Remember Me Sue

In 1961, Sue Duncan opened an after-school tutoring center for African-American children on Chicago’s South Side. She brought her own three children with her, including her son Arne, who now serves runs the Department of Education. She ran the program for 50 years.

Remember Me Sue: The Documentary on Sue Duncan will premiere tonight at 9pm on PBS Chicago (WTTW 11).

Study: Tracking 9th graders prevents dropouts

Tracking ninth graders’ progress reduced dropout rates in Chicago schools, reports Education Week. Teachers intervened — calling home to report missed classes, helping with homework and other strategies — before students fell too far behind, according to Preventable Failure, a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The number of students deemed to be “on-track” for graduation has risen from 57 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2013. Grades have improved for low, average and high achievers.

Following  the graduation rates of students at 20 schools, the study found that student gains in the 9th grade continued through the 10th and 11th grades, resulting in increases in the graduation rate ranging from 8 to 20 percentage points in schools that saw early improvements, to up to 13 percentage points in schools that showed improvements later.

African-American males and students with the weakest skills improved the most.

An “on-track” ninth grader has failed no more than one core subject and earned enough credits to be promoted to the 10th grade.

Graduation rates are climbing in Chicago, notes Ed Week. “Last year the city trumpeted its 65.4 percent graduation rate, a figure that surpassed 2013′s 61.2 percent rate and was significantly higher than the 44 percent rate of nearly a decade ago.”

Ninth grade is the “make-it-or-break-it” year for high school students, concludes a second University of Chicago Consortium study, Free to Fail or On-Track to College.

All students struggle with the transition from middle school to high school, the study found. Grades decline significantly, often because students cut school more and study less. But closer monitoring makes a difference, researchers found.

 (One) school rearranged the school day, scheduling the advisory period as the first class of the day so that tardiness would not become an issue. A teacher also called home every time a student missed class. And the school implemented a discipline policy that relied less on suspensions. Another school reached out to students who received Fs during the semester to find out why they were failing and craft a plan to get them back on track.

It’s easier for small schools to keep track of all students, but Chicago is doing it in larger schools too.

Teachers learn science so they can teach it

Many elementary and middle-school teachers who teach science didn’t study science much — or at all — in college, reports NPR. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry offers  monthly science labs for teachers who want ideas, lessons and materials they can use in the classroom.

Teacher Jonathan Fisher, a philosophy major who avoided life science in college but now teaches it to fourth-graders, taught genetics to his class with an activity he learned here.

“The students used Styrofoam blocks and different body parts — so limbs and dowel rods and different-sized eyes — [and flipped] coins to figure out which genes would be passed on to their kids,” he explains. “The classroom couldn’t have been more excited.”

. . . Today, the teachers here at the museum will be given diagrams of cells, petri dishes, bottles of Glo Germ (a lotion that exposes bacteria on hands), and even instructions for a simple incubator that enables students to grow bacteria from their own dirty hands.

There’s little high-quality science teaching in the middle grades, says Andrea Ingram, who oversees education at the Museum of Science and Industry. “We either capture kids’ enthusiasm there, get them committed to science, or we don’t.”

At Sawyer Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Graciela Olmos is trying out a mechanical engineering lesson that she first saw at the museum.

Students at Sawyer Elementary in Chicago try out a mechanical energy lesson that their teacher learned at the museum's training program.Her eighth-graders roll marbles down incline planes and measure how far the marbles push a little Styrofoam cup.

At the museum, “They model for us, ‘This is how it’s going to look.’ And that’s something that we lack,” says Olmos. 

The school also lacks “science labs with gas lines and sinks.”

Olmos can’t focus strictly on science. “If my specialty is science, well, let it be science,” she says. “Don’t give me so many other things to do aside of that.”

Elementary schools should have science specialists who know their subject, says Joanne Olson, a professor of science education at Iowa State and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Getting into the right high school

Five middle schoolers try to get into one of Chicago’s selective high schools in a WTTW series. Robert, a straight A student at a nearly all-black, all-poor high school, dreams of going to Whitney Young, an elite magnet. So do thousands of other students.

Alexander Russo calls it Hunger Games, Chicago Style.

A school of bullies

special ed student who recorded classmates bullying him in math class was threatened with wiretapping charges, then convicted of disorderly conduct, reports Ben Swann. The student, a sophomore at a Pennsylvania high school, has been diagnosed with a comprehension delay disorder, ADHD and an anxiety disorder.

The student and his mother, Shea Love, testified before the magistrate that the boy has been repeatedly shoved and tripped at school, and that a fellow student had even attempted to burn him with a cigarette lighter. . . . He says the bullying treatment is especially harsh and academically disruptive during his special education math class, in which students with behavioral problems are also placed.

The boy has been moved from the special ed math class. No action was taken against the bullies.

Last Chance High‘s second episode introduces “Spanky” Almond, a pudgy boy with a speech impediment, who’s mocked and bullied by classmates at Chicago’s school for emotionally and behaviorally disordered students. Oh, and dad is a murderer who’s out of prison and might resume his abuse of the family.

