Thursday, September 13, 2007

Teaching in the inner city

The Chicago Tribune went into a classroom for a year in an inner-city school to observe first hand the challenges faced by teachers. The result is a gripping three-part series: A TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT: THE TOUGHEST ASSIGNMENT

Discussions on teaching the disadvantaged usually focus on teachers and ignore the social ills that afflict the disadvantaged:

Part 1: They needed a lifeline and found a teacher
By Stephanie Banchero

Tribune staff reporter

September 1, 2007

At a school where every other reform had failed, Montie Apostolos was the last, best chance for students to succeed.

She had been brought in because she produced impressive gains in reading test scores at her last school. She was tough. Her lessons were rooted in the best research, and she was trained for inner-city schools.

She's an uncompromising, charismatic 56-year-old grandmother with an irresistible life story: She had fought off water cannons, attack dogs and white supremacists to get her own education in the segregated South. Nothing her students faced was going to surprise her.

But on a fall morning last year, at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's South Side, Apostolos' steely demeanor met its match.

A baby-faced 8th-grade boy stood at a lectern analyzing a poem. In a squeaky voice, he talked about feeling alone and neglected, like the narrator. And, matter-of-factly, he ticked off events that brought him there.

He had been taken away from his crack-addicted mother. His brother had been shot in the heart and head during a gang fight. His young cousin had died of neglect.

Apostolos suddenly realized what she had to overcome to reach her students. And in a rare unguarded moment, she hurried from the classroom, her eyes brimming with tears.

Apostolos and her class were at the leading edge of a historic experiment at the heart of the No Child Left Behind reforms. Sherman was the first school in Illinois—one a few dozen nationwide—in which the staff was completely overhauled according to federal law.

The perennially underperforming school had been closed in June 2006 after it failed to meet federal testing standards six years in a row. It reopened three months later under the management of Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that trains teachers. The academy ran five Chicago schools last year, and is set to open two more Tuesday.

The new management replaced the teachers with hand-picked, skilled educators such as Apostolos.

The stakes were high. Lawmakers debating the renewal of No Child Left Behind were looking for evidence that strong teaching could rescue schools impervious to other reforms.

As a new school year gets under way, the Tribune is examining the first year of Sherman's turnaround, as seen through the eyes of the teacher and studentsin Room 301.

Evidence from that year suggests that a strong and dedicated teacher, backed by a top-notch principal and high-quality professional development, did make a difference.

But the first year also showed that teaching in a low-income, inner-city school can grind down even the most energetic professional.

Apostolos struggled with the uneven academic progress of 34 students—children such as Kyesha Caver, a smart 13-year-old, far ahead of her classmates; Sarah Stevens, a C student who desperately wanted A's; and DJ, who could not focus because of a troubling secret he kept locked inside until he was arrested at the end of the school year. (The Tribune is not using his full name because it does not publish the names of juveniles charged with crimes.)

Apostolos' time to meet their needs was short. Adding to the pressure, she took on the roles of mother, social worker and counselor. By the end of the school year, she had worn down and she wondered whether she belonged in the classroom.


Five weeks into the school year, Apostolos stood in front of her class shaking her head in disgust.

"I'm not going to tell you again," she said to a boy who had draped his body over his desk. "Get your head off the desk and pay attention."

He kept his head buried between his folded arms, eyes squeezed shut.

"Last chance," Apostolos warned. "Get up and go splash some water on your face to help wake you up, or I am going to give you an F for the day."

The boy dragged himself from the seat and sauntered to the door, drawing laughs with his exaggerated slowness.

As the year got under way, Apostolos was taken aback by the lack of interest she saw in many of her students. One boy was removed from the classroom because Apostolos suspected he was high on marijuana. A girl kept falling asleep; she had been staying up late doing laundry for the family.

A boy disappeared for weeks when he ran away from home. A girl missed two weeks because she was afraid she would get beaten up on the way to school.

