District’s ‘Turnaround’ Operator Highlighted as Model for Success

In Jasmine Floyd’s eighth grade literacy class at Piccolo Elementary, students are learning about Shakespeare.

The Humboldt Park neighborhood school is far different from the one here six years ago. Eighth grade student body president Terrian Thomas remembers it well.

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“We’d have students out of class every day, getting in trouble. Teachers didn’t use to help students like that. But now, the school is organized, most students don’t get in trouble,” he said.

Today, Thomas has supportive teachers—including Floyd—who help with everything from applying for high schools to preparing his campaign speech for student government.

“I appreciate her for that, and helping me win, because most teachers wouldn’t do that for students,” he said, smiling. “I was first one to do it, and I actually feel like I’m the second black president.”

Terrian ThomasTerrian Thomas

Piccolo principal Michael Abello says teachers like Floyd are critical to the school’s success—and transforming it from one of the district’s weakest schools to one of its strongest.

“Our secret sauce is our team, it’s our talent,” Abello said. “Part of my own personal leadership philosophy, which aligns really closely with AUSL’s philosophy, is that it’s about having not having only the right people in place—and by right people I mean talented people who are the right fit. It’s a very challenging environment. Our teachers wear many hats: they are coming to school not only to teach, but they’re also prepared to tackle some of those other challenges that you might not anticipate.”

Chicago Public Schools designated Piccolo as a “turnaround” school six years ago—operator AUSL, short for Academy for Urban School Leadership, is contracted to make improvements.

“When I first started here, 9 percent of our student were enrolling at Level 1 high schools; last year, 83 percent of our graduates enrolled at Level 1 high schools, with 20 percent getting enrolled in selective enrollment high schools,” Abello said.

AUSL started turning around schools for CPS 12 years ago, and now it operates 31 elementary and high schools district-wide. The vast majority of them are now considered successful schools by the district.

AUSL Executive Director Donald Feinstein says the intensive work needed to reverse a failing school is difficult for districts to do on their own.

“They’re big bureaucracy, they need to be all things to all people, all schools,” Feinstein said. “Doing this kind of work, you need to be very nuanced and very specialized, and have a real laser focus.”

A hallmark of AUSL is its teacher residency program.

“Teachers spend a year training under a master teacher in an AUSL school,” said Abello, “which provides them with the base of content knowledge, with how to build a really strong climate and culture in their classroom, provides a common vocabulary, common knowledge around how we approach this work.”

Michael AbelloMichael Abello

A recent independent study by a Boston-based nonprofit highlights AUSL as one of few “turnaround” efforts to be actually be successful.

“The majority of school turnaround efforts are ineffective,” said researcher Nithin Iyengar. “Ninety-five percent, roughly, of school turnaround efforts produce minimal if any improvement in outcomes, but what’s really exciting about the work that AUSL is doing, is AUSL is in really that top 5 percent.”

Iyengar points to five specific approaches that make AUSL effective: Setting ambitious goals, giving schools autonomy, improving teaching and learning, following students from kindergarten through 12th grade and being sustainable over time.

“Other places, you don’t have the level of teacher talent that, for example, AUSL has been able to develop and sustain over time; you don’t have the leadership strength that AUSL has,” Iyengar said. “And also one core thing is, AUSL has a lot of flexibilities or autonomies in terms of how they hire teachers, what curriculum they use, how they do their professional development, what assessments they use. And so a lot of those flexibilities allow AUSL to unlock improvement.”

While AUSL enjoys autonomy, its teachers are members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

But CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey still has some criticisms—despite great respect, he says, for the work those members are doing.

“I think when they come in and fire all the teachers, I think that’s a problem,” Sharkey said. “I think the fact that they don’t have working local school councils, that’s a problem. To the extent that AUSL does a good job training teachers, so many AUSL schools have teachers in training in the classrooms, I think that’s something that all schools should do. It requires some extra resources, but if it works there, it could work everywhere.”

Sharkey argues that all schools should get the same resource investment that AUSL schools receive.

In addition to the per-student funding all district schools receive, AUSL fundraises almost $20 million a year to pay for additional resources.

“That is the million-dollar question,” said Iyengar. “What do you do, and how do you scale promising approaches like AUSL to other places, and what does that look like? Certainly, external philanthropy has a role to play.”

While there are funds to invest more resources in other low-performing schools, the AUSL model proves to be successful for schools like Piccolo. 

Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter @BrandisFriedman

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