The chapters in The Make-or-Break Year that focus on Tilden High School are far and away the most compelling parts of the book, where we get close to a handful of young teens and the adults who support them. And they make a compelling case that the next frontier for Chicago Public Schools in improving high school outcomes is creating resource equity for schools like Tilden.
While, as always, it’s the kids who drive the story, the adult character who stands out is Tilden’s principal, Maurice Swinney, who strives to keep his freshmen on track while facing massive budget cuts and coping with the death of his own father.
“All the things that my Tilden kids do now, I’ve done,” Swinney says, including using the b-word on his ninth-grade math teacher. His empathy for his students, plus their dwindling numbers, creates an opportunity to build deeply nurturing relationships.
But Swinney’s approach to keeping kids on track demands a lot from adults. Some of the tactics are highly controversial, including retroactive grade changes for a student who drastically improved his grades in second semester.
Beyond Chicago, attempts to implement another controversial policy–eliminating zeros for missed assignments–sank an effort to replicate our city’s success with Freshman OnTrack. When the Dallas Independent School District tried to follow Chicago’s lead by focusing on its freshman on-track rate and changing grading policies, a popular backlash against “no-zero” grading policies likely entrenched teachers in an ineffective “don’t coddle them!” mindset. Dallas never managed to significantly reduce freshman course failures and its on-track rates actually declined.
As a former teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of the raw nerves that are struck when teachers are asked to consider changing their grading systems. I have heard and experienced pressure to change students’ grades. It’s very difficult to balance maintaining fair and consistent expectations of students with the reality that a course failure is not likely to serve as a wake-up call to improve performance. It is far more likely to be a nudge in the wrong direction–away from graduation. But we are still in the early stages of creating new grading systems, like competency-based learning, that might give kids more opportunities to catch up and demonstrate mastery of academic content and skills.
Sometimes Enough Support Is More Than We Want to Give
Other issues simply leave adults drained. The dean of discipline and the external partner who runs Tilden’s Peace Room expend precious time and energy debating what constitutes “coddling” an angry teen versus teaching him to manage his emotions on his own. Eventually, after much angst, the school’s freshman-on-track coordinator, English teacher Sharon Holmes, decides the work is taking too much out of her, and leaves.
Since the publication of this book, Swinney has been promoted to head the district’s new equity office. A crucial part of his mission will be working on policies and resources to support schools like Tilden, where a massive infusion of federal grant money helped boost the school’s freshmen on-track rate to a high of 84 percent, only to see it drop 20 percentage points once the grant ended.
Schools like Tilden, which don’t have wealthy parent bases to raise money, or selective enrollment to draw extra dollars from the district, are the schools with the highest concentrations of very needy kids. Keeping those kids on track is a challenge no matter what else is going on. But it becomes doubly difficult when enrollment is dropping and a short-term grant that funded partners like City Year and Becoming A Man runs out.
Only time will tell if Swinney and other district leaders can make smart, strategic and sustainable investments that promote equity and solve the next round of challenges Chicago faces in helping its students succeed in school and in life.
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