Apostolos tried to counsel them, discipline them or just ignore their insolence. But she was not about to let them knock her off course.

"You are going to learn," she told the class as she turned to write on the board, "whether you want to or not."


Catherine Johnson said...

"You are going to learn," she told the class as she turned to write on the board, "whether you want to or not."


That's what I say!

Catherine Johnson said...

way off topic --- I just got an email from a teacher who is DESPERATE to find those cool planets you posted --- which I now can't find

(Am going to search your site)

Catherine Johnson said...

I keep meaning to get around to posting this...

I've now talked to two people associated with inner urban charter schools.

One is KIPP, and I can NEVER remember the name of the other one (here in Manhattan; a parent in my town is on the board of the school).

Both said that these two schools spend 2 months (it's possible they said as long as 3) essentially "breaking down" the students who come in....cracking through the attitude, etc.

The dad here in town is especially interesting, because he's talking about very little children. Kindergartners, I believe. He said it's amazing, seeing these tiny little things come in already tough as hell and acting like they're 20.

His school focuses intensely on turning them back into children, which they successfully do.

Once they start acting like children again (not cynical, not tough, not posturing, etc.) they do great.

But they have to get the kids to that point first.

I didn't know KIPP did the same thing, but the teacher Ed's been talking to told him the reason they start the kids over the summer is to have two months to get through the "shell," so to speak.

Catherine Johnson said...

(KIPP begins with grade 5, for people unfamiliar with the school.)

Instructivist said...

ETS has released a study of family factors palying a role in student achievement.

I am posting the Spanish version of the press release just for fun in the belief that anything connected to education should be fun:

