Here’s Why Chicago Magazine Named Chinatown’s Haines Elementary the City’s Top Neighborhood School.

If you thought the top neighborhood elementary school in Chicago was in Sauganash, Lake View or Beverly, think again. According to Chicago Magazine’s recently published annual school rankings, this year’s alpha dog is Haines Elementary in Chinatown, where 80% of students are low-income and more than a quarter are learning English.

Yes, most kids at Haines are Asian, from China. But the model minority myth is just that: a myth.

“We want to get beyond that,” said Principal Amy Catherine Moy Davis during my visit to Haines last spring. “We have high expectations. We communicate them.” At Haines, 16% of students are African American and about two percent are Latinx. Less than one percent of Haines’ students are White.

Getting Beyond Stereotypes

Haines staff work hard to see past stereotypes to meet their students where they are. “Even with the stereotype of Asian students being high in math, we still see gaps,” said reading intervention teacher Takila Savage. “With literacy, we’ve struggled with kids moving from ESL to general classes. We’ve had issues with vocabulary.”

Moy says the school is just beginning to tackle implicit bias and differential discipline. “Who was being sent to the office? Who was being isolated in the time out chair? It was our African American students. Now we’re moving from ‘sit down or I’ll call your mom’ to asking ‘why are you acting up?’ We’re shifting now.”

This is a painting by a Haines third-grader.
Third grader Lydia Adefeso’s work was framed and displayed in the Haines spring art fair.

At Haines, another shift–the move to Common Core standards–prompted a boost in reading. “For us in literacy it really helped,” said Savage. “We moved away from yes/no, closed-ended questions, and into open, evidence-based questions. We asked students to look at their evidence. It helped us understand how to create critical thinkers and allow students to struggle with a task, productive struggle.”

Moy added that teachers learned to take the intellectual work of the classroom off their own shoulders and put it on to the students. Today, teachers are asking students to read more challenging texts and think harder about them. As Moy put it, they are asking, “Now, let’s see if you can elaborate on your responses. Do you really understand?” It’s a far cry from when she taught kindergarten and first grade.

Often, the words “reading intervention” mean supports for struggling students. At Haines, reading intervention teacher Savage meets with students on both tails of the achievement curve, pulling out advanced readers and giving them the opportunity to accelerate. Moy noted that over multiple years, a handful of students have moved from remedial support to acceleration.

Math Moves Toward Discovery

The next frontier at Haines involves pushing their already strong math achievement to new heights. “Our math scores have always been high,” said Moy. “We talked about what can we do to move to the next level. We’re really big on precision and perseverance. We have kids who are compliant. We want kids who are more engaged.”

To improve math instruction, Haines is moving toward more project-based and personalized learning. The focus goes beyond math into engineering projects, too. In kindergarten, kids created their own containers to protect eggs from cracking and field-tested them by dropping them from the school’s third floor. At every grade level, said Savage, “We’re giving them the autonomy to try, take risks and find their own answers.”

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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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