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A Look Inside a Successful Charter School Culture

CHICAGO — Seconds after principal Pablo Sierra knocked on the door of the classroom, a freshman named Anna stepped into the hall, smiled shyly and extended a hand to the principal.

“We’re learning how to improve our English composition,” she offered without prompting. “We’re working on our comma rules. Do you have any questions?”

The unannounced visitors did, and after ably fielding each, Anna ushered them into a sunny, technology-packed room on the second floor of a remodeled parochial school. Inside, students were deciding how many commas to insert into a series of sentences – and why.

At Pritzker College Prep , a charter high school located in a blue-collar neighborhood in northwestern Chicago, every class has a designated greeter.

The duty rotates from one student to another. Whoever has the job is expected to be able to explain at any moment what the class is working on and where in the lesson plan they are.

Designating a greeter is just one of many ways that Pritzker reinforces its main message to students: They will engage, excel and go on to graduate from college. No excuses, no exceptions.

Most charters that have had remarkable success closing the racial achievement gap share that same aggressive culture of high expectations.

At Pritzker, the culture has paid off.

Fully 95 percent of the African-American and Latino students are poor. Very few of them have parents who went to college, yet every member of last year’s senior class was accepted at one or more four-year colleges; an eye-popping 90 percent matriculated.

Students are chosen by lottery, and there are at least two applicants for every seat. Demand is so high that Sierra has found a way to wedge 700 students into a building meant to accommodate 500.

“What makes this kind of teaching possible is high behavioral standards,” said Sierra. “The onus of the learning is on the child. The teacher’s job is to deliver rigorous, effective instruction. But the child’s job is to learn and to demonstrate what they have learned.”

Academics are rigorous, teachers have special training and kids are in school more hours than their peers in traditional pubic schools. But Sierra attributes 80 percent of the school’s success to its distinctive, disciplined culture. Every detail, from the level of noise allowed in the hall between classes to the “7 Habits of Successful Teens” posters in each classroom, is the result of deliberate thought.

“It runs so smoothly because everyone has to follow the same rules,” said senior Michelle Ramos, who has applied to 21 colleges and hopes to study aerospace engineering. “You know no one is going to be a distraction or get out of line.”

Spreading the culture

One of the original impetuses for the charter movement was to encourage educational innovation.

Many charter schools have failed to outperform traditional public schools, however, particularly when networks of the schools start expanding.

Highly regarded charter networks – such as Los Angeles’ 19-school Green Dot group – have had to close underperforming schools and sometimes struggle just to graduate as many as a fifth of their students.

Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools have won praise for their strict behavioral expectations, quiet hallways and high student test scores. But when the KIPP network expanded to 99 schools, test scores in some dipped, and some scrambled to replace leaders who were unable to establish and maintain the KIPP culture.

So far, the Chicago-based Noble Network, which runs Pritzker College Prep, has avoided such problems. It has 10 schools, all of which have posted the same impressive results as Pritzker. Every senior graduates, and each has been accepted to at least one four-year college or university. All 10 schools share the same culture.

Now the charter network is planning to expand further, adding three schools outside of Chicago, two in Minneapolis and one in New Orleans.

The first two years a student spends at Pritzker aren’t entirely unlike boot camp, Sierra explained.

“We’re so strict, most of our teachers don’t chew gum anymore,” Sierra said, grinning.

On the first day of school, students are given a crash course in expectations, including an overview of a very strict demerit policy. Each demerit brings a $5 fine; 12 add up to a ticket to summer school.

There are uniforms – which don’t come off when students leave the building after the last bell. And there are rules about posture, homework and moving quietly from class to class.

Letters go out to students who are caught plagiarizing. Not only are repeat-offenders suspended – they have to stand in front of their entire class and explain themselves.

In the upper left-hand corner of the whiteboard in every classroom, teachers write the same information about the class, behavioral expectations and the day’s lesson. They also post instructions for exercises students should start on while they’re waiting for the class to get started, as well as a question or mini-quiz to be answered on the way out.

Much like picking a greeter and cold-calling students instead of waiting for them to raise a hand, these seemingly small details do two things, Sierra explained. They keep kids engaged and they set the tone. Eventually, getting good grades and starting to talk about college becomes cool, but during those first couple of years the structure provides external motivation to acculturate.

“The first day of school, Mr. Sierra stood above us and asked, ‘What’s your goal?’” recalled senior Patrick Murphy. “We stared at him with blank faces. And he said, ‘Your goal is to graduate from college.’ And we repeated it over and over. It didn’t have meaning then, but now it does.”

To drive home that message, the walls in Pritzker’s common spaces are lined with college pennants. Special displays show pennants from schools attended by alumni. There are a lot from historically black colleges and universities that are very selective.

Right now, Sierra is trying to persuade the parents of a female student who was admitted early to Columbia University, with a full scholarship, to let her go. Latino families often want girls to stay close to home.

Murphy said he is more likely to end up at an Illinois program, but he’s anxious to see his pennant up on the wall all the same. Before he started at Pritzker, his main concerns were football and his social life. He still plays football, but he also maintains a GPA of 3.5.

“I stepped up my game, big time,” he said.

Some students do choose to transfer out, but Sierra and his staff work hard to help the ones who choose to stay. In five years, he has expelled just three kids.

Student progress is closely tracked so that gaps in learning can be plugged before kids fall behind. To that end, every student takes a formative assessment every two weeks. Report cards go home afterward and must come back signed by a parent. Summer school and night school may be required for kids who need more help.

Even as freshmen, Pritzker students know what their pre-ACT score is and where it needs to be to get into college. “They need to know where they’re going to end up,” Sierra explained.

Faculty members try to arrange for as many students as possible to spend summers at workshops or academic programs away from home. The extra learning is nice, but because virtually all of these kids have parents who didn’t even attempt college, the real benefit is students literally begin to see themselves fitting in on campuses.

Students begin researching colleges and preparing essays and other application materials as juniors. By the fall of their senior year, they are expected to spend time with guidance counselors every day to stay ahead of potential stumbling blocks like filling out financial-aid forms.

At the classroom door, next to his or her name, every teacher’s alma mater is listed. Most are veterans of Teach For America, The New Teacher Project or another alternative teacher-training program. Their compensation is based in part on student achievement.

Sierra would like more teachers of color, and in particular male ones, but his current faculty is disproportionately young white women.

When sophomore Dennis Sykes enrolled in Pritzker, friends from his old school pitied him. “At first when you come here, you say, ‘I can’t believe they’re making me do this,’” he said. “But now I kind of feel sorry for them.”

When one of his buddies recently bragged about his pre-ACT score, Sykes bit his tongue.

“I’m not dogging his 18, but he’s being limited,” he said. “You need a 21, minimum, to be ready for college. My goal is 25. I’m almost there with a 23 to 24.”

Sykes would like to go to a college in Boston, New York or Hawaii – “Anywhere but Chicago.” 

“These four years may seem like they’re going to be long, but they go by so fast,” said Sykes.

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