In many suburbs the quality of the public schools is a significant factor in the appeal of a neighborhood or community. The better the schools are, the greater the appeal to live in the area that the schools serve. What if there was a Chicago neighborhood school that was so good that it influenced your decision to consider living in that area?

Would you be impressed by a neighborhood elementary school whose 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade students exceeded the national average for math scores on the Northwest Education Association’s testing? Whose approach to teaching was so successful that it was made an AUSL Teachers Training Academy preparing teachers for public schools all over the city?

It wouldn’t be hard to believe that 94 percent of those students’ families were either satisfied or very satisfied with the school, or that 93 percent of the families would strongly recommend the school to others, or that 92 percent of the families believe that the school has made the community a better place.

How about if over 98 percent of the students in that school qualified for free and reduced lunches? And, what if the school was located in an area of Chicago identified as having a higher than normal number of foreclosures and in need of being included in the Micro Market Recovery Program?

The Howe School of Excellence is that neighborhood elementary school. Located off the beaten path on the 700 block of north Lorel Avenue, Howe is truly a bright diamond among Chicago public schools. And it is right here in Austin.

At the end of the 2008 school year Howe was stuck in a bad place with a very negative culture. Only 19 percent of the students tested at or above their grade level, and about 20 percent of the students exhibited serious negative behavior issues. CPS was close to calling Howe “not salvageable.”

The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) asked to be allowed to come in and do a turn-around project with Howe. The group asked for one year to demonstrate a successful, positive change, and it received the go-ahead from the Chicago Public Schools.

AUSL’s three primary goals for that initial 2008-09 school year included 1) Improve the attendance rate, 2) Decrease student misconduct, and 3) Improve parent satisfaction. Central to the success was ensuring that teachers were properly equipped which included one-on-one coaching, giving teachers the tools needed to achieve their own development goals, and providing professional development both within the school and through CPS development opportunities. That first year was a big success.

Co-principals Daphne Sherrod and Keri Mendez were brought to Howe in 2008 and helped lead that turn-around effort. They are still there today, working with passion and commitment to be sure that the students who graduate from Howe School of Excellence are truly “college ready”.

The primary goal, and central strategy, is to improve the student attendance rate. This past year, that rate was 95.3 percent, above the CPS average of 94.5 percent. But, Sherrod and Mendez aren’t satisfied with that. They want to reach 96 percent, then 97 percent. Why is attendance so important? They say it is because “if the kids aren’t in school, they can’t learn.”

To the question of how do you get urban kids interested in being in school, the response is to create a positive environment, offer out of school activities that the children want to be involved in. Activities include academic clubs like Young Authors; sports that include wrestling, football, soccer, and volleyball; dance, an art fair and science fair, and much more.

All of these activities are being led and coached by teachers and staff from Howe, so the students have extended exposure to adults who are truly invested in their success. The big hook with the activities is that the children aren’t allowed to participate unless they are meeting the attendance and academic requirements that have been put in place. The children want to be involved so they are motivated to get to school every day – on time; to complete homework and do well with their studies.

Recognition of the students’ successes is also a big part in providing the motivation to pursue excellence. There is a Student of the Month, and monthly recognition of students in the areas of academics and attendance. There is a quarterly awards program to which the parents are also invited.

To help the children put meaning to the words “being college ready” the school takes students on field trips to colleges and universities in the area. Recently the school asked some of the students who graduated in the spring of 2009, after the turn-around was begun and have completed their first year of college, to come back and talk with the students. They were excited to share that the concepts they learned as part of the turn-around process truly helped them to be prepared, to succeed in high school and be ready for college.

The turn-around has been more than successful. The strategies incorporated and the improvements that have been achieved have led the AUSL to offer their Chicago Teacher Residency program at Howe. The residency program is a Teachers’ Training Academy particularly preparing teachers to serve in the urban environment.

What that means for the school is that the classrooms being used in the teacher residency program have two teacher trainees for the entire school year being mentored by an experienced “master” teacher. This puts the teacher to student ratio at less than 1 to 10. The program that the teacher trainees are in operates in conjunction with National Lewis University. Upon completion of the year in the training academy they receive their Master’s Degree.

All in all, the turn-around has made Howe School of Excellence a tremendous resource, not only for this neighborhood, but for the City of Chicago.

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