2002: Features (print version)
North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School-the brainchild of the University's
Center for School Improvement-the aim is to provide quality education
for urban families and professional development for teachers.
Photography by Dan Dry
primary grades' theme for the week at North Kenwood/Oakland Charter
School is "under the sea." Friday is ocean day, and in Debra
Fields's kindergarten room groups of children work on marine-themed
projects. At one table a group is busy teasing small words out of big
words. "Stingray: tin, sting, ray, gray," reads one girl's
paper. She concentrates fiercely, searching for more. A group at another
table writes stories about the ocean. At the room's far end, a boy sitting
at a computer has trouble bringing up an instructional game and signals
the teacher for help.
comes to his rescue. She seems to be everywhere, encouraging, directing,
listening, correcting. Despite the children's irrepressible energy,
they're not unruly. The room is cheerful with vivid patches of color
on the walls, the bookcases, even the tile floor. On a corkboard hangs
the class roster: Shelton, Arthur, Serenity, Rashawn, Brandon
door several parents and grandparents assist Amanda Djikas, the K/1
cluster teacher, with her spirited charges. Paper cups of Goldfish crackers
and Tootie Fruities sit next to students learning their numbers. Each
child bends over a sheet of paper containing ten rows of ten squares,
the rows labeled 0 to 10; by each number the child must deposit the
corresponding number of crackers. One boy, nibbling on a handful of
Goldfish, gets an urge to dart across the room. "Uh-unh, we are
not running," chides Djikas. On a wall hang student essays. One
reads: "My Dad is silly. He dances silly. He writes his ABCs silly.
He walks silly. But he never writes silly at work."
is the last school day before a weeklong break, and the children are
looking ahead. "Miss Mandy" is happy to have parental help.
That's something she, like the school's other teachers, knows she can
always count on. "Every time we need them, they come," she
says with a smile.
Kenwood/Oakland is a charter school started four years ago by educators
at the University's Center for School Improvement (CSI). NK/O, as it's
familiarly known, is located at 1119 East 46th Street, just north of
Hyde Park's 47th Street boundary, in a neighborhood described not very
long ago as having more empty lots than buildings. The school occupies
half of the former Shakespeare School building, shuttered ten years
ago by Chicago Public Schools.
is NK/O's second home. For the first two years it was housed in an empty
church, Saint James United Methodist at 46th and Ellis, while CSI searched
for more ample quarters. To bring the church up to code, the University
invested $475,000, solving a temporary problem while underwriting a
future community asset. (A school for children with emotional problems
now leases the former church.) Four years ago the neighborhood was not
an inviting one; a drug house operated behind the Saint James building,
and a drug-connected murder occurred in front of it.
moved into the renovated Shakespeare School in the fall of 2000. It
shares the building with Ariel Community Academy, a "Small School"
within the Chicago Public School system, founded by the Ariel Education
Initiative, a program of Ariel Capital Management Chicago. "Small
Schools" are a special category of public schools that emphasize
close student-teacher interaction. Ariel Community Academy teachers
meet regularly with parents and students to discuss student progress,
and they work as a team to build curriculum and share teaching techniques.
two schools occupy separate portions of the building, with a few shared
facilities: a multipurpose room, library, cafeteria, and science lab.
Unlike Ariel Capital Academy, North Kenwood/Oakland is not a neighborhood
school. Its charter mandates that it serve students throughout Chicago-though
for all practical purposes that means South Chicago. Nonetheless, about
40 percent of NK/O's 305 students live in the North Kenwood neighborhood.
it opened NK/O offered four grades: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten,
first, and fifth. Each year added two more grades (2 and 6, 3 and 7,
4 and 8). This June NK/O eighth graders participated in the school's
first graduation, preceded by a trip to Detroit and Windsor to visit
educational museums, with a stop in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.
sizes range from 18 to 20 at the pre-kindergarten/kindergarten level,
21 to 25 in the primary grades, and 27 in grades 4 through 8. In Chicago
Public Schools, the norms are 28 students in primary grades (K through
3), 34 in intermediate grades (4 through 6) , and 32 in upper elementary
grades (7 and 8), but classes in the 40 percent of the city's chronically
overcrowded elementary schools routinely exceed those numbers.
with the quality of public-school education prompted the emergence of
the charter-school movement in the early 1990s. Thirty-seven states
plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico now have laws permitting
charter schools-a list that includes Illinois, whose 1996 legislation
allows for 15 schools in Chicago, 15 in the suburbs, and 15 downstate.
