Another Path is Possible: Two Chicago Principals Keep an Eye on What Matters

By Gregory Michie

It’s mid-March—testing week in Chicago—and for many administrators in the city’s schools, that means a laser-like, 24/7 focus on one thing: the ISAT, or Illinois Standards Achievement Test. But Amy Rome, the third-year principal at NTA, an elementary school on the Near South Side, has spent the past 15 minutes in a hallway brainstorming session with a representative from a neighborhood social service agency. The mother of several NTA students has been evicted from her apartment in a nearby public housing development, and the social service worker has come seeking Amy’s help in finding temporary housing for the woman and her children.

As Amy sees it, this is an integral part of her job. Ask her about her school’s vision—even during ISAT week—and you won’t hear references to test scores or mantra-like chants of the latest educational jargon. “At NTA we’re about knowing our kids and our families,” she says. “We’re about relationship building, student support, and collaborative problem-solving with the community. We believe the community’s challenges are the school’s challenges.”

Although she laments the obsession with high-stakes accountability that has beset the city’s schools over the past decade or so, she also believes that her students’ scores matter. “Using a single test score as the basis for assessing our kids is unfair,” she tells me later. “It puts them at a disadvantage, and we don’t like that. But at the same time, it’s the reality of how students are being evaluated right now, so we have to be responsive to it. We absolutely don’t teach to the tests, but it’s cheating a child to dismiss the idea that they need to do well on them. We try to view testing as a way to navigate better opportunities for our students. It matters to us because it impacts their future.”

But rather than allowing the crush of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)–related demands to dictate their direction, Amy and her staff have worked hard to see through the thicket and clear a different path. They’ve focused not only on a more rigorous curriculum that encourages critical thinking, but also on broad-based supports for students and families and on making NTA “a place where kids want to be.”

Early Struggles

The school’s full name is rarely heard these days, but when NTA opened to much fanfare in 2002, it was known as the National Teachers Academy. Nearly all of its students were African American and came from two nearby public housing developments. At the time, the central office’s plan was to create a national model of professional development: a neighborhood school where a staff of “master teachers” guided a corps of student interns. NTA’s striking $47 million structure included a four-story classroom building and a connected community center with a swimming pool and gymnasium.

 But from the beginning, NTA struggled. When Amy arrived in 2004 to serve as a liaison for the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which had been asked by the district to help jump-start the school, NTA was already on its second principal. Tardiness was high and attendance was spotty. Teachers were reluctantly implementing a scripted reading program. Few extracurricular opportunities were available for students. Parent involvement was minimal. Test scores were among the worst in the city. And morale, in general, was sinking.

As UIC’s liaison, Amy worked with the school’s new administration and university faculty to target specific challenges. Her first project was to tackle the school’s excessive tardiness problem. After a semester of talking with parents, distributing alarm clocks to families who needed them, and pairing younger children with older ones who could help them cross busy streets on their way to school, tardiness shrank from 10 to 15 percent each day to less than 3 percent.

But numerous challenges lingered, and the environment among staff at the school remained tense. Before the end of the year the new principal left, and her replacement didn’t last much longer. In 2006, Amy was chosen as the school’s fourth principal in five years.

Connecting with Parents

As a classroom teacher in Chicago for nearly a decade, Amy had long believed that building strong relationships with parents and community members was crucial. As principal, one of her first priorities was to make parents feel welcome at NTA and to provide them with opportunities for meaningful involvement. She reinvigorated a “parent room” that had gone largely unutilized, equipping it with a computer, phone, photocopier, and information on job training and GED classes. She met with parents every Friday morning to discuss their concerns and solicit their counsel. And she encouraged teachers to do all they could to communicate their desire to have parents and caregivers visit their classrooms.

“The building started to feel more like a community school,” Amy says. “It gave us more opportunities to better understand the community, and it gave parents more opportunities to understand what we were trying to do with the kids. They really got in the mix of how the school works and started advising us. So now they call to let me know when something important is happening in the community, or come by to give feedback on what we’re doing in the school, or just to help us keep an eye on safety.”

Other initiatives built on these connections. The entire staff went on neighborhood walks before school began in the fall to connect with residents and reinforce the importance of students being present on the first day. A full-fledged in-school health clinic, initiated through the UIC partnership, opened to address the many unmet medical needs in the community. Teachers voted to scrap the canned reading program in favor of a balanced literacy approach that they developed Themselves. And Amy used new hires and new partnerships to bring additional programming and resources: an art therapy program, an adolescent nurse psychologist, a drumming group, and a hip-hop yoga class.

“The most important thing was building a team,” she says. “The quality of a teacher in the classroom is what makes it or breaks it for kids. And we have some amazing teachers.”

