Bethune Elementary is located in the East Garfield Park community and attended by 392 students. It’s student population is 99% low-income, yet it’s students have shown remarkable performance growth far above the national average. According to the University of Chicago’s 5Essentials study, Bethune’s students and families rate it “strong” for having a safe and supportive environment with high expectations. Enrollment at Bethune has remained steady for the past 6 years.

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Over the summer of 2009, Bethune Elementary turned around. That means it got a new teaching staff (only one teacher remained) and was renamed “The Bethune School of Excellence”:

“We have an invigorated, vibrant, ready-to-go staff that is eager to make sure children are learning,” said Zipporah Hightower, principal. “Excellence is our standard. I’m expecting excellence.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Bethune’s turn-around in Crain’s Chicago:

At Bethune, I met with Principal Zipporah Hightower to determine what has changed since the turnaround began. Same school. Same students. But with the new, highly trained faculty and administration, attendance and grade promotion have increased. Math scores for fifth-graders have doubled, as have the number of third-graders who met or exceeded Illinois Standards Achievement Test reading standards. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding ISAT standards increased 8%.

Luc Miknaitis, a former teacher at the school, describes the effort to build a new school culture:

“That building has so much sweat and work put into it. Layers of new paint, air conditioners just installed (with electrical work redone), computer labs, and countless other efforts have physically transformed that building. All of which is just a shadow of the environmental and (dare I say?) spiritual change that we wrestled into it.

For those that don’t know, Bethune was the school Arthur Agee (of Hoop Dreams documentary fame) attended. It was ranked the worst school in the state of Illinois four years ago and probably before that. The special education department was under two layers of state sanctions for failing to meet any sort of organizational or professional standards. So the school was turned around (ie new staff hired).

That first year was spent teaching students that school was about learning and that adults cared and demand respect. It was a lesson that we had to teach and reteach time and again due to one of the highest mobility rates in the city. I, with one other staff, chased a 12 year old down and took a gun off of him after school, that first year.

This neighborhood is rampant with drugs, violence and the pervasive sense of hopelessness. We gave that community something to fight that. We had battered mothers seeking refuge at that school. We had students staying around at all hours because it was safe and there were adults that cared about them. We taught the students that it wasn’t their fault that they were behind and that we were in the process of doing something about it.”

Bethune has a bright future if it won’t be closed down:

“Ms Hightower proudly points to programs and support services offered by Bethune that are rarely found in larger schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Bethune offers Chef in the Classroom and Urban Initiatives’ Common Threads Culinary Arts Program, Chicago Runs, Aikido, a drum line, an after-school graffiti art program, drama classes, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. The library doesn’t just have shelves full of books; it is a full-fledged Media Center serving today’s multi-media generation. Bethune is the recipient of Community In Schools grants.”

Find Bethune on  Read about the school’s namesake Mary McLeod Bethune here.


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