High poverty, high scores

West Side school beats some big odds

October 29, 2010

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Frazier International Magnet School has smaller classes than typical CPS schools--about 25 students per class.
Frazier principal Colette Unger-Teasley grew up and went to school in North Lawndale.
Frazier International has a global focus, but on Chicago's West Side, it hasn't yet attracted a diverse student body.

Illinois is releasing test scores for every school in the state today.

Sift through the numbers and you'll find that 491 Illinois schools are at least 90 percent poor and 90 percent minority. But only one of those schools has also gotten 90 percent of its students to meet standards on state tests.

WBEZ reports from the state’s only “90/90/90” school.

It’s 9 AM on Chicago’s West Side, and in the cafeteria at Frazier International Magnet School, 200 African-American kids—girls in plaid skirts, boys in sweater vests— recite a creed.
 
CREED: I will seek to do my best, when completing my classwork and homework assignments. I will also read additional books in an effort to become a lifelong learner….
 
Test scores released today show Illinois schools continue to struggle when it comes to educating poor and minority students. But at this school, nearly 92 percent of kids meet standards—and this is no elite magnet school. Frazier opened in 2007, and most kids come from the tough neighborhoods right around here.
 
According to urban education expert Barbara Radner, Frazier didn’t make gains by drilling kids with popular practice exams.
 
RADNER: You see waves of ‘Everyone do this.’ And Frazier’s school principal said, ‘Maybe not.’ We’re going to be asking kids big questions, we’re going to insist that they write. And look what happened.
  
Ambi: sixth-grade classroom

The sixth grade classroom at Frazier International is a visual smorgasbord. Handwritten posters ring the room—reminding kids what personification is, and how to find the area of a triangle. Teacher Jill Robison says most kids like to give one-word answers, but not Frazier students.

 
ROBISON: These kids are developing questions that require a conversation, and require them to think deeply about a certain concept in the story. And when you get kids to start thinking critically, you’re going to see test scores rise.
 
ROBISON (teaching): OK. Who would like to share one of their questions that they are particularly proud of? I’ll go to you first, Rayveon.
 
Rayveon’s question is based on a folk tale students have read. But it goes far beyond the story’s basic facts.
 
RAYVEON: Explain a time when a person tried to get you to tell a lie, but you couldn’t.
 
ROBISON: Oooo. Explain a time where someone tried to get you to lie, but you couldn’t. How many of you have been in that situation?
 
Students will discuss their answers to that question, and others they think up after reading:
 
GIRL: How could someone fall so deeply in love they’re convinced to do anything?
 
Ask principal Colette Unger-Teasley how scores here are so high, and she’ll say it’s “authentic hard work.” But Frazier has also gotten around what many would say are obstacles to improving schools. Take the length of the school day.
 
UNGER-TEASLEY: I expect teachers to teach in the morning program, after-school program, Saturday school.
 
Even winter break. Struggling students show up early and they also stay late for extra help. Unger-Teasley tells teachers what they’re in for before they apply for a job here. She pays them for their extra time out of the school’s discretionary funds.  
 
And there’s more: When students in one class weren’t making progress in math last year, she assigned the school counselor and another staffer to teach that subject.
 
UNGER-TEASLEY: It’s not about the teacher feeling bad because I had to come in. It’s about the children. So instead of me saying, ‘Oh, well, you know, we’ve gotta get someone else to do math next year. What are we going to do now? It’s about getting the students prepared.
 
Unger-Teasley grew up in this neighborhood. She can often be found tutoring right alongside her teachers. She writes a personal comment on every child’s report card.
 
Education researcher Douglas Reeves coined the term “90/90/90,” and has studied the high poverty, high achieving schools. He's found some commonalties—a singular focus on academic achievement for instance, and a lot of writing.
 
REEVES: This is not just a formula for high poverty schools. This is just plain good education.
 
But Reeves says other states are ahead of Illinois in creating high scoring, high poverty schools. Figuring out how to replicate Frazier’s success will be increasingly important. Numbers out today show 45 percent of Illinois public schoolchildren are low-income. Forty-seven percent are minority. Those numbers are expected to grow.