Communications & Public Affairs
Princeton, New Jersey 08541-0001
Contacto en ETS: Frank Gómez
(609) 683-2422
Informe: Factores Familiares Vitales para
Cerrar la Brecha de Rendimiento
Princeton, N.J. (29 octubre de 2007) – Según un nuevo informe de ETS, las diferencias en las
condiciones y experiencias hogareñas de niños pequeños se asemejan a las brechas en logros
académicos que comienzan temprano en la vida y que persisten en la escuela secundaria. La
Liga Urbana Nacional (National Urban League) ha dado su aval al informe, y ambas
organizaciones instan a líderes y a los responsables de formular política pública a mejorar no tan
solo las escuelas sino también las condiciones hogareñas y de familia para contribuir al éxito de
los alumnos.
La Familia: La Escuela Más Pequeña de Estados Unidos analiza las experiencias de familia y
hogar que influyen en el aprendizaje de los niños. Los factores comprenden familias con un solo
padre/madre, pobreza y falta de recursos, padres que hablan y leen con sus hijos, calidad de
guarderías infantiles y participación de padres en las escuelas. El informe fue escrito por Paul E.
Barton y Richard J. Coley del Centro de Información sobre la Política de ETS. Incluye un
prefacio y aval de Marc H. Morial, presidente de la Liga Urbana Nacional.
“Cuando padres, maestros y escuelas trabajan juntos para apoyar el aprendizaje, los alumnos
progresan más y se quedan en el sistema educativo por más tiempo”, dice Barton. “Nuestro
análisis demuestra que cuando se combinan, factores tales como familias con un solo
padre/madre, el que los padres lean a sus hijos, las horas frente a la televisión y el ausentismo
representan alrededor de dos tercios de las grandes diferencias entre los estados con respecto a
los puntajes en la Evaluación Nacional del Progreso Educativo (National Assessment of
Educational Progress, NAEP, por sus siglas en inglés)”.
Los hallazgos en el informe revelan que:
• El treinta y dos por ciento de los niños norteamericanos viven en hogares con un solo
padre/madre, un alza de 23% en 1980.
• El treinta y tres por ciento de los niños viven en familias donde ninguno de los padres
tiene un empleo estable de tiempo completo.
• A la edad de cuatro años, los niños de familias de profesionales oyen 35 millones de
palabras más que los niños de padres que dependen de bienestar social (welfare).
• La mitad de los niños de dos años están en algún tipo de guardería infantil. El setenta y
cinco por ciento están en centros de cuidado infantil calificados de calidad media o baja.
• Una comparación de niños de octavo grado en 45 países reveló que los alumnos
norteamericanos pasan menos tiempo leyendo por placer —y más tiempo mirando
televisión y videos.
“Es comprensible que esfuerzos de reforma educativa se enfoquen en mejorar las escuelas”, dice
Coley. “Sin embargo, en el terreno más amplio de la política pública, tendremos que ir mucho
más allá de este enfoque si esperamos mejorar en forma significativa el aprendizaje estudiantil y
reducir la brecha de rendimiento. Si esperamos mejorar la posición académica de Estados
Unidos en la comunidad global, y cerrar las demasiado persistentes brechas de rendimiento,
tenemos que ayudar a lograr ambientes hogareños que fomenten vidas familiares positivas y
alentadoras para todos los estudiantes”.
Otros puntos sobresalientes del informe incluyen:
• El cuarenta y cuatro por ciento de nacimientos a mujeres menores de 30 ocurren fuera
del matrimonio.
• A nivel nacional, el 11 por ciento de los hogares no tienen asegurados los alimentos. La
tasa para hogares encabezados por mujeres es tres veces la de familias encabezadas por
• Un sesenta y dos por ciento de los padres de familias de condiciones socioeconómicas
altas les leen todos los días a sus niños de jardín de infantes, comparado con el 36 por
ciento de niños de jardín de infantes de grupos de condiciones socioeconómicas bajas.
• Uno de cada cinco alumnos falta a la escuela tres o más días por mes. Estados Unidos
ocupa el vigésimo quinto lugar de 45 países en asistencia escolar.
“A menudo, en nuestras conversaciones locales, estatales y nacionales sobre cómo elevar el
rendimiento estudiantil y cerrar las brechas de rendimiento, se pasa por alto el importante papel
educativo de los padres”, agrega Marc H. Morial, presidente y director de la Liga Urbana
Nacional, y ex presidente de la asociación de alcaldes de Estados Unidos (y ex alcalde de Nueva
Orleáns). “Este informe apoya el plan de la Liga para la Igualdad Económica – la Oportunidad
Para que los Niños Tengan Éxito (Blueprint for Economic Equality – the Opportunity for
Children to Thrive). Por medio de este principio que nos guía, afirmamos que cada niño en
Estados Unidos merece vivir una vida libre de pobreza que incluye un hogar seguro, nutrición
adecuada y accesible atención médica de calidad. Afirmamos además que cada niño en el país
merece una educación de calidad que le preparará para competir en un mercado cada vez más
El informe completo, “The Family: America’s Smallest School”, está disponible gratis en inglés
en Se pueden comprar copias por $15 (por pago adelantado) al
escribir al Policy Information Center, ETS, MS19-R, Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541-0001;
al llamar al (609) 734-5949; o mediante un mensaje electrónico a
Acerca de ETS
ETS, entidad sin fines de lucro, celebra su historia de 60 años en avanzar la calidad y la igualdad
en la educación, ofreciendo evaluaciones equitativas y válidas, investigación y servicios afines a
todas las personas del mundo. Al ofrecer sus servicios a individuos, instituciones educativas y
agencias gubernamentales en todo el mundo, ETS crea soluciones a la medida de cada necesidad
con productos y servicios de desarrollo profesional para maestros, evaluaciones de aula y de fin
de curso, y herramientas de enseñanza y aprendizaje basadas en investigación. En 2006 ETS
desarrolló, administró y calificó más de 50 millones de evaluaciones en más de 180 países y en
más de 9,000 sitios por todo el mundo, y tuvo U$S 836 millones en ingresos consolidados. Se
puede obtener información adicional en
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