Lewis teachers agree to different curriculum, not turnaround

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Some teachers let out gasps when a Chicago Public Schools official described efforts she had spearheaded to bring Leslie Lewis Elementary School back to good academic standing.

Chandra James, chief of schools for the Austin-North Lawndale network, described a number of efforts undertaken to move Lewis from a Level-3 standing – the lowest academic score for a CPS school. She explained that she helped arrange professional development programs for faculty and helped organize 11 special development meetings for the school’s past assistant principals.

But teachers said they were “floored” when they heard her talk about those efforts and have craved CPS support as they tried to raise reading and math scores over the past few years.

“We have no idea what she’s talking about,” said Vera Logan Harris, a fourth-grade teacher at Lewis. “We have felt basically deserted by (CPS). Eleven times? No.”

Lewis elementary has been a Level-3 school for the past five years, Ryan Crosby, CPS’ director of performance data and policy, said at a public hearing held May 2 to discuss the proposed turnaround of Lewis’ staff. The entire school’s staff will be replaced with new teachers and other employees.

A presentation by CPS officials about Lewis’ continuing, failing academic scores preceded the public commentary.

Schools are scored based on points from 14 categories, Crosby said. In 2007, Lewis earned about 33 percent of these points. Last year, it earned 19 percent.

An average of 67 percent of students in the rest of the Austin-North Lawndale network met or exceeded ISAT standards, while 48 percent of students scored the same at Lewis, Crosby said at the meeting.

Lewis teachers proposed a plan that would redevelop the school’s academic curriculum but would not involve firing current staff: the Strategic Learning Initiatives program.

This program would implement some of the same development initiatives as the program used by CPS — the Academy of Urban School Leadership — but would use research and a “highly effective leadership team” to help current teachers improve, said John Simmons, the program’s president.

Teachers think this program will be especially successful because they already have a rapport with Lewis students.

“I want to focus on (existing faculty) because that’s an element that has to be present for a transformation to be successful,” said fourth-grade teacher Harris. “We have a personal bonding with the students.”

Christine McKean, a third-grade teacher at Lewis, said the school saw a glimmer of success in 2008 when it began using the Teacher Advancement Program. She recalls teachers “enjoying getting together for 45 minutes” to discuss what they could do as a team to help raise student morale.

But the program was removed after 2010, which McKean said contributed to a another drop in student scores. She thinks the Strategic Learning Initiatives program will help teachers feel like they’re part of a team again.

“It’s frustrating to see me and my co-workers get bumped out of a school we love,” she said through sobs.

Many of the teachers who are hired under the CPS-backed turnaround program are specially trained by that program’s affiliated academy. The program currently serves 25 schools with 14,000 students, according to the website.

Through this program, turnarounds at the elementary school level have outpaced CPS’ ISAT growth every year since 2006, according to the website.

Simmons said Strategic Learning Initiatives has worked to redevelop academic programs in over 65 public schools in Chicago the past 20 years.

All four teachers who spoke supported the implementation of the Strategic Learning Initiatives program over the CPS-backed program. Seven students also testified, saying they didn’t want to see their teachers go.

Fifth grader Tavian Holmes said he went from earning B’s and C’s to A’s, and is now an honor roll student. He credited his success to teachers who stuck with him at Lewis.

“If you turn the school around, all the teachers won’t be able to pass down the smartness they gave to me and my friends so we could be the future of the world,” Holmes said.

The community of Lewis, one of six schools proposed across the district for turnaround, will likely learn its fate at a May 22 Chicago Board of Education meeting, where board officials are expected to vote on all proposed actions for the city’s elementary schools.


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