Struggling to succeeding: An Illinois turnaround story

Chicago-area system on the verge of failure transforms itself to be an AP district of the year
By: | September 28, 2016

For decades, the J. Sterling Morton High School District in the Chicago suburbs was in bad shape. It had a gang problem. Some students underperformed on state tests and were no longer accepted to their first-choice colleges. And the district faced a deficit of millions of dollars.

In 2008, when Michael Kuzniewski became superintendent, he vowed to change all that, with help from a new school board.

Since then, the district, which is comprised mostly of low-income and minority students, has risen from the ashes in a sense, as it boasts a higher graduation rate, a higher testing rate and more students showing proficiency.

It was even named the College Board’s medium-size AP District of the Year this past summer, a nod to the educators’ work in getting more students enrolled in rigorous classes.

When you arrived in 2008, what were your main goals?

Everyone knows that what makes a good district has a lot to do with zip codes and finances. We needed a committed staff to find all of the different avenues to provide the same opportunities that students of other zip codes typically receive.

The school board had several goals. We started out with accountability for the adults. It’s not the kids’ fault that they are not learning. If the kids didn’t learn, you didn’t teach it right.

Yet, we had to cut teachers and classes to balance the budget. I had to cut $5.8 million out of the budget, and we also cut support services and administration by 17 percent. We also ensured parents are active in the strategic process.

And lastly, we needed to run an efficient business operation. Financial advisors told us that by 2015, our doors would have to be closed. Today, we are undergoing a renaissance; we were able to make lemonade out of lemons.

How did you make lemonade?

We changed our bell schedule to create more instructional time in each class required for graduation. To maintain the required 300-minute school day, the reduction of class periods from six to five required us to extend those remaining five class periods.

That allowed for more instructional time in the classes required for graduation. The reduction in class periods resulted in needing fewer teachers—but those teachers were teaching longer.

We worked together, with the union, to solve the problem. Teachers did not take a pay cut; they worked through collective bargaining given our budget hole.

While increasing the teachers’ compensation, collective bargaining was still less expensive to the district than the previous costs incurred by the six-period day.

We also engaged in a huge social media outreach for our community. Our #mortonpride hashtag has been embraced and retweeted via Twitter with positive school messages by kids. Our Facebook posts have been viewed in excess of 100,000 times.

We worked with out student groups to add a student school board member position to provide them a voice in determining what needed improvement. They wanted a bigger cafeteria, renovated tennis courts and state-of-the-art science labs. We have listened and put those into our capital plan.

We are nowhere near where we want to be. We still don’t have enough students in higher-learning classes. We have some underrepresented groups that are still not taking AP classes.

There is a reason why they aren’t taking them. Research says you need three adults to have a conversation with kids before they even think about making a change.

We met with our sports coaches and told them, “We all have to work on this.” Black males are highly underrepresented in AP and it’s not because they aren’t smart enough. It’s because they are not being engaged enough.

You also reconfigured grading. How does that work and what makes it so successful among students and staff?

In the old system, we had students with more prior knowledge than other kids, while others would make up for lost learning with extra credit projects, for example, that had nothing to do with standards or learning. You can’t just give kids a way out of learning.

So we changed that and went to clear, standards-based grading in 2014 that students would have to master.

And we went to a total point structure, on a scale from 0 to 5 (instead of 0 to 100), which is tied to key concepts being taught in a semester. It promotes proficiency. If I get a 3, that means I can do these things but I can look at the descriptors of 4 and see what I need to do to improve.

Teachers have always worked hard during and after school but we are giving them direction on how to work differently. Teachers in every subject work together to identify the key concepts that would constitute the course grade, and the assessments and assignments that would best address such concepts.

Teachers had PD to evaluate student performance according to proficiency scales rather than on a traditional “total points” system. In addition, assignments and assessments are weighted so that summative assessments carry the highest and most consistent proportional value in the course grade.

You were named medium-sized-district-of-the-year from AP. Tell us about that.

We have increased the number of students enrolled in exams since 2008.

In the past, AP was very elite. And I called it de facto segregation because students of color were left out. But we recruit kids now, rather than having them jump through hoops.

In the 2007-08 school year, only 200 AP exams were taken. In 2015-16, well over 4,200 exams were taken. And the percentage of students who received a passing college score of 3 or better also increased. We had more kids taking these classes—and it continues to rise.

The College Board made a video for us when we won the award. At the end of the video, a student says, “We have made being smart cool.” And that was something that was not happening when I started.

Angela Pascopella is managing editor.