Thursday, March 22, 2012

High School: The New Frontier

Everyone of late seems to be focusing on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): the first standardized assessment of student achievement across nations. Developed by the OECD, the PISA was introduced in 2003 and is administered every three years. In fact, U.S. high school freshmen and sophomores may be taking it right now. 

In our current educational culture, concern about students’ academic achievement has reached a fever pitch. But immediately on the heels of any mention of American students’ academic performance comes the fear that they are not competitive with (read: better than) those students in other countries. We’ve been concerned specifically about our students’ academic competitiveness with Japanese students since I was in high school. And China has been on our radar for awhile as well. But Finland? I think even Scandinavians are similarly astounded. 

I recently heard that the PISA is administered willy-nilly to American students, whereas other countries test only their “college ready” students. I’m not quite sure how a 15-year-old can be considered wholly ready for college, given that many students begin college at 17-19… But in any case, the OECD denies such sifting in its testing methodology.  

To suggest otherwise seems like a massive case of sour grapes, in my opinion. The reality—that American students are not performing as well as we’d expect—has hit a national nerve. But America’s PISA scores cannot be blamed on test methodology or unit of analysis. Certainly, the scores of the elites—like students at Northside Prep, Jones, Payton, Young, etc.—are going to pull up the scores of the masses to produce a PISA score that hovers in the middle of the pack. Even in Chicago, the elites don’t reach 100 percent exceeding rates, and graduation rates are in fact below 90 percent at three selective enrollment high schools (Brooks, King, Lindblom), according to the latest data available on 

More pressing for the average Chicago parent/child is that admission into the SE high schools is incredibly fierce, with 14,000+ students vying for just 2,000 seats each year. And the number of applicants seems to go up every year. Much has been made about the inadequacies of the current system—but the fact remains that SE high schools are for the elite among the elite. I heard one educator call the practice, “skimming off the cream.” 

To be honest, I am not sure that my kids will be among the elite of the elite. I’m not sure I’d want them to be. They’re smart, they’re curious, and they enjoy the version of elementary learning that they receive at Disney II. But so do thousands of their peers at other good schools across the system. It’s this likely reality that has led me to consider other avenues for my children’s secondary education. And not the kind of avenue that requires a moving truck. Ideally, my kids can attend their local Chicago public high school and build up the knowledge that will help them do well in college and in life.

Our local public high school is Carl Schurz. I believe—and more importantly, Dan Kramer, its principal—believes that it’s an ideal candidate for a community-led or community-supported rebirth. In fact, he launched this effort yesterday through an Arts Showcase, inviting neighbors, community leaders like myself in my role as Disney II PTA president, and local government officials to hear and see Schurz’s performing arts students. Admittedly, I am easily impressed. But I was impressed with the students’ drama scenes, which made me laughed and made me want to cry. I was impressed with the band playing Sousa marches in the library. And I was impressed by the teachers’ interest in and dedication to seeing their students succeed. A 9th grade piano class? The second longest continuously running orchestra in Illinois? Lit classes that cover grammar and liberal thinking? Except for the piano, it sounds a lot like my suburban high school.

Some in my party argued that it was a masterful display of PR that didn’t address major issues* associated with the school. But it left me with the impression that Schurz could be a viable option for my children and their neighborhood peers. I mean, The Boy is in third grade; by my math, that means that I have about 4-5 years to see Schurz thrive. I think JacquelineEdelberg managed to change Nettelhorst’s image among parents in their well-heeled Lakeview neighborhood within the same span of time.

* The most crucial issue at Schurz is about gangs. Aside from the lawsuit against the former principal of Schurz, Mary Ann Folino, I couldn’t find much information online about the problem, but that’s something Dan Kramer and his team are going to have to address.


handmaiden of the Lord said...

I think that Schurz could be turned around w/in 4-5 yrs like Nettlehorst. What's gr8 abt Nettlehorst is the parents did it~they took back their neighborhood school and created a well rounded day w/enriched programs.

