"You can't leave a room for 45 minutes a day and not lose something."
The Hefferan school council, newly elected in 1990 as part of Chicago's citywide reform, knew it was in trouble when its principal suggested using discretionary funds to hire a choir director to teach gospel music and a full-time truant officer. According to parent Denise Ferguson, the school had great attendance rates, yet it had other problems. The school had only four computers, for example, and maps from 1945 indicated that Rhodesia still existed. "Besides," she was quoted, "our kids learned gospel music on weekends."
The council hired a new principal, Patricia Harvey (who has since been named Executive Assistant to the General Superintendent of Schools in Chicago). Together the principal and the parents created a new Hefferan. "They just did it themselves," said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. "They go ahead and decide something and do it. They just do it."
Life outside the school is typical of many inner-city neighborhoods. Stark streets. Abandoned buildings. Graffiti. Rusting automobile wrecks and unemployed people. A crackhouse sits nearby. Neighborhood problems are so severe that outdoor recesses are out of the question.
But inside, the school's nearly 700 African-American students enter a different world: freshly painted halls, new desks, a fully equipped computer laboratory, a state-of-the-art science laboratory, and adults from the community falling all over each other in their determination to help these kids succeed. Inside the classrooms, students may be found singing, but it is Mozart as well as gospel, and speaking, but it is likely to be Japanese and not street slang. How did Hefferan do it?
One way to think about what the school accomplished is to think about the "Four T's": time, teachers, technology, and teamwork.
Time. One of the keys to Hefferan's success was the application of common sense to the issue of time and learning. Starting with a $10,000 grant from Ameritech, Harvey kept the school open after hours to make good on a "commitment to care for the whole child." Today hundreds of students are involved in about 35 before- and after-school clubs that provide safe places and healthy activities in a community with too few of both. In the science club, eighth graders work on a project on solar collectors. Former student Jason Ferguson said his test scores went up after joining the science club and spending his time on science instead of heading home to switch on the television.
The Turner Club is supported by the Turner Construction Company. Turner students worked on building-trades skills by constructing a wall, complete with plumbing, electricity, and a window. Harvey laughed that the students were prouder of the wall than Turner was of its new buildings.
Then Hefferan faced the issue of "pullout" programs, in which low-achieving students were pulled out of regular classes for special instruction in reading and mathematics. "You can't leave a room for 45 minutes a day and not lose something," said Harvey, who served as school principal until 1994, and she pulled the plug on pullout. Students needing special help are now tutored outside regular school hours.
Teachers. "You can't build a house of shared decision making without a foundation of trust, acceptance, and real teamwork," said Harvey. To create the foundation, she was determined to give teachers the time they need for planning. Every week, teachers get a full day for in-service training, planning, or attending workshops. How is that possible? It's quite easy. Harvey says that one day a week students attend special classes in art, music and gym so that other classroom teachers can be freed up to learn and grow. Is this a teachers' issue or a time issue? It is both.
Technology. Next tackled was the problem of having only four computers in the school. Federal Chapter 1 funds were used to buy 35 new computers now used in every grade. But that was just the first step in the technological development of Hefferan. The school's "science laboratory" differed from a regular classroom only in that it had a sink. An impressive new laboratory now boasts 18 experiment stations, complete with sinks, and it is stocked with its own menagerie of mice, snakes, plants, a rabbit, and a pet rat. The laboratory is a joint gift from Rush University Medical Center and Turner Construction.
Teamwork. Obviously none of this happened by accident. Teamwork was the key. Parents have used the school council to develop their teamwork skills. Teachers have used their planning time to become genuine teams. And Harvey has reached out to the business and philanthropic communities to create partnerships -- to Turner Construction, Rush University, Ameritech, and others. And she has reached into the community as well. Because 80 to 90 percent of Hefferan students come from single-mother homes, Harvey has put together a group of 50 black men who regularly come and read to students. "When our kids see this huge group in shirts, ties, and suits," says Harvey, "it makes a difference." Parents help as well, in class and out. In fact, so many adults are in the school that last year it opened a Parents' Center, a "homeroom" for parents.
So the Hefferan story revolves around time, teachers, technology, and teamwork. All in all, a better way to spend money than on truant officers.
For additonal information:
Hefferan Elementary School
4409 West Wilcox
Chicago, IL 60624