This post may be a little out of character, but there are things here that need to be said. It is regarding one of these projects I work on in my other life as a blunted academic, teaching an endless line of adolescents who think mommy and daddy will foot the bill forever. The rude awakening is coming. No wonder they call it “Commencement.” In any case, about four years ago, I met Dr. Carlos Azcoitia, the principal of a neighborhood school in Chicago. I was impressed by the guy. In 2003, he put his money where his mouth was and resigned from his position as Chicago Public School system’s Deputy Chief of Education to launch a new pre-K through high school program at John Spry Community Links Academy. This was the first time in memory that a member of Chicago’s Board of Education stepped down to take a position as a principal of a small school on Marshall Avenue in the Little Village section of the city.
The first time I met him was in his office. I was trying to set up a field experience for my university students so they would start to get a grip on what life expected out of them. We chatted for a few minutes in Spanish. I had mistakenly assumed that he was Mexican. Why wouldn’t I assume that? After all, he was working in the largest Mexican American enclave outside of Los Angeles. Nonetheless, his accent and idioms told me otherwise. Some of my own Cuban-inflected Spanish came out, and he slipped in to pure Cuban argot.
It dawned on me that Azcoitia came to the position with a different set of skills in his cultural toolbox. Cubans are known for being fast movers; a half a century of exile has told them that they have to adapt to their circumstances, take what they can from the host culture, and use it to their advantage. They have become excellent cultural outlaws. Azcoitia envisioned a community based school, linked directly to the needs of the neighborhood, with a 100% graduation rate in the heart of the Windy City’s Latino immigrant population. This was going to be no easy task.
He contended that although educators have long known that many Latino students do not complete high school, they haven’t sought to create new education models to keep students in school. His challenges and obstacles were everywhere: the city was uncommitted to providing resources to the poorer and working class neighborhoods; the target community didn’t have a track record of success in school; and, most of the parents in the area didn’t graduate from high school. He had his work cut out for him.
His model had a number of innovative approaches. First, Azcoitia didn’t take issue with standardized testing per se. Although he was aware that children from non-English speaking households generally performed lower on crucial areas of the state exams, he contended that success had to be demonstrated on the exams as well. If his model was successful, the scores on the exams would rise.
The second point of innovation was that the school would run all year. There weren’t going to be any long summer breaks for these children, weeks on end of unsupervised time. No. In turn, students would go to school all year long and would finish high school in three years.
Students in his high school program also began their classes later in the day. Anyone who has ever had to wake up an adolescent at seven o’clock in the morning knows that kids are not on their game until eleven. To some extent this restructuring was related to adjusting the school schedule to accommodate for over-crowding, but it also worked well to adjust for students’ schedules and after-school activities. Because students began their classes at eleven, they stayed at school until much later in the evening. As a result, adolescents spent less time unsupervised. By the time they left school, one or more parents had arrived from work. This kept a lot of kids from spending their time going nowhere.
The final aspect of the plan was that students in high school had internship requirements. These internships came in the form of working at local businesses or being teacher-aides in the elementary school program. Some would work in the offices, banks, and hospitals in the community, and others would provide one-on-one attention to grade school children in reading and math. As Azcoitia predicted, test scores improved.
Azcoitia’s basic premise was that a comprehensive community school doesn’t separate education from the rest of life. A successful neighborhood school has to connect students and families to resources and support, rather than lament the prevalence of outside negative influences. School administrators and teachers set about making connections with outside institutions to reinforce a framework of accountability. Azcoitia reasoned that while it is critical to have a coherent focus on staff development and to emphasize the integration of reading skills throughout content areas in the curriculum, there was also a strong need for a connection to the community achievement is also influenced by what happens outside the school. Hence, by expanding the school’s borders, the school became stronger and engaged parents and the community.
Azcoitia and the talented group of teachers at Spry sought to establish a seamless connection between the classroom and what happens after school. They engaged family and community engagement through high school equivalency courses, English as a Second Language, and literacy classes. They established partnerships with health and financial agencies to provide support on issues ranging from neighborhood improvement, immigration rights and community safety.
Spry is under a new leadership now. Azcoitia has since retired. I’ve kept taking my students to this school for their field experience, and I am fortunate that the Principal of the Elementary school Mrs. Medina, the Principal of the High School Francisco Borras, and Mr. Pablo Guzmán have continued to give us access and support. It is nice to see that someone is doing something right.