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Brianna Hurst, a freshman at Chicago International's Ralph Ellison campus, in her health class. The school has a freshman academy a few doors down from its main building to give first-year students targeted instruction.  

Measuring up: How should a charter school's success be measured?

by Bryan Lowry
Feb 26, 2013

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Frantasia Hampton and Craig Noys, seniors at Ellison, led a discussion about "Animal Farm."

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Julian Vazquez and Daniela Sanchez, third-graders at Chicago International's West Belden campus, work together to determine the main idea in a nonfiction reading about thunderstorms.

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Lauren Weisberg leads a small group of second-graders in a vocabulary game at West Belden. 

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Joyce Pae, who has worked at Ralph Ellison since 2006, discusses how she used to compare her school to the Chicago Cubs.

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A 5th Grade class at West Belden discusses the main events in the Beverly Cleary novel "Dear Mr. Henshaw."

Walk through Auburn Gresham just north of the Dan Ryan Woods and you’ll find a striking building that looks as if it was imported from Rome a century or so ago – four columns facing 80th Street.

One might almost expect to hear Gregorian chants coming through the windows, but jutting off to the side there’s a modern addition that’s all glass. This is not a monument to days past. This is a living building.

This building is owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago, but it’s not a parochial school. It is a school, though. Welcome to Chicago International Charter School’s Ralph Ellison campus.


Ellison underwent a leadership change this past year and its faculty thinks the long-struggling school is finally on the right path.


But that raises two key questions about school performance as CPS considers which schools end up on the close list: Should the standards for charters be higher than neighborhood schools? How much time should CPS give charters to achieve success?

The glass at Ellison seems tied to a larger theme: transparency.

For one, the students all have clear backpacks.


Kim Hinton, the school’s director, explains this is a security measure used in place of metal detectors that ensures safety without conjuring the feeling of a lockdown. However, it’s Hinton, in her first year as director, the charter network’s term for administrators, who really represents this theme of transparency, something the school has not always thrived at in the past, according to its staff.

Hinton explained that teachers were not involved in making decisions, which took place behind closed doors by school leadership. Since being elevated to the position of director, she has tried to increase communication with teachers.

“Last year was the second year of a leadership change that had just taken place, and I would say communication at that time was suffering. Expectations were not clear. A clear vision was not set. A common goal was not set. If that’s not enough, there was not full transparency across the school,” said Hinton, who joined the school’s faculty last year as associate director after a long career in traditional public schools in Chicago.

During that time the school’s academics suffered. Only 15 percent of the school’s students met state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Examination in 2012 compared to the CPS average of 31.5 percent. The school’s average ACT score was 16.2, which is below the district’s average of 17.7.

The school’s graduation rate still exceeded the district’s rate by more than 17 percentage points.

The change in leadership was part of an improvement plan Chicago International created for the school. Marc Malone, a guidance counselor who has worked under four different directors during his time at the school, said that Hinton’s more collegial approach to leadership has benefited students and teachers alike.

“Students and faculty and staff aren’t going to buy into a vision until they feel that they’re valued,” he said.

Joyce Pae serves as Hinton’s associate director. She is one of the few teachers who have been at the school since its founding in 2006. The school has suffered high teacher turnover rates, and nearly half of its current faculty is new. Pae’s willingness to stay at the school stemmed partly from her desire to see the school find its path.

“I would joke that Ellison is like the Chicago Cubs of high schools. Every year you were like, next year, next year, next year. And now I’m realizing, no, it’s like the Boston Red Sox. Everything is gelling and it’s happening so much faster than I expected,” Pae said.

Last week CPS recommended closing two charter high schools, Aspira Charter School’s Mirta Ramirez campus and Betty Shabazz Charter School’s DuSable campus, for poor academic performance.

“Each school, whether neighborhood or charter, must provide students with the rigorous, high-quality education they need to thrive,” said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement released to the media.

“I am an advocate for every child in our District and will demand on their behalf that we hold every school accountable for their academic growth and take action when needed. These are tough choices, but they must be made in order to help our children succeed,” Byrd-Bennett said.

The Board of Education will vote on the district’s recommendation at its meeting this Wednesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been critical of public funding going to privately run charter networks, which it warns do not always deliver on their ambitious goals.

“Absolutely not worth the risk, CTU has been screaming,” said Stacy Davis Gates, a union representative. She said that money invested in charters could have been used to improve neighborhood schools instead.

Hinton is the first person to admit that Ellison still has a long way to go. She doesn’t try to hide that fact. In touring the campus she is as quick to show classrooms in which students are struggling just as often as the ones in which they are thriving.

