1. Opinion

Perspective: An urban education specialist suggests some ideas for south St. Petersburg's struggling schools

Sara Ray Stoelinga
Sara Ray Stoelinga
Published Sep. 19, 2015

I was visiting Clearwater Beach when I picked up the Tampa Bay Times and read Failure Factories, the investigation of five resegregated elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. At home on Chicago's south side, I am the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI). Over the past 20 years, I have committed my professional life to urban public schooling and, as such, I read the series with a deep interest in, and concern for, your students and schools. I wanted to share some lessons and ideas.

Across our institute, we train, certify and coach teachers; we conduct rigorous applied research; and we distribute tools and professional training across the country to improve schools.

At the heart of our work, we run a school — a pre-K through 12th grade charter school that serves 1,900 students, 99 percent of them African-American. Many will be the first in their immediate family to graduate from college. There are no admission requirements; by law students enter through an open lottery.

The institute's work spans the nation, but much of what we do occurs within Chicago Public Schools, which is 86 percent free and reduced lunch. Of 400,000 students, 46 percent are Latino, 39 percent are African-American and 9 percent are white.

In Chicago, we're all too familiar with feeling that sinking sensation — and the outrage — when you open the paper and see glaring evidence that your schools have been quietly but systematically failing children.

It is easy to see echoes of the challenges of Chicago schools in Pinellas: segregation, leadership turnover, inadequate resources. Underneath these issues looms the most urgent, critical question: How can we ensure high-quality education opportunities for the students who need it most?

Nine years ago, the failures of Chicago schools were front and center. The Chicago Tribune ran a banner headline to shout the bad news: Of 100 high school freshmen, just six would go on to get a college degree by the time they were 25. For African-American and Latino males, the number was even more stunning: just two in 100 earned college degrees. The Sun-Times headline captured the news in one word, "Appalling." It was.

Many viewed these problems as intractable. Chicago did not. And amazing improvements have followed. That appalling 6-in-100 statistic? It's up to 14, outstripping many other urban districts and knocking on the door of the national average of 18. We still have miles to go. But real progress is evident.

How did it happen? How can it happen for Pinellas?

Stories of hope like the one in Chicago have no silver bullet, no single intervention or product or policy change or model. But I believe, and have seen, that each city or district context has its own sweet spot, a point primed for intervention, where progress can be made. The question for Pinellas and these five south St. Petersburg schools is where is that starting place? Where can momentum be built? Hopeful and helpful starting points abound from diverse urban school contexts across America, from a focus on the early years to the audacious goal of college graduation for all.

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There is hope in early childhood.

The HighScope Perry preschool study measured the effects of preschool into middle age for a cohort of students starting at age 3, with participants randomly assigned to a preschool group and a comparison group. By the time members of the two groups were 40 years old, the study demonstrated significantly higher high school graduation, lower incarceration rates, higher earnings and better health for those who received high-quality preschool experiences. We know early childhood education matters.

The state of Florida has already made important strides through the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK). If your child turns 4 years old by Sept. 1, she or he can participate in free preschool through VPK. The question remains of how to expand the number of residents who are able to take advantage of this program, by broader distribution of information and increasing transportation accessibility. However, there is a strong foundation here on which to build.

There is hope in violence prevention and intensive tutoring.

Becoming a Man (B.A.M.) is a dropout and violence prevention program for at-risk male students in grades 7 through 12. The program consists of small group sessions with young men, focused on the values of integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression and visionary goal-setting. Match is an intensive mentoring program in which a trained tutor helps one to three students a day with math. Match and B.A.M. were implemented together in some of the most disadvantaged high schools in Chicago; 95 percent of the students in the program were African-American and 99 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The impact and cost effectiveness of implementing these programs in tandem was studied by the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab. After just six weeks of working with youth from November 2012 to January 2013, the combination of B.A.M. and Match-style tutoring together reduced the rate at which students received misconducts in their schools by 67 percent and reduced course failures by 37 percent. It also reduced expected violent crime arrest rates over the next one to two years by more than 50 percent.

The students served by these programs in Chicago were of the highest risk: of failing academically, of joining a gang or in the pipeline to prison, the kind of students our schools and systems often feel are beyond reach. These incredible results suggest ways to improve student outcomes, academically and socially, in the short and long term.

There is hope in effective teachers.

Bill Sanders at the University of Tennessee demonstrated the cumulative effect of teacher effectiveness on student achievement. Students in Tennessee assigned to three high-quality teachers in a row scored significantly higher than those with three low-quality teachers. The differences were especially pronounced for low-income students of color. How do we provide effective training for teachers that prepares them to persist, succeed and lead in urban schools? At the same time, how do we ensure teacher effectiveness for all students?

