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The evolving success story at Chicago’s Spencer Elementary


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Updated: September 20, 2012 9:57AM

Don’t play with the Spencer kids.

Shawn L. Jackson heard his grandmother’s warning as a child visiting her home in Austin.

The son of teachers, Jackson was sent to her house near the school now called Spencer Elementary Technology Academy when he was sick, and she was strict.

But his job today bucks her long-ago admonishment.

“The irony of becoming principal of the school is priceless,” he said from his office inside the school he runs, a school that had been failing itself and its children, when he took the reins in 2007.

“Not that Spencer kids were bad,” he continues, reminiscing. “Their philosophy differed about how kids were supposed to play.”

Philosophy is what Jackson, 38, tasked himself with changing at Spencer, believing that if he could affect the culture, he could turn around the school. In doing so, Spencer is expanding beyond its walls and into its neighborhood.

Because to “fix” a school, to make it work for its children, a school must meet the needs of the whole child.

So by luring and letting parents in, this school is slowly climbing out of a hole and developing into a place that teaches its children by serving their community.

‘All they need is hope’

Spencer, at 214 N. Lavergne, is a “technology academy,” one of just five Chicago Public Schools in struggling neighborhoods that focus on computers. But it’s open to all.

No lotteries or entrance tests are required. Any family showing two bills with an address in the footprint around Lake and Laramie is welcomed into the school named for a Victorian-era English philosopher who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Nearly every Spencer student is black.

Almost all eat free or reduced lunch — educational jargon for poor. About 30 of the 722 enrolled are homeless. Many families get by on state aid.

The Austin community where the school sits is not only Chicago’s largest — it’s also the deadliest. So far in 2012, it has had the most homicides in the city — 23, nine more than the next neighborhood. It topped 2011 with 30 murders.

Here, Spencer Academy is doing something right.

For one, the school got off CPS probation just last year, four years after Jackson introduced a cultural change.

That’s something folks in this tough part of town didn’t think could be done after 11 years of probation, a tag that could lead to drastic and painful changes at the school — even its closing.

Ten years ago, the percentage of students doing grade level work was in the 20s. The year Jackson took charge, it increased to 45 percent. Two years later, in 2009, it hit 52 percent, then 62 percent in 2011.

The standardized state test scores have a ways to go to hit the district average or to meet federal requirements. And preliminary data for the 2011-12 school year show a 0.1 percent dip overall from the year before, which Jackson attributes to a single fourth-grade science class that lost a teacher to extended medical leave. The school did show an increase of nearly four percentage points in reading over the year before.

It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t always happening, energetic, hopeful. Many at the school credit the principal, who was born and raised in Austin.

“He give them hope where other adults don’t,” said Bermesha Huston, whose two girls attend Spencer. “That’s all they need is hope. Hope, it’s all I keep saying, hope. Because they need that light. They really do.”

Her third-grader is already talking about college.

Earning parents’ trust

The principal doesn’t point to himself for the credit — he points to the community, to partnerships developed with churches and colleges, home day cares and businesses and the state of Illinois. Most of all, he forged a bond with the children’s parents. Their trust is paramount.

When Jackson took over as principal at age 32 in 2007, Spencer had been considered a failing school for years and its reputation was terrible.

Striving for the federal benchmark would only set the school up for more failure, he calculated. He needed smaller targets.

He had to build momentum so the community would believe.

Jackson took the goals and the available data and broke them down to numbers of children per grade. He posted the numbers around the school. He supported teachers in their quest to bring children up to speed and gave them autonomy to teach their own way.

“It was very important that we created something that we could shoot for internally, something that we could all rally around and something that I could get the community behind as well,” Jackson said. “We had growth every single year, so we were able to kind of build momentum.”

Step by step, the scores kept increasing, until it looked like the school could get off probation.

And at that point, Jackson said, “What we were saying didn’t sound so crazy.”

He knows he’s still far from the federal target, but his worries are wider than mere test scores.

“You’d like to meet the federal guidelines, but the reality is, it goes back to that question: What is your measure of success?”

