Innovations in Education
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Alain Locke Charter Academy
School Profile: Selected Variables a
|Year First Chartered||1999|
|Student Ethnicity b||94% African-American, 5% White, 1% Hispanic|
|Free or Reduced-price Lunch b||89%|
|Annual Cost per Student||$7.000|
a Unless otherwise indicated, these data are reported by the school and are for the
school year 2006–07.
b These data are drawn from Alain Locke Charter Academy school report card for 2005–06 posted on the Illinois State Board of Education Web site.
Mission and Founding
On Chicago’s West Side, families in neighborhoods including East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin now have access to a school where academic rigor and what staff refer to as "absolute excellence" are expected. Acting on the belief that all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, can succeed if given quality educational opportunities, Patrick Ryan, Jr., founder of Inner-City Teaching Corp (ICTC), opened Alain Locke Charter Academy in 1999. Ryan maintains, "Equality is a hollow promise without equal access to quality education. Despite all the rhetoric, we are on the verge of leaving another generation of urban students behind."
Named in honor of the first African-American Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke is guided by the principle of absolute excellence and dedicated to producing globally competitive students. Students in this predominantly African-American community have historically been underserved by inadequate traditional public schools. Even after Alain Locke opened, students did not immediately show academic progress.
While the school had the bedrock of a spacious and well-maintained facility, missing in its early years were the necessary focus, discipline, and leadership to establish a stable and learning-focused environment. The need for change became evident in 2002, when Alain Locke’s pioneer class reached third grade and first took Illinois’ standardized tests. The percentage of students reaching proficient levels was in the single digits. Soon thereafter, the school’s board hired a new principal. Under the leadership of Lennie Jones, the school blossomed. By 2005, over three-quarters of Alain Locke students were meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), scoring 74 percent proficient or above in reading and 84 percent proficient or above in mathematics.
Alain Locke’s transformation from a struggling school into a success story is testament to ICTC’s dedication and mission "to transform education in underserved communities and to empower children in urban schools." All students, parents, and staff sign a contract that focuses on excellence as an expectation for all members of the school community. According to Claire Hartfield, the ICTC chief of staff, this expectation is a statement "that our students will not only be among the best in our community, but they will be excellent absolutely, across the board, and able to compete citywide, statewide, nationally."
School Operations and Educational Program
Alain Locke opened in 1999 with prekindergarten through first-grade classes and has expanded one grade level per year, with the original cohort completing eighth grade in 2007. In 2006–07, the school served 505 students. Each grade level has two classes of 25 students. Eighty-nine percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and admission to the school is based on a lottery. Alain Locke operates with an extended school day, which starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Initially, the school also adopted an extended-year calendar in which the school operated from September through July. In 2005, the school switched to a year-round schedule, with four 10-week quarters separated by three-week intersession breaks. That change was made, in part, to reduce teacher burnout associated with the school’s longer teaching days and, in part, to minimize the learning loss that typically occurs over a long summer break.
When principal Jones arrived at Alain Locke in 2001, her first challenge was to create an environment in which academic excellence was taken seriously. She determined that more structure was needed if the school was to develop a culture in which, as Jones puts it, "It’s cool to be an academic achiever." Today, school staff encourage students to carry their independent reading books with them while they walk around the school, which enables Jones to chat with students about their chosen texts. The safe and welcoming school climate allows students to focus on academics and helps them develop a strong work ethic. As evidenced by the school’s 93 percent attendance rate, students look forward to coming to school.
Character education, based on the seven principles of Nguzo Saba from the Kwanza tradition, is embedded in the curriculum. Ninety-nine percent of the student body is African-American, and choosing culturally relevant practices is part of Alain Locke’s success. Every week there is an all-school harambee (i.e., a Swahili term for "pulling together all at once") meeting, at which students, dressed in their uniform of white shirts and navy pants, line up in a double circle to sing and celebrate achievements. Meetings begin with student renditions of the "Pledge of Allegiance," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing," and they conclude with the traditional harambee call to unity.
To help them see the connection between behavior and the ability to do their best work, students receive citizenship grades along with academic grades. To maintain an orderly learning environment, every classroom adheres to the school’s clear and consistent discipline system of warnings, removal of privileges and, then, communication with parents.
Since 2002, Alain Locke has successfully established a standards-based curriculum in five core areas: reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science. The school’s extended day allows regular instruction in art, music, Spanish, PE, and technology. In addition, Friday afternoon enrichment clubs give students the opportunity to partake in activities ranging from additional language classes (including Swahili and Japanese) and performing arts to sports and games (such as word play and chess).
Starting in first grade, students use the computer-based Accelerated Reader program. Students who perform well on Accelerated Reader tests receive a congratulatory reading certificate. Jones, whose office is lined with picture books, maintains an open-door policy that allows students to interrupt her during any meeting in order to get a reading certificate signed. The assistant principal, Gloria Woodson, runs a club called Reading Angels, in which fourth- to eighth-graders read to younger students and run the school’s bookstore. Literacy instruction is not limited to formal instruction in core classes. For example, in an art class during which students work with clay, the teacher infuses the lesson with topically appropriate vocabulary words, such as slab, score, and slip.
Alain Locke’s mathematics goal is for all eighth-graders to graduate proficient in algebra 1, a high school gatekeeper course. In K–6 classrooms, teachers supplement the Everyday Math curriculum and basic skills review with Accelerated Math computer lessons. In seventh grade, students take pre-algebra, moving on to algebra in eighth grade.