A Climate Where Learning Becomes Possible

Walk around NTA these days and you’re struck by all the good things that are happening. Outside a pre- kindergarten classroom, photographs of “guest readers” include several moms, a dad, an auntie, and an older sister. Inside, kids brainstorm ideas for how to pick up and move a heavy dresser:
  “Pour some of the stuff out,” says Marcus.
  “Use a string,” says Omani.
  “I’d get my big brother to help,” adds someone else.
  “Excuse me,” a little boy with tight braids says. “We could all carry it together!”
  “Yeah!” several voices call in unison, agreeing that it’s a brilliant idea. The teacher, Connie, calls four students to the front of the class and, in what seems like an act of magic, they lift the dresser that none of them alone could budge. The rest of the class applauds and then settles down to listen to a read-aloud of Carrying, a book about how people in various places around the world transport different things.

Upstairs in the music room, 4th graders beat out call-and-response drum rhythms. It’s a wonderful, open space—“The energy is good,” says Holly, the teacher—with oversized windows lining the entire north side and the words dreambelieveexplore, and unite splashed on other walls. There’s a circle of 22 painted drums, four congas, and, on a raised platform, xylophones, metallophones, and a glockenspiel.

“Oh, that’s so gorgeous,” Holly says to the kids as they beat out a pattern in unison.

Since the students have spent most of the morning glued to their desks filling in test bubbles, Holly knows that music class may be a time for them to release frustrations. “I understand you had a really tough, stressful morning,” she tells them. With every beat on the drums and every mallet strike on the xylophones, I can almost see the tension being lifted from the kids’ shoulders. One student, Raymond, goes a little overboard with his drumming technique and is asked to sit out for a while, but for the most part, the next 45 minutes are full of movement, singing, and syncopated rhythms—kids being given the time and space to connect with their creative spirits. It shouldn’t feel like such a novelty, but on the South Side of Chicago, in the middle of a school day, it does.

Later, in a physical education class, the teacher, Aaron, begins by having his 8th graders put on pedometers. They discuss whether the gadgets measure the volume or intensity of exercise, and then huddle up to play a team-building game.

At the end of the period, Aaron has all the students check their pedometers to see how many steps they took during the 50-minute class. The kids then sit in a circle and Aaron asks them to hold up between one and five fingers, giving themselves two grades: one for effort and one for attitude. He asks if anybody wants to nominate a classmate for a sportsmanship award, and hands shoot up. “I nominate Kiara,” one boy says, “because she got frustrated but she didn’t quit.” Several other kids follow by nominating another of their peers.

When I ask Aaron how he developed such a supportive atmosphere among these teenagers, he says it’s mostly due to the trusting relationships he’s built with them—not just in the classroom, but also coaching and working with them after school. “Sometimes kids need to be helped to find the language to say nice things to each other,” he says. “I want them to feel safe here, and I want them to feel cared for. That’s when learning can happen. We’re trying to create a climate here where learning becomes possible.”

It’s a philosophy Amy has actively promoted and the entire school has embraced: creating a climate where real learning becomes possible. And it’s not a coincidence that when you ask Amy to let you visit a few classrooms, she includes the music and PE classes. At some schools, these have become afterthoughts, little more than once-weekly diversions in the quest for higher test scores and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress as per NCLB requirements). But Amy believes that the drumming and the team-building exercises and the parent center and the yoga classes have done just as much to create a climate for learning as the balanced literacy program and the renewed focus on academic rigor have.

“It’s so great to see the kids learning,” she says. “To see them motivated, to see them feeling good about themselves, to see them believing that it’s cool to be academically smart.”

Telpochcalli: Culture at the Center

A few miles away, on the southwest side of the city, Telpochcalli, a small public elementary school that serves 260 mostly Mexican immigrant students, has been doing things differently for 15 years. Telpochcalli, which means “house of youth” in Nahuatl, a language spoken by indigenous groups in central Mexico, was founded in 1994 by a group of teachers, including current principal Tamara Witzl.

“We made a commitment to do things differently here from the beginning,” Tamara says. “And we hold each other to that commitment.” The school’s approach is constructed on four pillars: building a strong professional learning community, working in genuine partnership with the surrounding community, educating students to be fully bilingual and biliterate, and infusing Mexican art and culture into all subject areas. All of these come together, Tamara says, to create an environment that keeps social justice at the center of the school’s mission.

Educating Against the Grain

Telpochcalli’s approach goes against the grain of current educational policy in almost every way. The past decade has seen relentless attacks against bilingual education nationally, and in Chicago the push has been toward moving students out of bilingual classrooms and into English-only classes as quickly as possible. Tamara sees a strong correlation between these developments and the increased focus on standardized test scores. But despite these realities, she says Telpochcalli is committed to bilingualism for the long term. “We believe it’s a good thing for all students. We want our kids to value and hold on to their home language andto learn English as well, to be truly bilingual and biliterate.”

One of the most tragic casualties of the preoccupation with testing in many urban schools has been the arts. At Telpochcalli, Tamara not only seeks out grants to fund artists-in-residence and after-school programs in guitar, video production, and folkloric dancing, but she also actively promotes the infusion of the arts in every subject area during the school day. The hallways and classrooms are alive with creativity—colorful student paintings and pottery, vibrant floor-to-ceiling murals, marimbas, video cameras, the sounds of Mexican corridos or rancheras spilling out of an open classroom door.