A bored student has his head down in a math class and the teacher walks over and quietly prods him to follow along. In another room a student-led discussion about George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” eventually results in the students coming to a consensus that the pigs represent communist leaders and not the proletariat.

“Because I know where we can be and know where we’re going, it’s hard for me.  I don’t want to make it sound like I’m sad or I’m down, but it’s hard for me to be happy with where we are,” Hinton said. “I’m not content. But we’ve gotten a lot better.”

Some of the changes have been simple.

For example, seniors who get accepted to college now get to wear a special gold shirt with their names emblazoned to show their accomplishment. Ariel Green, a senior who has been accepted into the University of Illinois, was excited about the recognition the shirts represent.

“You did something right,” Green said, “so you’re actually noticed.” She said the sight of her shirt has motivated some of her friends to work harder.

How much time do charters, or neighborhood schools for that matter, need or deserve to achieve student success? Aaron Pollack, the chair of Ellison’s humanities department, cautioned against the expectation that schools can find a winning model in a year’s time.

“The commitment to this growth mindset within the context of all the pressures schools face today to deliver short-term, it’s really a leap of faith on her part. That is risky in today’s reality when it comes to schools and accountability,” Pollack said. “To change a place long-term and sustainably it takes time, but people don’t want to hear that.”

CPS is one of only several bodies that will be assessing Ellison’s academic progress due to Chicago International’s unique structure. Chicago International has a contract with the school district, but the school is actually run Civitas Schools, one of several school management organizations hired by Chicago International.

Civitas has set short-term and long-term goals for Ellison. For example, it expects to see juniors improve an average 2.6 points on the ACT test from fall to spring this year. These smaller goals contribute to a larger vision for the school’s improvement in the next five years.

Chicago International refers to its schools and the five management organizations that oversee them as a portfolio. The theory behind this model is that Chicago International’s office in the Loop can handle administrative tasks, allowing schools to focus on educational matters, said Kate Proto, a spokeswoman for the charter network.

The Chicago Teachers Union has argued that this portfolio model lacks transparency and does not ensure student achievement at all sites.

“In a way, it’s the most extreme version of charter schools,” said Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher for the Chicago Teachers Union. “This is one way for charters to effectively have long-term access to students yet rifle through management organizations.”

“They become sort of the middleman in between CPS, which is a district oversight body, and the management organizations that they hire,” Jankov said.

While the academic goal-setting is universal across Chicago International’s portfolio, each school management organization crafts a unique vision. ChicagoQuest, for example, is experimenting with a fantasy game model in which students’ learning goals are framed as missions as part of a quest.

Chicago International’s West Belden campus in Belmont Central, overseen by Distinctive Schools, has seen great success. The elementary school, which is also on the site of a former parochial school, saw more than 90 percent of its students meet state standards on Illinois State Achievement Test in 2012. This is with a population of students that is 95 percent low-income.

Chicago International said that West Belden is an example of how a school that initially struggles can achieve at a high level when given time to develop.

Linda Sullivan has taught at the school since its founding 11 years ago and has said that it has changed tremendously.

“The first three years were very rough,” Sullivan said. She said that the school struggled to maintain discipline at the outset, which hindered academic performance.

“Early on when we were struggling we realized that part of getting control was to implement [stricter rules]. It was almost an old Catholic school mentality,” she said. “We had to go back to the basics.”

There’s no question the school is orderly. The announcement that recess would take place indoors, due to an event at the adjacent parish, was met with cheers from a first-grade class when their teacher passed out a word game work sheet.

Tanya Diaz, the mother of a kindergartener and a second-grader at the school, appreciated that the school stresses behavior. She even smiled when sharing how her 5-year-old son had to serve an hour-long detention when he misbehaved.

“That’s just life, teaching them life,” she said. “At 5 years old you’re already molding yourself. You need to know if I do this that there’s going to be a consequence to that.”

Diaz has been impressed with the individual attention her children receive at West Belden, which she feels is unique.

Lisa Meyer, the school’s director, explained that the school prioritizes small group learning. Classroom teachers collaborate with resident teachers in training and specialists for English language learners and special education, allowing learning to take place in smaller groups so that students get more individual attention.

The campus is small, and by embracing this model the teachers make sure to use every inch of space. The hallways are filled with students sitting down with teachers for more targeted learning.

Diaz noted that the smaller class sizes compared to neighborhood schools helped her decide to send her kids to a charter school. She plans to have her children attend Chicago International schools through high school.

The Chicago Teachers Union has actually argued that charter school funding takes money away that would otherwise allow neighborhood schools to implement that same model, said Stacy Davis Gates, a union representative.

“It means we can neglect models that work. We know small class size works, but it also costs money,” she said. “How about we think about lowering class size?”