A culture of learning. Higher attendance. Satisfied teachers. Engaged, curious learners. Proud, involved parents. Students who choose not only whether to go to college but which school they prefer. Children who stand a chance in life at competing for jobs and homes and everything else that anyone would want.

Children prepared to be what they want to be.

Achieving that would take more than a school. It would take the whole community.

“There are no successful schools without parental involvement,” Jackson said.

‘Parent Scholars’ play a role

CPS is adding a parental satisfaction component to its school report cards this year, but Spencer realized years ago he would need parents to buy in.

They would have to play a bigger part in their children’s education, like they do in wealthier schools. But many Spencer parents had needs of their own. They faced unemployment and poverty. Some never graduated from high school or were lost to prison or to the streets.

If we empower the parents, Jackson’s parent advocate Cynthia Peterson told him, we impact the child. So the school made room for its parents, dubbing the volunteers “Parent Scholars.”

Peterson also got the school established as a work site where parents could fulfill the volunteering requirements of some state aid checks. They had to work somewhere, she said, so why not at their own child’s school?

She moved their lounge from a little space in the basement to a spacious air-conditioned spot on the main floor. That got their attention, Peterson explained — and raised expectations.

“You need administrators who believe the community and parents are part of the solution for the school,” she said. “The child is attached to a family.”

The school has Spencer Parent University, too, where parents can take free classes in their own dedicated space, to prep for the GED test, learn computer skills, study a foreign language or poetry. They can work on resumes or interview skills. “Instead of being at home, they can be here with their children,” Peterson said.

Kelly Williamson, a mother of two Spencer sons and a loyal volunteer, pops her head out of a classroom. “When Dr. Jackson came, it turned around,” she said. “ . . .The students were used to running amuck in that school. I don’t see any of that anymore.”

Williamson has dealt with Spencer since her 16-year-old was in first grade. “A lot of them before, it was all about getting the school off probation,” she said. “With him, that’s what he wanted, but he put the kids first.”

Sure, she wishes her seventh-grader had the kind of arts exposure she received in suburban schools so she wouldn’t have to supplement so much at home. She’s a single mom with a teaching degree, and she is back in school to become a counselor. And she wishes the school had a better gym and the kids got more exercise. She has made her opinions known to the principal.

“He’s on the path,” she said. “There are other things he has to do first.”

Raising expectations

New this year, because of the district’s longer school day, is the hiring of at least 12 of the parents to work in the lunchroom and during recess. Parents get jobs and learn job skills, teachers get their break and the children are covered.

It’s a worthwhile investment in the community, Jackson says.

Which isn’t to say it works seamlessly.

At the end of the first day of school last week, Jackson called a meeting with several of the parents who are new lunchroom workers to hash out some snags. All of those who were hired already had volunteered as Parent Scholars. Now they’re being paid $12 an hour. Paperwork held up a few of them from working the first day; a few who did start gave Jackson attitude when rain wrecked the original lunch and recess plan.

He’s angry, disappointed, but he calms down before speaking.

“What you guys are going to understand very quickly is, it’s different when you work for me than it is when you volunteer,” Jackson tells them. “I have an expectation level, and I’m the same one you saw carrying a ladder in my suit, seeing me work the lunch line . . .

“So it’s very difficult for me to deal with individuals that tell me what they can’t do . . . because we’re in a community where they told us what we can’t do for the longest, right?”

His admonishment morphs into a lesson about better ways to wrangle the children: “One thing we have to learn though is, when we’re sending people through the line, you can’t stop every behavior because it holds up the line.”

Then motivation.

“I’m going to go back to, ‘I don’t owe anybody anything.’ There’s a lot to do around here,” Jackson said. “And today, it should get better from today.”

The principal names Yolanda Webster as one leader. Chrishana Blackmond, a parent who rescued her recess class from rain, becomes the other. He praises her foresight and quick thinking.

“It’s a difference between leading and supervising. I need leaders, OK? . . . Everybody in this room stepped up, everybody, everybody.”

The room fills with applause.

“How many times did they tell you, ‘The school wasn’t this. . . . The parents weren’t going to get involved.’ You just crushed all of that, right?”

The ladies agree. Right.