Like Amy, Tamara keeps an eye on test scores, but she refuses to let such concerns overwhelm the broader vision of Telpochcalli. “We believe in the popular education model,” she says. “Building capacity and using education as a means of doing that.” It makes sense, then, that the school is a true community center, offering ELL (English language learner) classes for adults, aerobics and sewing courses, men’s basketball nights, domestic violence workshops, and a lot more. In a given week more than 400 people use the building outside of school hours.

“We want to be open and available to kids and families,” Tamara explains. “We’re continually stretching ourselves, and we’re committed to meeting people’s needs when they come to us and how they come to us. You have to make very overt, constant efforts to keep the doors open and keep working with people.”

That work doesn’t end at the schoolhouse door. In 1998, Tamara joined a group of neighborhood parents, educators, and activists in founding a nonprofit organization, the Telpochcalli Community Education Project, which operates both inside and outside schools in efforts “to bring about a more united, better educated, safer, and socially prepared community.”

It isn’t just the work Tamara and her staff do that is nontraditional. The way they work together is unconventional as well. Rather than the top-down administrative model—resurgent, perhaps, because of so many federal and district mandates—Telpochcalli is about shared leadership and consensus building. To help make that possible, the school’s teachers decided early on that they needed more opportunities to come together to share ideas, develop curriculum, and grow professionally. So they agreed to restructure the day—scheduling longer teaching days Monday through Thursday—so that every Friday afternoon would be dedicated to whole-staff gatherings and professional development.

Visionary Leadership

As principal, Tamara sees her role largely as helping to facilitate the shared vision. Although her days are partly filled with the kinds of tasks one might expect of a school administrator—answering calls and emails, helping to monitor hallways and lunchrooms, completing district-required paperwork—she believes her most valuable contribution lies in supporting others in their work. “I try to help people solve problems and stay connected with one another,” she says. “I help seek out resources and supports. And a major part of what I do is remaining firmly committed to our work and our way of working—so that we don’t roll back into the same old, same old.”

Tamara acknowledges that being part of a small school has made it easier in some respects to resist the “same old, same old” and navigate the pressures of NCLB. She calls herself a “hard-core small schools person,” and believes that the nature of larger buildings with hundreds more students can lead principals to fall back, sometimes unintentionally, on traditional forms of leadership. She also thinks the “enormous fear factor” of not making AYP may inhibit some administrators from thinking more creatively. “But our approach is, if it’s an idea that is supportive of what we’re trying to do, then we try to find a way to make it work.”

It’s hard to blame principals for being fearful. The entire framework of No Child Left Behind relies on threats and punishment for schools that don’t “perform.” Superintendents or district CEOs pass that fear on to their subordinates, who pass it on to principals, who pass it on to teachers, who pass it on to students. But Tamara and the teachers at Telpochcalli serve as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way, that it’s possible, even under the cloud of NCLB, to hold on to a vision of schools as they could be.

Yet the cloud still hovers overhead. Although NTA’s reading and math scores have risen dramatically in the past three years, the school still doesn’t meet NCLB’s AYP goals. And though Telpochcalli meets AYP in all other categories, it continues to miss the mark in reading.

For Tamara, this says far less about what’s happening at the schools than it does about the inherent limits of No Child Left Behind’s measures—as well as the law’s disregard for the influence of outside-school factors such as poverty and substandard health care on students’ school performance. “There are some really good reasons the data looks the way it does,” she says. “If we’re serious about leveling the opportunities, we need to get serious at the policy level about having wraparound support systems for kids and families.”

In the meantime, mandates and dictums rain down on principals on a seemingly daily basis, and how they respond—determining which require serious attention, which should be sent straight to the recycle bin, and which fall somewhere in between—can make a huge difference in what sort of learning environment is promoted and nurtured at a school. It’s a team effort, of course, and Amy and Tamara are quick to acknowledge the crucial roles played by their teachers, staff, parent volunteers, and other partners. When discussing their schools’ approaches, they both talk about “we” far more than “I.” Still, it’s hard to overstate the importance of courageous, visionary, imaginative leadership—especially in times like these.

Amy and Tamara agree that it’s difficult work, but also deeply satisfying. “What we do at Telpochcalli requires flexibility and stability and a commitment to doing it day after day after day,” Tamara says. “It’s not easy to sustain. But I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”

Amy adds: “When you think about the scope of the job, there are so many things you have to do that it can be pretty overwhelming. It can be hard to focus on the things that really matter. But despite the craziness, we’re inspired by the commitment everybody in the school makes—especially the kids. The hope and the possibility you see in the kids keep you coming back every day.”

Gregory Michie teaches in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Illinois State University. An updated edition of his teaching memoir, Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, was recently published by Teachers College Press.