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CPS implementing `five essentials` to create better schools, seeing results

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The emotion is real when you start messing with neighborhood schools. Parents are fed up with years of reforming, re-staffing, merging, closing, taking over and turning around with mixed results for students.

Now, Chicago Public Schools is touting some success stories it hopes will quiet the storm over the painful school actions.

“After the turnaround, you know, kids are willing to come to school, they're actually in the class every day, not in the hallways roaming, they know,” Wendell Phillips Academy Senior Isaac Jackson says. “You see a tremendous improvement in the grades and with the behavior.

Wendell Phillips High School was failing in just about everything but football before the Bronzeville campus was taken over by the Academy for Urban School Leadership and a new principal.

“We are three and a half years in, but in all honesty we're nowhere near where we would like to be, but they are far from where they started,” Principal Devon Horton explains.

“In 2010, our attendance rate was 54 percent. We’re now at 83,” he continues. “ACT averages from the previous three years where I believe the average was something like a 14.5, we're at a 15.2. No one's dropping out. We know where they're going when they leave.”

So how are they moving the needle so dramatically at Phillips? Groundbreaking research claims there is a formula.

“What we find are these five things that really matter and that you can build a school community and organize a school well and get extraordinary results, in spite of some of those basic challenges that kids may face going to and from school,” Tim Knowles with the University of Chicago says.

According to Tim Knowles at the University of Chicago, there are five essential supports that can bring success to any school, in any neighborhood.

“One is the quality of teaching, instruction,” he adds. “The second is leadership. The third is parent engagement. The fourth is school culture, or climate and the fifth is the extent to which teachers actually.”

“Turns out if you get three of those five things right, you're literally ten times more likely to make substantial improvement, so they are very very powerful indicators,” Knowles says. “Only the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute has studied one big city school system continuously for nearly 20 years. Chicago has responded to what we've learned in very very systematic ways and we're seeing some remarkable results.”

Behind the recent sensational news about a projected huge increase in graduation rates is the much more detailed work producing it. CPS is implementing what it calls the “five essentials.” Knowles says the most essential is the principal.

“If there's a linchpin in all of those five things it's having a leader who is going to drive the other four things hard and in thoughtful ways,” says Knowles.

“Long gone are the days when you could be a principal and sit behind your desk and just push buttons or give out directions, you really have to be an instructional leader,” Horton tells FOX 32.

The pressure is on the school leaders. New laws give them more authority.

“It's important, to the extent that we can, to create the flexibility for great leaders to actually make the decisions they need to make,” says Knowles. “Whether it's hiring and firing, whether it's how you use time, whether it's about the curriculum, or whether it's how you use the money that you have.”

Those same reforms force principals to do more to develop their teachers. Monitoring classwork in much more detail, not just a checklist like it used to be.

“The requirements have increased, but also the tools that we use are just more um specific, more in-depth and allow me as an instructional leader to really give my staff good feedback and a recent survey indicates most teachers like the new observation process,” Everage says.

Teacher quality, rigorous instruction, is naturally another of the five essentials.

At the Daniel S. Wentworth School in Englewood, Principal Dina Everage has tripled her classroom observations this year. After a school merger, she has more students, more teachers, a lot of new tools and expectations.

More rigorous instruction cannot happen in a school without number three of the five essentials: a good climate for learning. CPS calls it a "supportive environment". You might call it safe, friendly, respectful, and fun.

At Phillips, they have affinity clubs, similar to fraternities and sororities. 9th graders can't join until they are on track academically.

Principal Horton says he has to be free to innovate. The cookie-cutter model won't work, and everyone has to work.

Collaboration is number four. A set time every day for teachers to plot and plan was one of the arguments for a longer school day; a chance to build an instructional team.

The last of the five essentials is a different kind of collaboration but you can't just order parents to step up.

How many parents show up for report card pick up is just one measure of what calls "family involvement" but schools need to open the doors even more.

"Probably the least well-tapped source of leverage in our school profession, in this sector, is parent engagement," Tim Knowles believes. "That our urban schools particularly have built little fortresses that keep parents at bay in very effective ways."

“You don't have to make an appointment," Horton adds. "We can show you what we're doing, what we're made of, and the work that our students are putting in and our staff, and they're shocked by that."

Engaging the students' extended family, people in the community, is part of this too, partnering with religious leaders and mentoring groups. The research actually shows better grades for students in neighborhoods with a lot of church going on.

If it's a fact that these five ingredients can improve every grade from pre-school on up, and every school--whether public, private or charter--maybe it will cut through the politics of education. Though, some students will still have an advantage.

"There's no question that if you live in Winnetka or Wilmette or one of the other places, versus you live in Englewood or Woodlawn, your odds are gonna be a lot better," Knowles explains.

The researchers claim we can all 'have' great schools by applying the five things and fixing the one thing that can change everything.

And so the argument that we need to invest in schooling is a persuasive one.

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