In UEI's Urban Teacher Education Program (UChicago UTEP), our goal is to provide "urban-specific" teacher preparation, equipping our graduates to succeed in urban areas. Training aspiring teachers includes a full year of clinical preparation, where they practice teaching in three different school and classroom contexts. The intensive clinical component allows them to practice in diverse school contexts: high and low achieving; innovative and traditional; charter and neighborhood school.

UChicago UTEP also provides three years of coaching supports to all of our graduates wherever they land in Chicago Public Schools. Another distinctive aspect to its approach is a focus on "identity," which leads students through dialogue around issues of race, ethnicity, gender and social class. UChicago UTEP also emphasizes effective teaching strategies in contexts that have a wide span of incoming achievement levels in a single classroom, a situation common in urban classrooms.

This combination of urban-focused teacher training and supports has led to a 90 percent five-year retention rate of our graduates in teaching. This is compared to about 50 percent nationally. These residency model approaches to teacher preparation exist across the country, in Boston, Denver, Milwaukee, Seattle and Minneapolis/St. Paul, among many others. There is hope in exceptional teacher preparation.

At the same time, we must attend thoughtfully to the placement of teachers across schools, considering the diverse needs of students and the specialized skills of teachers in order to serve elementary schools and high schools, the highest needs students who need rigorous academic intervention and students who require social supports. Teacher preparation programs and districts alike are becoming more intentional about teacher placement.

Teacher preparation programs like UChicago UTEP are starting to place graduates in groups in schools upon hire, both to increase the support system around new teachers, but also to create a pipeline of graduates into schools in which new teachers' teaching philosophies match the school's. At the same time, districts are starting to track the success of graduates of particular teacher training programs to make decisions about programs from which to hire new teachers. There is hope in strategic hiring and placement of teachers, both for teacher preparation programs and districts.

There is hope in a focus on freshman year.

Researchers in the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute's Consortium revealed that freshman year grades and attendance were better at predicting high school graduation than all student demographic or socioeconomic characteristics combined. Chicago focused on that "Freshman On-Track" measure and turned it into a steady and substantial uptick in its graduation rate. The improvement in high school graduation rate is real and the story underneath it is one of a whole city coming together to make it happen.

The school district provided regular data reports to high schools to identify "off track" students; high schools created intervention and support plans for those students; parents were engaged in finding the right strategies to get students back on track; nonprofit and community organizations began to use Freshman On-Track as their focal point for their work with schools. As a result, several high schools reduced their dropout rate to zero or close to zero and the school district realized a double-digit increase in high school graduation rates.

This fall, for the first time, UChicago Consortium and UChicago Impact will provide each Chicago high school with its "Degree Attainment Index," an estimation of the likelihood a freshman attending the school will earn a bachelor's degree by 25, including an interactive online tool letting parents, students and the public view these outcomes. High school leaders and teachers will be able to use the data to improve their practice. Providing the right data in a timely way is a powerful lever for school improvement.

In Chicago — and in Pinellas, too — it's in everybody's interest to have schools that work. When schools are identified as "failure factories" it is an issue for students, parents, educators, school leaders, city leaders and concerned citizens. It is everybody's problem to solve. And it is possible.

There is hope in a goal of college graduation for all students.

The University of Chicago Charter School has one goal for its students: 100 percent college graduation. It is an audacious goal, one that receives a lot of pushback when we talk about it. "Not all students should be expected to go to college," we hear in many places where we talk about our work. "What do you expect for your own children?" UChicago Charter's chief executive officer Shayne Evans often asks in reply.

Our charter school has built a college-going culture. We have identified resources for each grade in our high school to have a college counselor, allowing for a student to counselor ratio of 60 to 1. Between sixth and 11th grade, our students visit 15 to 20 colleges: locally, regionally, nationally, with exposure to elite private schools, state universities, liberal arts colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In each of the past four years, 100 percent of our graduating seniors have been admitted to college, and our school has among the highest college enrollment rate of those students in the city of Chicago.

While we still have many areas in which to improve, we see the power of expectation, college-going culture and instilling college knowledge and confidence in our students as key levers to college access and success. Setting the bar at college graduation for all provides another point for intervention.

In each of these successful interventions, pathways to improvement, we see that school improvement comes from a group effort — district leaders, parents, students, nonprofits, philanthropy and concerned citizens working toward the same goal, grounded in the belief that the children we serve can hit the highest bar we can set and that we can and must create pathways for them to reach it. At the same time, we see in these stories of hope a belief in the excellence, intelligence and incredible capabilities of our children. What will be south St. Petersburg's story of hope?

Sara Ray Stoelinga is the Sara Liston Spurlark Director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, a clinical professor on the University of Chicago Committee on Education and a faculty member at the university. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


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