent of Sherman students failed to meet state standards in reading in 2003.
“When I walked in that first day and I just saw the chaos of the place, I was like, ‘Wow. What am I doing?’ “ Allen says now.
Less than two years later, Chicago Public Schools officials hold up the Sherman School, 1000 W. 52nd St., as a beacon of promise for turnaround projects. They cite better teaching staffs, renovated school buildings and ambitious curriculums as evidence that the turnaround program will lead to improved student performance at Sherman and other schools.
“There’s a long way to go, but I couldn’t be more proud of the progress,” says CPS chief Arne Duncan. “There is a lot happening there that is right.”
But by the most important barometer -- test scores -- Sherman is not yet a success. The majority of the school’s students still do not meet state standards in testing. What's happened at Sherman illustrates the difficulty and risk involved in CPS's turnaround program.
Because even the most drastic educational changes take years to move test scores, the impact of replacing whole staffs and aggressively upgrading curriculums is not yet clear, and may not be for some time.
Meanwhile, the district is pushing forward with aggressive turnarounds at six additional schools this year, including for the first time a pair of high schools, Harper on the South Side and Orr on the West Side.
The district is planning for 10 to 12 more turnaround schools by the time the 2009-10 school year begins, sometimes over intense protest from parents and teachers.
Vexing problems, wholesale changes
The decision to institute wide-ranging changes at Sherman came in response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Sherman has failed to meet the law’s academic progress requirements since 2000. The law requires schools failing to show academic yearly progress for five consecutive years to plot out a plan for restructuring.
But the law is silent on how educators might successfully turn around such schools, and the task is fraught with difficulty. In many instances, under-performing schools are linked to larger societal issues. Students often come from impoverished single-parent homes struggling not only to get their children to school, but also to find health care, child care and jobs.
Chicago is not the only big-city district pursuing a turnaround strategy. In Washington, D.C., new school chancellor Michelle Rhee recently turned over 27 schools to private-management firms. In Detroit, four high schools are scheduled for turnarounds.
The turnaround structure in D.C. began just this year, but already another 13 schools have been targeted for turnaround next year, says district spokesperson Jennifer Calloway. The results of those turnarounds won’t be known for years, until test scores start to surface.
Even as more districts move to emulate Chicago, it’s unclear whether removing entire school staffs will pay off.
There’s no research showing the benefits of that approach, says to George Wood, executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.
But studies have shown investment in teacher training is the surest way to help struggling schools.
“That has to be there. If you don't do that, it doesn't matter if you reconstitute the school, or the whole district,” says Wood, who is also an Ohio school principal.
The most effective training, says Wood, is hands-on, and takes place throughout a teacher’s career.
“It's often done in the classroom with a coach. Think of the way professional rounds work at a medical clinic,” says Wood. “The evidence is pretty clear that when school districts invest heavily in teacher preparation, that's when schools begin to move.”
Wood emphasized that he was not familiar enough with the CPS program to talk about its chances for success.
New teachers hit streets
Sherman’s turnaround began with a public-private partnership.
Martin J. Koldyke, a Chicago philanthropist, founded the Academy for Urban School Leadership in 2001 to recruit and train teachers for the city’s schools.
AUSL has attracted a $10.3 million grant for turnaround efforts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as funding from the Chicago Community Trust and other donors.
In response to the No Child Left Behind Act, CPS soon engaged AUSL to provide teachers for Sherman and seven other turnaround schools that now exist in the city,
AUSL set up a program that pays teaching candidates a $32,000 annual stipend to finish their degree work. In exchange, they commit to teaching in Chicago’s inner-city schools for five years.
The teachers are handpicked from a national pool of applicants that numbers in the thousands.
“They’re bright, very dedicated, very thorough,“ says Koldyke.
Until 2006, AUSL hadn’t managed a school. But it has now replaced the staffs at five turnaround schools, and operates them for CPS. The city’s other three turnaround schools are operated by CPS’ Department of School Turnarounds.