I think Schurz has a lot to offer~if parents were considering having this as a viable option in a few years, then some1 should run and be on the LSC or they may lose it. Not one person (I believe) has filed to run for the LSC at Schurz. In a school like Schurz, this is where you could start to create w/the principal & PTA a wonderfully valuable school. Perhaps you and a couple of your girlfriends should run for their LSC (as community) and change that school into the school you want for your children. The deadline to file is Friday.

Mayfair Dad said...

The socioeconomics of the Schurz student population would not suggest it is a likely candidate for Nettlehorsting. 17-year-old homicidal gangbangers are not as maleable as third graders. As Nettlehort's student population was gentrifying, Schurz's student profile has steadily declined.

Mayfair Dad said...

Speaking of test scores, average ACT scores (source: Illinois State Board of Education)

Northside: 29.2
Payton: 28.3
Lane Tech: 23.3
State of Illinois: 20.6
City of Chicago: 17.7
Schurz: 15.9

Minimum to be considered for University of Illinois at Champaign: 25

It will take more than a handful of energetic Alpha Moms on the LSC to fix Schurz.

handmaiden of the Lord said...

True Schurz' profile has declined bc most are sending their kids to private schools, but with the economical climate, people are looking to their neighborhood high schools. I've seen a neighborhood hs where their aldmerman got involved and energetic moms changed that high school around.

Also, since I'm familiar w/the area in which this school is, I've heard that their ACT score went up (yes, I know it's still low)~but what an achievement...that's new people in the last couple of years that have started using the school for economical reasons.

I fully understand what you mean about it not being 3rd graders. But if a new vision is in effect w/pride in the school, kids respond.

This school has the potential. I would def get the alderman involved, run for LSC and create the school for your children. This can be turned around. Just my 2 pennies!

Caroline Pollock Bilicki said...

Mayfair Dad, yikes! those are some scary-low ACT scores at Schurz. You are closer to and have more experience with H.S. admissions and what makes a good H.S. than I do. But if my kids don't make it into a SEHS, which is entirely possible, I'd really like to see a viable alternate to the parochial school v. suburban move dilemma I'd then be facing.

I'm not quite ready to write off Carl Schurz yet. The primary initiative that Dan Kramer spoke of/announced at the arts showcase on Wednesday was a proposal to make Carl Schurz a magnet for the fine and performing arts. As I understand it, CPS came to Schurz with the idea and as we both know, that's probably a stronger indicator of future success than if a group of parents lobbied CPS for another SEHS on the NWside. I believe that an application process will raise the bar a bit, helping to keep the "17-year-old homicidal gangbangers" further away than just across the street.

Handmaiden -- I know one parent who is running for a community LSC seat at Schurz this year. I'm running at my children's school this election cycle, but running at Schurz is within my immediate-term plan.

handmaiden of the Lord said...

Some ppl are talking about Schurz becoming an IB HS

Schurz said...

Schurz Academic Decathlon Team placed 4th in state:

Christine said...

You probably know this already, but I was among a group of community members in Edgewater who recently attended a meeting with the Senn principal about this very same issue.

Senn (and I assume Schurz) is never going to be Northside. But maybe that's OK. Maye it could be more like Von Steuben? The Von Scholars program students get very good ACT scores even if the rest of the school doesn't do that well.

Christine said...

Just re-read my comment. Didn't mean to imply that you knew I was at meeting (I'm a stranger after all!) but that you probably knew there WAS a meeting at Senn initiated by the community.

I'm not sure community involvement at Senn can overcome the gang problems there, or at Shurz or Mather or Amundsen etc. etc.

But I will say that the one thing Principal Lofton asked for from us community members was time and involvement. From being audience members at performances to conducting mock interviews for the IB kids to just being physically present at the beginning and end of the day. She lost some security members due to budget constraints and could use eyes on doors.

I would love to see Senn become a high school I could send my girls and feel good about.