Why is a kid this vulnerable in a school packed with abusers?

We see an ineffectual science teacher and a compassionate coach.

Last Chance High

Last Chance High, an eight-part VICE News series, is a sad, scary look at Chicago’s school for violent and emotionally disturbed youth,  the Moses Montefiore Academy.

Crystal, 14, broke her teacher’s arm at her old school. At Montefi, she gets in trouble for stabbing annoying boys with a pencil. Her explanation: When she gets mad, she can’t control what she does. Well, she could, maybe, but she doesn’t.

Her classmate Cortez, who also attacked his teacher at his old school, has a father serving life in prison for murder. He “likes to fight,”  he says. 

The documentary shows a teacher trying to teach math while an aide yells at a boy for not taking off his jacket.

We know what works, but it’s not easy

We Know (A Few) Things That Work to improve high-poverty schools, write economists Greg J. Duncan of University of California at Irvine’s School of Education and Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, they describe the success of Boston’s pre-K program, the University of Chicago’s K-12 charter school network and New York City’s small high schools of choice. 

This is not a parody

Why do teachers say “professional development” is a waste of time and money? This seems like a parody of dreadful PD, but it’s a real training session for Chicago teachers, says Larry Ferlazzo. According to the video: “This presenter was one of several consultants flown in from California and the United Kingdom for the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Strategic School Support Services’ special network.”

At least, this trainer was modeling instructional strategies instead of blathering about trendy-but-vague educational fads, writes Paul Bruno on This Week in Ed.

Emanuel tries to turn Chicago schools

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fought fiercely for education reform in Chicago, writes Alexander Russo in Ed Next.  When he took office in 2011, Emanuel pledged “to do bold, concrete things—enact a longer school day and year, implement principal performance bonuses, expand International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and revamp teacher evaluations—and get them done as quickly and visibly as possible.” After three years, results are mixed.

Test scores have risen in the Windy City, but lag far behind the Illinois average.

Emanuel faced a $1 billion budget deficit and massive and unfunded pension liabilities. Enrollment was declining leaving schools half empty. The mayor rescinded teachers’ 4 percent salary increase to balance the budget.

The “newly energized” Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), led by Karen Lewis, went on strike for seven school days at the start of the 2012-13 school year. The new contract blocked merit pay and gave teachers 2 to 3 percent raises. 

Yet Emanuel was able to extend the school day and year and introduce a new teacher evaluation program.

Despite some progress, Chicago schools face budget problems, bitter fights over school closures and $19 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Emanuel and Lewis have not been able to work together on funding or pension issues.

Emanuel was pushing for a delay in addressing pension liabilities. “I’m going to turn this battleship around,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times, but “I’m not going to reverse 30 years of bad practices in just three years.”

Latinas learn to be ‘first teachers’

In an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Latina mothers are learning to be their children’s “first teachers,” reports Sara Neufeld in the Hechinger Report. Then they’re expected to spread the word about early learning by organizing playgroups and classes for their friends, relatives and neighbors.

Laura Barrios (left), leading activities for babies during an educational playgroup with Lorenza Pascual. (Kim Palmer / Hechinger Report)Many Latino immigrants think “their role is to keep their babies safe, clean, well-fed and loved,” say researchers. Parents think learning doesn’t start till kindergarten and happens at school. 

In a 2012 survey, 26 percent of young Latino children had been read to in the previous week, compared with 41 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of whites.  

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is training “early childhood ambassadors.” Most are stay-at-home mothers with limited formal education.

Trainers from Countdown to Kindergarten ran a “two-day workshop focused on easy and affordable activities, from turning toilet paper rolls into imaginary binoculars to helping children write their addresses on a drawing of a house to observing nature and the outdoors.”

Over the summer, the women began weekly playgroups outside their neighborhood YMCA.

One sticky August Tuesday, the playgroup attracted about 40 parents and children. Some embarked on a “wonder walk” around the building, looking for plastic animal and plant figurines placed strategically in the grass and visiting trees they had “adopted” by placing ribbons on them. Others practiced learning shapes and colors by painting potatoes cut into triangles, squares, circles and rectangles. Babies explored puzzles and books spread out on a blanket while older kids worked in a garden. 

Isidra Mena, 31, there with her 2-year-old nephew and 5-year-old daughter, said the children were starting to recognize real vegetables at home because of what the playgroups were teaching them. Rosa Tafoya, 22, who had been coming all summer with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, said the girls were doing better taking turns with each other, and sometimes they were choosing to draw with chalk on the sidewalk instead of playing video games.

Over the winter, the ambassadors helped to run a 10-week class for families with children 5 and under called Abriendo Puertas or “Opening Doors.”

If I ran a foundation, I’d fund the creation of a TV show — maybe a soap opera or telenovela — that would show people parenting well and coping with family problems. How do you read a book aloud to a small child? Not everyone knows. Show ‘em.