Only in Chicago have all 15 charters been allocated.
schools are public schools with unique missions, including ethnically
centered curricula, emphasis on the performing arts or science, or,
in NK/O's case, providing quality education for urban families and professional
development for teachers. The schools are operated independently by
community organizations, universities, foundations, and teachers. Chicago's
charter schools have their own individual school boards and are open
to all students living in the city, tuition-free, with no academic entrance
requirements. Although funded by Chicago Public Schools and accountable
to CPS for student achievement, they control their budgets, school calendars,
hiring and firing, and curricula. For most of the city's charter schools,
this autonomy has produced schools that outdistance their noncharter
counterparts in student attendance, classroom achievement, and parental
Hoffman is director of curriculum at North Kenwood/Oakland School and
the chief liaison with the University's Center for School Improvement,
but he's also NK/O's founding director. In addition to his administrative
duties, he teaches the eighth-grade social studies/writing class. At
11 o'clock one spring morning, he beams a montage of disturbing photographs
onto a pull-down projection screen in his classroom: a pack of Nazi
storm troopers; men wearing the shabby, mismatched garb of concentration
camp inmates; a six-pointed star, the word Jude in its center.
of these images suggests power to you?" he asks. Hands shoot up,
and the student selected points to the storm troopers. "Now, do
any of these suggest powerlessness?" More hands: "the concentration
camp picture," "the star." Next he displays an enlarged
photo of some anonymous Nazi victims, one a youngster who is reaching
toward the camera, or perhaps toward a woman in the foreground who might
be his mother. "How do you connect this scene with the scenes we're
reading about in Night?" Hoffman asks, then answers his
own question: "Just picture Eleazer in this scene getting herded
together with all the other Jews to be taken off to the camp."
eighth graders are reading Elie Wiesel's searing recollections of the
Holocaust, and a few days ago they visited Spertus Museum, whose collection
of artifacts and artwork from Jewish history includes the country's
first permanent Holocaust museum. It is coincidence that Night
is also being read across the city as part of the Chicago Public Library's
One Book, One Chicago initiative. Hoffman's students must keep journals
about each reading assignment, but he is unsure whether all the students
exactly grasp what he expects. To give an example, he reads from his
own journal, then asks how the entry differs from a straight report
of the book segment. "You used prior knowledge," a student
I used prior knowledge; I used some of my personal experiences,"
he agrees. "But the most important thing is that I really tried
to go deep into my own personal reaction to what I was reading. This
reading," he explains, "is so packed with emotion and so packed
with images that are going to stick with you that you've got to respect
them more in the way that you tackle them in your journal."
shift in lunch schedules means that Hoffman's class period is 20 minutes
shorter than usual. He's a little flustered when he realizes he's out
of time, and as the students rise to leave he hurriedly outlines the
next assignment. When the room has emptied, a colleague stops in and
asks, "Did you mention that Elie Wiesel will be giving a lecture
shortly at the University?" Hoffman is emphatic: "I did."
critics of the charter school movement complain of what they see as
its elitism. But charters are not permitted to stack the deck; they
can't establish admission requirements, and if applications exceed the
number of places, as they always do at NK/O, a random lottery is conducted.
(For the 2001-2002 school year lottery, NK/O received 523 applications
for 71 slots; for the coming year there were 348 applications for 44
places.) The aim, Hoffman says, is "to prevent charter schools
from creaming top kids. But we have the opposite problem here. Because
we're basically a demonstration school, it's in our interest to maintain
a population that looks as much like the Chicago public schools as possible."
Kenwood is undergoing a certain amount of gentrification, and the concern
is that the school's percentage of low-income students is below the
average for city schools, which runs in the 80s and can reach as high
as 97 percent. Currently, two out of three of NK/O's students are on
free or reduced lunch, the standard often used to define poverty level.
the neighborhood upswing began before NK/O's arrival, it's been accelerated
by the school's presence. "That was one of our goals," says
Hoffman, "but it happened much more rapidly than any of us anticipated."