Experience-based learning is another element of Alain Locke’s curriculum. The school encourages teachers to take their students off campus to have meaningful learning experiences, and it provides transportation and other funds to do so. Hartfield describes a trip to the Argonne Laboratory as "inspiring. … At least one of the kids came out of it saying ‘I know what I want to do now. I want to be a scientist.’ " Says Jones, "We feel that if children have rich exposure at an early age and continue to have that exposure, they’re going to make the connections they need to perform well on things like standard[ized] tests, as well as in their classes."
Explicit teacher training on standards-based lesson planning for heterogeneous classes and the availability of self-paced computer programs for students eliminate the need for Alain Locke to operate a separate gifted program. The school also helps connect students in need of more advanced learning opportunities to a fast-paced algebra course offered by the University of Illinois, which several seventh-graders take for high school credit. There are also special programs for students who need additional support (approximately 10 percent of the students have individualized education plans). In pre–K through third grade, a teacher associate in each classroom provides students with personalized help during class, and in the older grades community volunteers tutor students. Additionally, Alain Locke has created a buddy system, in which every staff member adopts a student who is experiencing challenges and works one-on-one with that student to reach specific goals.
The use of both formal and informal assessments helps teachers develop the capacity to maximize learning for individual students. Alain Locke employs Learning First, a district-approved assessment system that provides feedback three times a year. Teachers write progress reports every five weeks and send home report cards at the end of each 10-week quarter. The year-round calendar also allows teachers time to reflect on their practice and modify lessons based on analyzed data to help students master specific skills or content areas. Jones says a year-round schedule, with every 10 weeks of school followed by three weeks of vacation, sends the message to students, "When it’s time to work, work hard, and then you can relax and regroup."
Although Alain Locke now serves multiple neigborhoods, it was conceived to focus on the needs of East Garfield Park. As such, it was, and remains, part of a network of organizations working to positively affect this particular neighborhood. Another ICTC-sponsored organization in that network is the Family Resource and Learning Center, which operates within the Alain Locke facility to provide a variety of family-oriented programming, including parent- and-child-together classes and GED preparation classes for adults. Offered four days a week for both Alain Locke families and those from the broader community, these programs reflect ICTC’s mission to provide "seamless educational opportunities for families" in a "onestop education source."
Community partnerships make Alain Locke’s experiential education programs possible and bring in much-needed resources. The school works with such external groups as the Chicago Children’s Choir and the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. A relationship with the Chicagobased Aon Corporation provides the upper grades with tutors; the Mead Witter Foundation funded the construction of a state-of-the-art science lab; and Chicago Communities In Schools connects Alain Locke with such companies as LensCrafters, which provides glasses and vision care for students in need.
Parent and family involvement is a key contributor to student achievement at Alain Locke. A parent’s role begins with signing the commitment to excellence contract, with which families pledge to maintain high expectations for their children, to help their children with daily homework, to make sure their children attend school regularly, and to communicate regularly with school staff. By signing the contract, parents agree to uphold the school’s belief that, in collaboration with the school, parents are responsible for shaping the attitudes and behavior of their children. Alain Locke makes a concerted effort to educate parents about academic standards. At the school’s open house, parents learn about each teacher’s system for communication about homework and citizenship. The administration and teachers organize meetings to explain expectations for third and sixth grades, which are critical benchmark years evaluated by state exams, and to show parents sample test questions. Voynell Foster, the parent and community liaison, touches base with families every day at dismissal, runs an after-school Girl Scout program, and creates enrichment activities for families. Foster explains her own commitment when she says, "Every child deserves an opportunity to get the best education."
Governing for Accountability
Alain Locke’s 11-member board of directors draws representatives from leaders in both the business and the education world. Originally its role was to bring resources into the school and lend credibility to the start-up venture at a time when the concept of charter schools was new to Illinois. Since then, the board has evolved to address the school’s needs as it has grown and, now, is trying to institutionalize processes. Supportive of the school leadership, the board gives the principal and the assistant principal the autonomy to make education policy and enact decisions in line with the school’s strategic plan. In 2004, Alain Locke completed the charter renewal process with the state of Illinois approving continuation of the school’s program for another five years.
Since Jones has taken the helm, she has worked hard to rally staff behind a common mission. Prior to each new school year, she conducts a retreat that gives staff an opportunity to reexamine the mission and review procedures and policies. "We address all the issues together," says Assistant Principal Woodson. "I think that makes a big difference in terms of having a well-run organization where everybody is on the same page and working towards the same goal." Both Jones and Woodson taught for many years in Chicago prior to joining Alain Locke, and they work with teachers on a regular basis to improve instruction. Teachers recognize and appreciate the supportive environment in which they work. One teacher notes, "The staff is young and vibrant and nice to work with … everybody shares." Ongoing staff development time allows staff to analyze data from informal and formal assessments together and make plans accordingly. Teachers meet weekly for professional development.
When hiring, Jones looks for more than academic qualifications. "We look for intelligent people who have a heart for children and are looking to grow professionally," she says. Alain Locke teachers earn salaries that are on par with those paid by the local district, but school leaders would like to raise salaries to make them even more competitive. "The quality of your teachers is really the key, and by quality I don’t just mean teachers’ educational background, but a whole package," says Hartfield. In addition to competitive salaries, some important teacher perks include the use of teacher associates in the lower grades, a strong collaborative staff, and support for experience-based learning.
In the 2004–05 Chicago Public Schools Charter Schools Performance Report,19 Alain Locke earned "high" ratings for financial practices and compliance. The school receives about $6,000– $6,500 per student from public sources, including per-pupil state funds, Title I money, and other state aid for low-income populations. Private funds and donations contribute another $1,000 per student every year.