Weather Updates

2011 school rankings: ‘Looping’ pairs teachers, students for years

Eighth-grade students Kimberly Hernandez 13 KeshannPope 14 get extrattentifrom student teacher Jose Flores ChopSchool which holds 96 percent low-income kids

Eighth-grade students Kimberly Hernandez, 13, and Keshanna Pope, 14, get extra attention from student teacher Jose Flores at Chopin School, which holds 96 percent low-income kids but came in 21st in the state for its middle-school reading and math performance last school year. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

storyidforme: 20457458
tmspicid: 7668186
fileheaderid: 3475925
2011 Illinois school report cards: Find your school
School rankings: The top 50 elementary, middle and high schools
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

Why did 100 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders at Chicago’s Chopin School pass their state reading and math tests last school year?

Put that question to this year’s eighth-graders in the 96-percent low-income school, and their first answer is just one word: Looping.

This decades-old practice, in which teachers stay with students for more than one grade, has been used for years at Chopin. Thirty-six years ago, after Chopin Principal Antuanette Mester left the nunhood and joined the West Town neighborhood school as a teacher, she stayed with her students for eight grades — at her request.

Today, two- and three-year Chopin loops are most common — from second to third grade, fourth to fifth and sixth to eighth.

“I believe in looping,” said Mester of a practice some say can translate into at least an extra month of instruction in year two and beyond. “The teacher doesn’t have to spend that first month and a half getting familiar with students. He or she knows them immediately.”

With help from looping, among other things, Chopin came in No. 21 in the state this year for its middle-grade performance, based on its average sixth- through eighth-grade reading and math scores on the 2011 Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis showed. Its average score topped that of far more affluent schools in Glencoe, Kenilworth and Wilmette.

For kids growing up in a hardscrabble city environment, looping layers this year’s Chopin eighth-grade classroom — with its more than 90-year-old soaring ceilings and wood plank floors — with a homey feel. It’s filled not just with posters of math formulas and colorful vocabulary “word walls” from this school year, but also standout student work from last year.

Eighth-grade teacher Lauren Caffarella, now on her second year with her students, said looping helped her build and maintain a “classroom community” in which kids knew the rules on Day One this year and immediately felt safe sharing their ideas.

“Looping is really good,” agreed eighth-grader Alexis Rosa. “Since we had our teacher for two years, she knows our weaknesses. It helps because we are comfortable with her.”

Looping can be demanding on teachers, as they must learn multiple years of curriculum. But Mester says no teacher has balked at the prospect. Instead, “They love it,” she said. Looping’s efficiencies help teachers wade into the next grade level’s curriculum by second semester, Mester said.

By the time last school year’s eighth graders finished a three-year loop with teacher Liliana Caraba, 100 percent of them had qualified to sit for Chicago’s selective-enrollment admissions test, and half later were accepted by an elite college prep, Caraba said. A few others won offers at Lincoln Park High’s double-honors or elite International baccalaureate programs, Caraba said.

“This is very important, looping,” said Caraba. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Other factors also contribute to the school’s success, kids and staff agree. Extra time on task and extra hands on deck are among them.

Teachers routinely show up early without pay and stay late, in some cases for pay, to tutor.

Last year, 1½ months before the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, every seventh-grader came in early for ISAT reading and math prep by not only teachers, but also eighth-graders. The extra time even helped eighth-graders, who had to master their subject to tutor it, Caraba said. Plus, younger students enjoyed working with older colleagues.

Explained Caraba: “They speak their language.”

Seventh-graders whose admission to college preps can hinge on seventh-grade ISAT scores wanted to be there. Said one, Ivan Vasquez, 13: “I wanted to make sure I was ready for ISAT, because you know every year it gets more difficult. You always have to expect the unexpected.”

Also at Chopin, every classroom has a student teacher. As an education professor at Northeastern Illinois University, Mester says she gets an early peek at which NEIU education majors might make attractive candidates.

More help arrives during reading, when specially trained America Reads college students pitch in. “And I get them for free,” boasts Mester. “It’s a good thing.”

Vocabulary and writing are big focuses. In Caffarella’s classroom, kids are encouraged to use “juicy” words. Every Wednesday they write stories using Monday’s vocabulary list. Word walls show their work with words that gradually intensify in meaning, stretching from “irk” to “irritate” to “provoke.”

Between her years as an assistant principal or principal at Chopin, Mester said, she’s played a role in handpicking every teacher and even getting rid of three who didn’t perform up to snuff. Those still standing are a strong crew — all with second-language endorsements to ensure they can help any of the students in the heavily Hispanic school who are struggling with English.

Mester considers herself Chopin’s instructional leader. She’s been known to walk in a room and help teach a class. And teachers aren’t afraid to walk in her office and brainstorm, she says.

Chopin follows the classic CPS schedule of a 5-hour, 45-minute day. There’s no recess here, except for a “washroom recess” that allows kids up to eight minutes to go to the bathroom. The school is so spotless, Mester says, she’s been accused of acting like she’s “running a Catholic school here.”

Chopin is not filled with the fancy Promethean interactive whiteboards now popular in some posh suburbs. Some teachers here still use pointers.

But after 36 years, Mester said, “I’m passionate about my school. The day I retire, I think it will kill me.”

Contributing: Art Golab

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.