Evidence of the resurgence is not hard to find. The drug house by Saint
James has been renovated into condos, and a handsome town-home development
opened last year across the street from the school. "Every advertisement
for the development mentioned our school, without mentioning that it
isn't a neighborhood school," Hoffman notes. "Sometimes we
get angry parents coming over, saying, 'I spent $350,000 to be across
the street from this school that I can't send my children to.' "
try to keep the low-income component at a reasonable level, administrators
regularly recruit in the neighborhood and its edges, focusing on buildings
with high concentrations of low-income families. They leaflet apartment
houses, give presentations in neighborhood centers, and work through
local churches and clubs, stressing their school's educational results.
is only one concern that charter school critics point to. They also
fear less accountability, since charters operate outside the procedures
that public schools must follow. Hoffman rejects that argument. "Part
of our accountability and part of our charter," he says, "is
that our kids have to take the same standardized tests-the Iowa Tests
of Basic Skills that the city requires and the Illinois Standard Achievement
Test (ISAT) tests that the state requires. The system expects us to
get where everyone else is getting, but they don't tell us how to get
charters have learned how to get there-but not all. Two were closed
for low achievement scores and poor attendance. Hoffman does not find
this discouraging. "One thing that's appealing about charter schools,"
he says, "is the accountability that's built into the renewal process;
so the fact that two of the charters went to schools that have now been
closed down is a reflection of the success, not failure, of the system."
students excel in standardized tests, particularly in literacy areas.
"Our writing scores have been consistently above state averages,"
notes Hoffman. In fact, ISAT scores in 2001 showed 85 percent of NK/O
fifth graders writing at or above grade standards, compared with 49
percent in the Chicago system and 70 percent statewide. As for reading
scores, 54 percent of NK/O fifth graders met standards for their level,
compared with 34 percent in Chicago and 59 percent statewide. Other
reading test data also show an upward trend. For example, only 38.5
percent of the first fifth-grade NK/O class, admitted in 1998, tested
at grade level in a standardized reading test. By the following spring
the number had risen to 64 percent for the same group of children.
concedes that "we're still not there in the math; our kids are
doing all right but not dramatically different from where public school
kids are." NK/O fifth graders were performing at 39 percent of
standard in math, below the statewide 61 percent but above Chicago's
the 1996 decision to phase out Chicago's education department, there
came a parallel decision-as Richard Saller (then dean of Social Sciences,
now provost) put it-"to preserve what is most vital in the department."
Cited as one of the education's department's brightest stars was the
Center for School Improvement, founded in 1988 to contribute toward
better Chicago public schools. To demonstrate the center's conviction
that "ambitious intellectual work for all students can and must
become a reality in Chicago classrooms," CSI has worked with between
three and seven public schools each year in the city's disadvantaged
areas. To date, 20 schools have been part of the CSI school network.
was created as a demonstration school and a resource for that network.
"Our intent," says CSI director Anthony Bryk, the Marshall
Field IV professor of urban education and sociology, "was to create
a place where CSI staff and school staff can be engaged with one another
in co-developing programs and materials." Although charter schools
are able to hire teachers who may not have all the credentials other
public schools require, all of NK/O's subject-area teachers are credentialed,
and 17 of the 21-person teaching staff have master's degrees.
three key administrators also are highly credentialed. Hoffman has a
Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Harvard and has taught from preschool
to graduate school. Kirby Callam, NK/O's director of operations, has
a degree from the Yale School of Management and is the founder and former
director of a youth program in Washington Park, southwest of Kenwood,
which offers tutoring, mentoring, and athletic programs to 100 children
aged 3 to 18 and their families. Principal Michael Johnson has degrees
in criminal justice and sociology and formerly directed the Chicagoland
Area High School Leadership Institute for the University of Illinois.
triumvirate needs solid management skills to keep up with the school's
financial arrangements. As a public school, most of NK/O's operational
monies are public funds, based on a formula that uses the city's average
per-pupil expenditure and multiplies it by the number of NK/O students.
To complicate the financial snapshot, some program funds pass from the
Center for School Improvement to NK/O. Thus, explains Hoffman, "if
we want to pilot a science curriculum that might be useful in the schools
the CSI serves, the Center will pick up some of the development costs."
CSI also funds a portion of some NK/O teachers' salaries in return for
their professional-development services to teachers in its school network.
director Bryk, whose research explores how the cultural and moral aspects
of school life affect academic performance, compares NK/O to a teaching
hospital where the "interns" are teachers in CSI network schools.