‘She’s an A student now’

In Mr. McWade’s fifth-grade class, a refresher about nouns and verbs starts on a whiteboard, then moves to iPads. Each team of three fifth-graders wields one, taking turns finding or making their own images showing verbs, common and proper nouns and rich adjectives. Steve McWade bops around the classroom, guiding some, chiding some.

One group of boys shoots video. Two of them shuffle their feet and wiggle their middles for the third one to record. Girls take photos of windows, hands, desks.

McWade is notoriously strict, expecting the students to call adults “ma’am” or “sir.” But he also gets his kids up and moving with lessons that speak to them. The photos he has pulled to talk about verbs involve Olympic champion Usain Bolt. Teachers here are trusted and expected to teach what they believe works, so he’s demonstrating probability using a game of foam dice that has the class squealing.

“You have to meet the kids where they’re at,” he says when the kids are at lunch.

Alexis Williams belonged in this class, but instead she’s in the hallway with her grandmother, Bernice Howard, who’s arranging her transfer to another school.

Jackson recognizes the family, and hollers out, “Do I get to keep her? C’mon, c’mon, she don’t want to go to Hay [Elementary], she want to go to Spencer.”

Howard moved last spring to an apartment too far for her to walk the 10-year-old to school anymore. The neighborhood’s too dodgy to put the little girl on the CTA by herself, so Howard rides the bus with her on days when her arthritis behaves. No school bus exists, except for certain special-education students.

Transportation is the problem, the grandmother explains to Jackson. “But I want her to stay here,” she says.

“And she grew up!” Jackson speaks first to the woman and then to the child. “You knew you was a fool in second grade?”

“She grew up!” Howard agrees.

Alexis got in trouble when she started at Spencer in second grade. She couldn’t sit still. But the teachers demanded good things from her, and she settled in and settled down. She counted the days of summer until it was time to go back to Spencer. She loves school now.

“Please can I stay?” the child pipes in at every opening, “Can I stay, please?”

The principal won’t give up: There must be something we can do. You know we start at 8:45? We’re a straight shot down Laramie. The other school doesn’t have the computers we have. This is my girl.

The grandmother laments the truth: I really want her to stay. But it’s too much to bring her on the bus every day.

So Jackson will call ahead to the other school to introduce the family.

“Between the two, you’re in a good place,” he concludes, “but I hate to lose your baby. She’s grown so much. We want her, but I’m not about to drive you crazy.”

Alexis has disappeared to change her plain white top into Spencer’s royal blue golf shirt.

“Now you looking right!” Jackson tells her.

“Oh, Mama don’t want you to leave,” Williams says to the granddaughter she has raised from a baby.

“She’s an A student now,” she continues, “so I definitely don’t want her to go.”

“So Mama,” Alexis pleads, still, “can I stay?”

‘You have to earn it’

The week before school started, CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard popped in to see Spencer’s computer labs. He taught a lesson at Spencer last year about the solar system, using some of the iPads the school bought through a Chicago Public Schools technology grant.

Technology draws the kids in, Jackson explains. On this day, he’s explaining it to Brizard. But he’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. Technology is also preparing them for a globalized economy where computer skills are a must.

These children were born on the wrong side of the digital divide, so their school will catch them up if their homes cannot.

With the CPS-funded equipment, Spencer students will Skype with schools in other countries, exposing them to people and ideas and ways of living outside the neighborhood that many don’t leave. The cameras will connect the school’s two buildings, too: Eighth-grade students in the upper building help third-grade students in the lower building with reading.

Brizard praised the students who were testing Internet connections through an on-screen chat.

He entered the school’s “virtual gym,” an air-conditioned classroom full of Nintendo Wii and Xbox consoles outfitted with active games to reward the well-behaved. It’ll also bulk up recess because Spencer’s playground isn’t in great shape, and there is no field for baseball or soccer close by.

Descending the stairs to leave, Brizard passed a window that peered into a gaping upper window frame of one of the vacant brick bungalows right across the street.

He had been cheerfully trounced in a round of Wii tennis by eighth-grader Steven Cooper.

Cooper beams, unashamed at his success against his principal’s boss.

“You shouldn’t let people win,” the 13-year-old said. “You have to earn it.”

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi, Art Golab

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