Turnaround School Posts Sharp Drop in Enrollment | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Turnaround School Posts Sharp Drop in Enrollment

Harper High School on the city's south side is getting the most extreme fix Chicago has for schools: a “turnaround.” Eighty percent of the staff is new. And the district has spent millions of extra dollars to improve Harper and raise academic performance. But if scores go up, it might be due to something else as well: 30 percent of Harper students are gone.

Ambi: door opens, hallway sounds, passing music

When Principal Kenyatta Stansberry-Butler steps into the halls of Harper High, she's supposed to be looking at the same students she saw last year. The whole test of turnaround schools is whether a massive injection of resources and a hand-picked staff can help neighborhood schools like Harper succeed with the same tough kids. There's new paint here. New lighting. There are more afterschool programs, more teachers. Stansberry says it's working.

STANSBERRY-BUTLER: The kids are changing. Their mindsets and what they think and what they want is changing. But something else is changing too—the number of kids enrolled here.

When Stansberry arrived at Harper a year ago, the official count was 1,258—about what it had been for the previous decade. Last week, that number was down to 870. That's nearly 400 fewer kids.

BOY: The students that was a problem they got rid of them.
MOTHER: Over at Harper, when you don't do right there, they got this thing where they put you to a different school
BOYS: Oooohhhh, my goodness. We know a nice amount of kids who got kicked out.

Actually, Stansberry didn't kick kids out…. She steered a handful to alternative schools. And in a practice used by principals, Stansberry dialed up colleagues at other low-performing schools—and asked them to take her toughest gangbangers and troublemakers.

STANSBERRY-BUTLER: If you take kids out of their element where they're comfortable and you place them in another school, they are successful. She guesses she sent 50 or 60 Harper kids away last year alone. But there was a ripple effect with other troublemakers.

STANSBERRY-BUTLER: They don't want to come back to the school. Their friends are not there anymore. So the other percent of it…the kids, they just don't come.

Now, it's important to note...like a lot of other things that were broken at this dysfunctional school, Stansberry thinks that when she took over Harper, the enrollment count was just plain wrong.

STANSBERRY-BUTLER: I don't think that was an accurate number. I think there were less students in the building.

But as the principal of a turnaround, Stansberry is under pressure to show results: Improved test scores. Better attendance and graduation rates. It's a real dilemma she's facing: if she wants to turn Harper around, she has to reform or get rid of kids who create chaos. It might be the only way she can help those who actually want to learn.

Junior Diamond Moss is one of those kids. He told me this is the first year he feels like he's actually attending a school. He's no longer worrying about fights…the kind that used to involve hundreds of kids.

And Stansberry insists Harper isn't the only winner when students are moved.

STANSBERRY-BUTLER: I have kids that come back every day and say Ms. Butler I thank you so much for putting me in Hyde Park, I thank you so much for sending me to Robeson. I'm doing so good.

One of the kids she mentions is Brandon Davis.

BRANDON: Name is Brandon Davis, attend Robeson High School

Robeson is just down the street from Harper. Last week when I went there to look for Brandon, school officials didn't know he was in the in-school suspension room. When I tracked him down the next day, he was strolling into school an hour and a half late. He was with another former Harper student—there are LOTS of them here.

LUTTON: Where do you think you're doing better? Here or at Harper? BRANDON :Here. I'm doing better here. 'Cause I don't know too many people here.

But it would be hard to do worse. At Harper Brandon got straight Fs. This marking period he only had two.

Principals aren't required to keep track of the students they send away, and no one monitors how well kids do after they transfer—or how they affect their new schools. But the numbers are clear: Harper's enrollment has dropped and--wherever the kids came from--Robeson got 150 more students than they'd planned on this year. That left students without permanent teachers weeks into the school year.

Maybe you'd think that Robeson principal Gerald Morrow would have a problem with the transfer policy. He doesn't.

MORROW: A lot of principals do it. It's really easy we can pick up the phone and call your colleague and ask for some help. We put it under the umbrella that a change of scenery is needed.

In the end, Robeson and Harper will be judged against one another. Harper principal Stansberry says it's the extra resources and teachers—and the change in climate-- that are already boosting her school.

But the hundreds of students who are no longer at Harper might have something to do with it too.

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