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.
All sounds great but I especially love the later school day. But is the late start time problematic for parents who have to go to work hours before the kids goes to school? Sounds like it’s not a problem, just curious how they finesse it. I guess with public transit in Chicago being so good and kids living in walking distance to the school transportation isn’t an issue?
Derek, great post! What a great point about public transportation. Not only does it remove cars from the road, it allows teenagers more independence. A freshman in high school (14-15 years old) is not old enough for a driver’s license, but certainly old enough to get themselves up and out of the house on their own, and onto a bus or train to arrive at school by 11am.
There’s a way in which our car-dependent culture keeps kids that age too dependent on parents, in unhelpful ways, for too long.
Right, Louise. In a city like New Orleans with its mediocre public transportation and the decline of the neighborhood school, the later day might be harder to pull off. You’re right about how car-dependency amplifies parent-dependency.
Community Links serves students in the neighborhood – all walk to the school. It is in the Little Village neighborhood, one of the most dense in Chicago. CPS high school students who do travel for high school use the CTA (Chicago public transit). They get a half-price fare (about $1 each way if they transfer between buses which many do). Many students do travel since Chicago operates on a 2-tiered system of selective enrollment and magnet schools that are based on testing and application versus neighborhood schools where if you live in the area, you can attend. Community Links is definitely a neighborhood model that fits the Little Village community. There are of course issues that come up – many older students are relied on for afternoon childcare for younger siblings, but that issue has been worked out with parents ahead of the child enrolling. Community Links students have to do a family application which includes a family interview so they understand the structure of the school and agree to participate fully. Another reason for its success is its size – about 150 students (2 classes per grade).
I have asked Jenn O, who works with several of the schools, placing student teachers, to weigh in. As an insider she can give better responses than I.
I have worked with Spry also for many years as well as many other neighborhood public schools on the southside of Chicago. One thing that has been missing from much of the latest round of discussion on education reform is the awful truth that there are no silver bullets – no perfect charters, no perfect “business” models of school that can be implemented.
My 9 year old son’s vocabulary homework tonight included the word – forge. He looked up the meaning – moving forward slowly but steadily. From the mouths of babes – we need to truly “forge” ahead in education – meaning work to move children forward steadily (and yes – it happens slowly).
True education reform does not come from “school turnaround” (a fancy term for firing all the administration and teachers and hiring new ones) – just look at the Chicago schools that have been “turned around” multiple times over the past 12 years. And it doesn’t come from unfunded mandates about testing – look at the fact that now that we are approaching 2014 when 100% of students need to be at grade level, the majority of schools are starting to be labeled “not making adequate yearly progress.”
True school reform comes from all the partners of the community – parents, students, teachers, administrators, community groups looking at a school and putting together a strategic plan to improve education as well as community life. While implementing his Pre-K through grade 12 model, Dr. Azcoitia also brought in a school-based health center to Spry as well as working to get a new public library built (it will open soon!). He worked with parents in the community and kept the school open late and on weekends to provide family support. He also made sure that he created a sustainable plan that could be carried on by others after he retired. He knew that though he was a visionary, his vision wouldn’t be realized unless he made it replicable by others.
Often, we hear about one school, one teacher, one “superman” (reference to the misguided documentary intended) that is succeeding, and that leads the public to believe that if we just hire some inspiring teachers (or Teach for America graduates) or followed one business model that looks like it’s succeeding in the short term, the problem will be solved. It’s not that easy. Though there are some incredible teachers out there, that can’t be the long term answer to our education woes. We need jobs in communities, safety on the streets, affordable and accessible health care, enrichment programs for youth during and after school, support for teachers (especially new ones), and programs for parents who want to support their children. We really need to stop bashing teachers, unions, principals, youth, and families, and start realizing that we’re in this together – as a nation and in our own communities. Schools are the center of many communities and so naturally they are handling many social problems in addition to education. Schools can only be the solution to those societal woes if we go into action believing that we need to work in many areas of the community to have a true effect on children and schools. And we need to give programs time to work. Change doesn’t happen overnight.
Spry is a great example of an extensive and long-term community-based approach to children and families at a neighborhood school. That’s the type of program and strategy that needs to be replicated (taking into consideration specific community needs that change with each neighborhood) in many other neighborhoods.
Jen, you’re obviously brilliant as I couldn’t agree with your assessment more. You know, Chicago’s former superman Paul Vallas brought his superpowers to New Orleans a few years ago and now he’s applying them to Haiti and soon Chile. The best thing about him is he leaves.
If you’re curious about the state of public education in New Orleans, I’m not sure you can do better than G Bitch at The G Bitch Spot (and here), Cousin Pat at Hurricane Radio, and Leigh C. at Liprap’s Lament.
Thanks for your comment. If you would like to join B2L2 as a contributor, shoot me an email: dsbnola[at]gmail[dot]com.
Finally, some good news about education in America. Great piece and comments.