You’ve probably heard of The Renaissance, that astonishing time of rebirth in science and art that took place at the end of the European Middle Ages. The world became a better place because of people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Well, there is another Renaissance going on right now at 2745 W. Roosevelt Road on Chicago’s West Side.
It’s the rebirth of Thomas Chalmers Speciality School under the leadership of Principal Kent Nolan who came to the school in 2010. One result has been steady improvement in standardized test scores, with especially impressive gains in science and reading. Chalmers had the highest gains in science in the entire Austin-North Lawndale network for 2011-2012 school year.
Despite the evidence for this Chalmers Renaissance, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett first recommended that the school be closed and then decided that the school should be “turned around” and given over to the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which could result in the loss of the entire present faculty and staff.
The most recent data out of Chalmers is the midyear NWEA assessment which shows 64.8% of Chalmers students meeting or exceeding their mid-year targets. The school, which is currently on probation, is now on the verge of qualifying as a Level 2 school after years being stuck at Level 3. Chalmers is committed to further progress through partnerships in staff development through the University of Chicago, DePaul University, and Loyola University
But standardized tests are a very narrow measurement of something as complex as student learning. There are human factors that cannot be quantified on a spreadsheet, subjected to statistical regression analysis, or calculated as value-added modeling.
New leadership makes a difference
Under the leadership Principal Nolen, Chalmers has become an educational community. Now the word is out that Chalmers is THE place to go. Many former Chalmers parents who had sent their children elsewhere have returned to the Chalmers community. The school welcomes students from the across the city. Chalmers has students coming from as south as 83rd Street, as far west as 4200 W. Roosevelt and as far north as Augusta on the North Side.
At a hearing held at the CPS headquarters on the evening of May 2, 2013 the Chalmers community made a strong case for their school. Louis Lane, an alumni, parent and third grade teacher at Chalmers explains that Chalmers welcomes everyone:
“We do not have or want the luxury of excluding students on our enrollment list. When other schools exclude students, we openly receive these students with open arms. These students come to us with different educational levels and we service them all. Most of our students are dealing with homelessness or parents that are unemployed or underemployed, poverty, incarcerated parents, parents who are affected addictions, mental illness and disabilities.
This is just a snapshot about why some of our students are rejected by selective enrollment schools, charter schools and turnaround schools. Even if these students are rejected, they still must be educated. We at Chalmers rise to this challenge daily.”
Lane believes that the atmosphere of love and respect that these rejected students experience at Chalmers is why so many of them prosper at the school. Chalmers does not kick them out because of behavior problems. These students are not discarded and tossed out in the street, even though Chalmers has been burdened by above-average class sizes and removing students could ease that.
An 8th grade Chalmers student first defended her school against the charges and accusations brought against it and then talked about the love and joy that students experience on a daily basis:
“Some of main issues are attendance rates, test scores, and being on probation. Not to mention that we were told that we were not using the full capacity of our building.The truth is that even though we have been showing improvement and are on the verge of more improvement, AUSL and the Board still wants to turn our home around…The love and joy does open the hearts and minds who want to learn and helps students to see that their education is the key to their life.”
A parent with two children at Chalmers talked about how her oldest son had serious behavior issues and a disability, both of which contributed to his learning problems But once Dr. Nolen arrived and helped change the school climate, her son’s whole outlook changed. He is now getting A’s and B’s and preparing to graduate.
What had been a cold impersonal hearing room was filled with warmth and love from the parents, students, teachers, staff and community members who came to defend their school.
The growing success of Chalmers has
revitalized the school’s many programs
So why doesn’t CPS recognize the many achievements of Chalmers?
The data submitted by by both CPS and AUSL at the May 2nd hearing was misleading and incomplete. The plan to first close Chalmers and then, instead, to make it an AUSL “turnaround school” makes little sense when one examines the actual data. AUSL’s record in Austin-North Lawndale has been mixed at best.
For example, AUSL turned around the neighboring Bethune Elementary in 2009. However a 2012 report issued by the respected research group Designs for Change said that among 210 schools in high poverty areas, Bethune ranked near the bottom.
Designs for Change concluded that democratically-run schools where the administration, the local school council, and the unionized faculty collaborate, far outperform “turnaround schools.” Chalmers is one of those schools that follows the model outlined in the Designs for Change report. The current leadership at Chalmers is already turning the school around and does not need the “help” of AUSL.
Valerie Leonard of the North Austin Alliance feels that AUSL does not collaborate well with the surrounding neighborhood schools, a West Side tradition. Several parents at the May 2 hearing expressed dissatisfaction about their direct experience with AUSL. Bob Simpson of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign had an extensive conversation with two young AUSL teachers who feel they were recruited under false pretenses. They felt intense anguish when they discovered how AUSL is running roughshod over already distressed communities.
AUSL is closely tied to Mayor Emanuel, as well as David Vitale, who heads up the unelected school board. Arne Duncan the Secretary of Education in Washington feels AUSL should be the national model. It is funded heavily by Bill Gates as part of a national effort to privatize public education on behalf of powerful corporate interests.
Chalmers administrators, staff, teachers, students, parents and community allies may not have powerful political connections or have access to the boardrooms of global corporations, but they have built a successful school under conditions of neighborhood disinvestment, high unemployment, and racial segregation.
They should not be punished for being successful. Keep Chalmers open.