UChicago’s leaders believe that five factors must be present for a school to successfully serve students in poverty. Leaders must be effective and teachers must work collaboratively. The school must have a climate of high expectations and strong instruction. Families must be engaged.
If a school does well in three of those five areas, research has shown it will be 10 times more likely to improve student performance than its neighbors, said UChicago CEO Shayne Evans.
“Young people are smart,” said Evans. “They know if you don’t grade their homework. They know if you only get through the first five paragraphs of their essay.”
Evans believes that a strong leader is the most effective of the five values. High expectations on the part of the school’s top educators trickle down into the other four areas.
What those values look like in practice is crystal clear to Bell, who has worked at NKO for four years and is in college studying for a teaching credential. She and the other kindergarten educators plan and review instruction at the beginning and the end of each day, and they join the rest of the program’s faculty for weekly professional development.
What Bell was in fact doing in the kindergarten classroom was observing to see how well pupils in one of the groups were engaging in “phonemic segmentation”—the practice of breaking words down and sounding out the parts.
On Wednesdays, NKO dismisses students at 1:00 p.m. so teachers can work together from 2:00 to 4:00. This particular lesson—decoding words—was on the agenda for that afternoon’s study time for the adults.
The school uses a literacy tool developed by UEI to help teachers both determine where each student is and how to plug gaps in understanding. Three times a year, students take a formative assessment developed by university researchers called the STEP, short for the Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress.
The researchers determined that there are 12 separate skills, or steps, a student must acquire to read fluently by third grade, the point at which literacy becomes crucial for academic success in any area. The quizzes show how many of the steps a student has mastered, but more crucially gives the teacher specific strategies for supporting the student.
It sounds simple, acknowledged Tim Knowles, the chair of UEI. But even schools that encourage teachers to use formative assessments often fail to help them figure out what to do once a gap has been revealed.
Even though she is a classroom assistant, Bell is able to analyze her kindergarteners’ STEP data and to design lessons that are as personalized as possible. If a student is off-task or resisting redirection, she asks for suggested alternatives to engage them.
“We try to redirect privately and praise publicly,” she said.
“We talk a lot here about not blaming the child,” Evans added. “We talk about adults being the owner of their classroom. If someone is not engaged, what are the adults needing to do?”