At the turnaround schools, an entire staff of AUSL-trained teachers enter a new school together, which is a clear advantage, Feinstein says.
“When you have a group coming in together, you’re almost transporting and embedding that kind of culture in the faculty that you are hoping to make a difference in the children,“ Feinstein says.
A new baseball team
Under the turnaround model, a new staff is hired, the building goes through renovations usually over $1 million and the school gets a new name.
Typically, the school’s new principal is appointed by AUSL, and then the principal makes all the new hires.
At Sherman, the influx of funding has provided a new playground and an adjacent athletic field that features a running track and artificial grass surface.
Robert Dishman, a security officer at Sherman who proudly keeps a baseball glove in the main office, is coach of the school’s first-ever baseball team.
The more than 600 children at the elementary school have gone on field trips to downtown for “Wicked,” “A Christmas Carol” and other Broadway in Chicago shows. They’ve attended a Northwestern University football game and cheered on the White Sox at US Cellular Field. They’ve visited museums, been on boat trips and played golf for the first time in their lives.
Ask Dishman to talk about Sherman, the same school he attended, his children attended and now a grandson attends, a smile crawls across his face.
“This is everything to me,” he says.
Going door to door
Before the school re-opened, Allen and every member of his new staff went door to door in the neighborhood to introduce themselves.
Those are moments Allen still cherishes.
“It was great to see their faces light up as they looked out their doors or window and saw 50 people standing on their front lawn,” Allen says. “It was a really wonderful experience, probably one of the most powerful, educational professional development experiences I’ve ever had.”
Allen continues to have meetings with the parents during the school year. Initially, he says, “I did a lot of listening.”
Involving the parents and other members of the community is important for a turnaround school‘s success, Feinstein says.
“When you get the community on board, they bring so much to the table,” he says. “They’re able to help shape the vision of the school, volunteer, look out, care, be a thought partner. Parents can be very powerful in making sure that their children attend and have the right attitude. When everybody values education, it creates a different climate.”
Not that it wasn’t difficult to change that climate or discipline issues weren’t evident. In his first year, Allen says, there were children sent to his office every day. That isn’t the case now.
Rickey D. Fields, Sherman’s local school council chair, says Sherman used to be a place where kids were scared to walk to school, let alone take classes and homework seriously.
“I’ve seen a complete turnaround,” says Fields, a truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service and father of two sons. “I can see students who are unfearful of coming to school.”
‘We need time’
Sherman, two years into the turnaround, is at a critical point. Some educators say they should see significant change over the course of three years
At Sherman, the only turnaround school for which any test scores are available, performance rose 6 percent in one year. But the year before the turnaround, scores rose 4 percent.
The school’s ISAT scores still need to rise 30 percent to meet federal requirements.
“Certainly, we should start seeing the school becoming healthy and performing better,” Feinstein says. “We certainly are not going to wait another 6 to 10 years to see significant progress. That wouldn’t be acceptable.“
The slow change in test scores has soured some parents. Others complain that the turnaround approach is merely the latest in a long line of strategies design to boost school performance.
When AUSL and CPS announced last winter that Orr, once a one-school campus that was turned into three smaller schools, would soon become one large turnaround school, the Board of Education was hit with a wave of criticism.
“The small schools were supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread. Now AUSL is the best thing since sliced bread. Well, the bread is getting stale,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a parents’ advocacy group.
And Allen, Sherman’s principal, says he worries about the district’s ability to manage sweeping change at so many campuses.
“I was very surprised,” Allen says. “Even a little bit now. It’s a lot to take on as a system.”
But he says Sherman is heading in the right direction, though it’s still too soon to look for definitive results.
That point will come, he says, when the kindergarten class that entered Sherman during its first turnaround year becomes eligible to take the ISAT, which is given beginning in the third grade.
“We need time,” Allen says. “We have some wonderful things going on in the classroom. We’re not going to overcome 50 years of underperforming in a year and a half.”
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.