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charter school culture
Dennis Sykes, Michelle Ramos and Patrick Murphy attend Pritzker College Prep, a charter high school located in a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago.

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 lots 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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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. I cannot agree more that giving students responsibility for their learning is the only way they will internalize it whereby it will become meaningful and usable for them.
    We need more schools like this one. Set the expectations higher and our children will rise to reach them.
    Erika Burton, Ph.D.
    Stepping Stones Together, Founder
    Empowering parental involvement in early childhood literacy

  2. Every charter school is hiring Teach for America and the New Teacher Project alums. No one has realized that these programs do not recruit or attract African Americans in substantial numbers. How sad, because many African Americans never enter education due to their horrible experiences and the low pay.

  3. this is an interesting peek into the school, but most of us have seen or read about all this culture stuff before – not that it’s unimportant — and there’s nothing here about everyone’s top charter questions: retention or attrition rates for kids who are enrolled, or whether the school’s serving ELL and SPED kids, or the impacts on the local neighborhood elementary. maybe next time?

  4. Although neither the Pritzka College Prep principal nor its students knows it yet, a good teacher is not like a Pizza Hut delivery man, and a good student is not one who swallows every bite of what is served in the classroom and begs for more. Real learning is an interactive process among a group of human beings who want to know or do something new; a real teacher is able to lead and facilitate that process.

    And getting into college is not the ultimate goal in life; becoming a thinking, just, productive, caring, adult is. Many people have attained this goal without going to college, and many more will do the same.

  5. Hats off to Janice, Alexander, and Joney. There is no one-size fits all formula to creating student success. It is wonderful to hear about the successes students at Pritzka College Prep are experiencing, but neither a charter school nor “Teach for America” alums are required to achieve this type of success. What is required is a belief that all students can excel. What is required is intrinsic motivation. What is required are caring and involved adults both at school AND at home.

    I know nothing about Pritzka except what I have read above; however, I am willing to bet on the following:

    1. These students of color from “poor” (a subjective term that is not clearly defined) neighborhoods have strong parental support (or they would not have applied for admission by lottery).
    2. The students are also likely intrinsically motivated because of parental support and a strong desire to escape the cycle of poverty.
    3. The students crave structure and support that is lacking in their neighborhoods and homes (and yes, it is possible to have caring, involved, supportive parents and still lack structure in the home).

    This school seems to be a positive alternative for students fitting the above descriptions; however, it is not an option that would work equally well in all situations.

    Additionally, as noted above by Joney, while attaining a college education may be noble, it is not and should not be the sole purpose or goal of any educational institution. The goal should be to produce caring, thinking, productive adults. A college education is not necessary to becoming a well-adjusted and productive human being.

    Furthermore, college degrees have become ridiculously cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest or those who receive fantastic scholarships. To graduate from college burdened with $100,000 or more in debt is absolutely absurd and not recommended.

    It has been reported that 70% of all jobs will require a college degree. Why is that? Is it because too many people are going to college? Is it because college grades are inflated and expectations have fallen at the same time that tuition has skyrocketed?

    Many of the happiest and most financially successful people I know do not have college degrees. Many of the people I know who have college degrees are unhappy with their positions; owe enormous sums of money towards college loans; and earn substantially less than their “educated” counterparts.

    Kudos to Pritzka Prep and it’s students. It is wonderful to have choices in education. It is good to set high standards and expectations. All students should be able to go to college if that is a goal that will help them to achieve their dreams, but let’s not sell college as the only alternative, and let’s not prescribe charter schools as the only option for serious students. Finally, when discussing the so-called “failure” of our public schools compared to other nations, let’s remember that we are comparing apples and oranges and that America has never been in the number one spot.

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