Each month these teachers visit NK/O to study literacy techniques such
as guided reading and writers' workshops. Typically, says Joseph Frattaroli,
CSI's deputy director, the network teachers attend a Friday training
session and return the following Monday or Tuesday to observe NK/O teachers
in those areas. The session's last hour is devoted to one-on-one discussions-a
chance, in Fratarolli's words, for the network teachers to "pick
the NK/O teachers' brains."
center supplied NK/O's initial leadership and recruited the first teacher
cadre. "Most were recruited from schools in the CSI network,"
says Bryk. "We looked for teachers who were excited by the idea
of going to a professional-development school and joining a professional
community." Also intriguing was one of NK/O's distinguishing philosophies,
distributive leadership, a term Bryk explains this way: "Leadership
in the school is more than just the principal's job. It is distributed
among the professionals."
an adjunct to that philosophy, the salary scale for NK/O teachers is
more attractive than that of their public classroom counterparts-one
reason for the high percentage of credentialed teachers. What teachers
earn depends not solely on years of service, as in city schools, but
also on the responsibilities they shoulder. NK/O teachers begin at parity
with public school salaries, where a starting teacher earns about $34,000
and a teacher with five years of experience and a master's degree earns
in the low $40,000s.
almost all our teachers have come from Chicago public schools,"
says Hoffman, "one thing we've had to reassure them about is that
there's no loss to them in moving. We've tried to build a career ladder
that allows teachers to advance both financially and in terms of their
role without leaving the classroom." In addition to regular classroom
teachers, there are curriculum coordinators and lead teachers in each
cluster (grades K-1, 2-3, 4-5, and 6-8), who all get add-ons to their
also pays into the city pension fund for its teachers, officially considered
on leave from CPS. That means they won't lose seniority if they return
to the city system. But their "leave" extends for only five
years, and those who have been at NK/O from the beginning will decide
next year whether to stay or return to the city schools. Besides losing
seniority, staying means losing vestment in their pre-NK/O bank of sick
days; some long-term public school teachers cash in this bank for more
than a year's salary when they retire.
hopes they'll stay at NK/O. "We will try to keep them with us,"
says Bryk, "and we're working on strategies to do that. From the
beginning, we hoped the senior faculty would be permanent, though our
long-term vision is to have some junior positions rotate into the public
it comes to student behavior, there is a dramatic difference between
NK/O and many Chicago schools. "We don't have the kinds of problems
that other public schools do," declares Hoffman. "We have
behavior problems, but we don't have violence, we don't have weapons,
we don't have drugs, and we don't have gangs," all real problems
in the upper elementary grades of many public schools. "What we
have are kids who sometimes run in the halls. This is not a matter of
selection of students-because we don't select-but of the school's culture.
We don't tolerate fighting, and kids know what the consequences are."
consequences range from stern talks for first offenses to in-house suspension
or full suspension for repeated offenses. Home consequences usually
follow, thanks to what Hoffman calls "our very close relationship
with parents. If there are problems, parents are in on the situation
don't suspend a lot," he adds, noting that the school's culture
encourages children to meet "the high level of expectation that
we have for our students. You hear this often in schools, but more often
than not it's a cliché. Not here." He credits a mutual "atmosphere
of respect" between students and teachers. "It's kind of shocking
to go to some schools-I'm not saying it's universal-and hear teachers
yelling at kids and sort of beating them down, and there are still some
places where there's physical punishment inflicted on kids."
reason teachers say they like NK/O is that they know its cultural norms
make yelling at kids inappropriate. But that's the least of it. "The
teachers are here because they are committed to improving schools, education
and individual practice," says Stacy Beardsley, an intermediate/upper-level
social-studies teacher and NK/O's technology coordinator. "NK/O
is a place where learning about and implementing the best practices
in education is valued and encouraged."
the school is young, few teachers have left. When they do, it's mainly
to pursue opportunities like starting a Ph.D. program or moving into
high-school teaching. "When our teachers complain," says Hoffman,
"it's about how demanding it is to teach here. The investment of
time is greater than for teaching in other schools. But behind the griping
there's a recognition that it's really a privilege to be in a position
to shape their teaching lives."
of course, is about shaping other lives too. When Erin Clark entered
NK/O in the fifth grade three years ago, she had reading problems. In
two previous schools she had fallen behind her grade levels, and her
mother, Ramona Clark, was worried. Erin's problem was with reading,
not books; she liked it when her mother read to her.
went to an open house at Kenwood," Clark recalls, "and I was
hooked on the idea that they don't use textbooks; they let children
pick the books they want to read. And they read together in the classroom."
For Erin, that made all the difference. "By sixth grade,"
her mother says, "she was reading at grade level." And enjoying
it. Now the 12-year-old is an avid reader, gobbling books even during
summer vacations. With one year of elementary school left for her daughter,
Clark worries about the next phase of Erin's education. "I have
to find a good high school for her."
instruction in the language arts at NK/O focuses on critical thinking
rather than ingesting textbooks. The nontextbook philosophy grows out
of a strong literacy tradition at the CSI and its commitment to project-
and inquiry-based learning. Although language-arts teachers select core
books for their classes, students self-select books for supplemental
reading. The science program combines hands-on experimentation with
critical analysis of students' observations. The math program emphasizes
mathematical thinking rather than computation, though that part of the
curriculum is more textbook-oriented than other areas.
NK/O is up to date. Each classroom contains five computers, in addition
to the 24 in the school's computer lab. All are connected to the Internet
by high-speed DSL line. Children as early as pre-kindergarten work with
Kid Pix, a colorful computer package with art and photo editing tools.
By the seventh grade, students are using PowerPoint and Excel for class
projects; in a unit on Chinese culture, eighth graders developed their
own Web pages. The school's Web site is used increasingly as a resource
for teacher units. Several teachers are creating classroom Web pages,
and a parent page and a homework page are slated for development this
instructional plan is built around a vigorous assessment program and
strategies to shore up students who are struggling. Nobody is allowed
to slip through the cracks. In a room occupied by the primary literacy
coordinator, a giant bulletin board measuring roughly 10 feet across
and four feet tall tracks the reading progress of all NK/O children.
Each child in the primary grades has a Post-It note showing his or her
reading progress on a 12-step assessment scale. Teachers keep the Post-Its
up to date and can see at a glance how their students are performing,
if they're progressing, what special services they're receiving, and
whether they need more challenging assignments.
not only middle-class parents like Ramona Clark who appreciate NK/O.
The appreciation level tends to run even higher in low-income families,
says Hoffman. All parents volunteer for classroom duty when they can,
and they are faithful in attending school events. "We conduct parent
surveys annually, and the satisfaction level is always very high,"
says Hoffman. "Putting the 'satisfied' and 'very satisfied' categories
together, we always exceed 90 percent." When students withdraw
from NK/O-roughly a dozen so far-it may be because the school has recommended
therapy for the child or because students want special seventh-grade
programs available elsewhere that prepare them for particular high schools.
shh, shh," admonishes librarian Elizabeth Bischoff as she leads
a straggly line of 20 kindergartners into her book-lined domain. It's
near the school day's end, and some of the children's pent-up energy
is in serious danger of spilling over. Four youngsters dash to squeeze
onto a couch built for three, and some shoving and hurt looks follow.
The librarian plucks one of the kids from the mix, and things settle
down on the couch.
anyone remember what we do when we find a book we want to check out?"
Bischoff asks, pausing to threaten one little boy with a timeout. The
children remember, and they scatter on cue to pick out the books they'll
take home. Several choose books about fish-sharks, dolphins, and whales
are favorites-reflecting the week's under-the-sea theme. While others
continue to make their choices, the librarian shepherds the quick pickers
back to a set of beanbag chairs. "Now it is quiet time where you're
sitting," she announces. "It's reading time." The children
are mostly interested in the books' pictures, but a few pick out familiar
the activity level subsides. When the librarian counts heads, she finds
one boy is missing and tracks him down among the stacks, still hunting.
He explains, "I need a short book 'cause I got to go to bed real
the checkout counter the children present their books for scanning,
one at a time. When they're finished they go to a table and read their
selections while their classmates continue checking out. Twenty minutes
later it's time to line the children up again and march them back to
the corridor where their homeroom teacher will meet them. After the
handover Elizabeth Bischoff steps back and gazes at the departing kids,
each with two books clutched in their hands or under their arms. She
reassures a visitor who wonders how many of the books will come back.
"I get almost 100 percent returns," she says with satisfaction.