The Turnaround: The Academy for Urban School Leadership is transforming Chicago’s worst public schools

Harvard Elementary School in Englewood was a teacher’s worst nightmare. Kids ran in and out of classrooms in the middle of class, started fights, and swore at faculty. Principals cycled through without making any impact. In 2007, less than a third of Harvard students passed the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), putting the school in the bottom ranks of Illinois public schools.

Then everything changed. One Friday afternoon in March of 2007, children came home from Harvard bearing notes for their parents. The news was drastic: the school was going to be handed over to a nonprofit organization, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, to be turned around. All the adults at the school—everyone from teachers to janitors—would be replaced, and when the kids returned the following fall it would be to a newly renovated building with an entirely new staff.

AUSL had received its first “turnaround” school, Sherman Elementary, the year before. Now renamed the Sherman School of Excellence, it was still in its first year of AUSL operation and no test scores were yet available to measure the school’s progress. AUSL’s skeptics, including the Chicago Teachers Union and some Harvard families, argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to justify handing another school over to AUSL, but Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan believed in the organization. As President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Duncan has made turnaround a centerpiece of his agenda and held up AUSL as an example, and his successor as schools chief, Ron Huberman, has maintained his legacy. AUSL’s portfolio this year includes eight schools, and CPS plans to hand over four more next fall.

AUSL was founded in 2001 by Martin Koldyke, a retired venture capitalist who had been involved in several other education initiatives. Koldyke’s original idea for AUSL was a resident teacher training program, where residents would be apprenticed to experienced mentor teachers in a real-world setting. He sought out a team of educators and managed to obtain the old Wright Junior College building in Portage Park, and in September 2001 AUSL opened the Chicago Academy Elementary School. Koldyke recruited Donald Feinstein, a veteran West Side educator who spent eighteen years in charge of Dett Elementary, to be the school’s first principal. “We just created a school from scratch,” says Feinstein, who is now AUSL’s executive director. “And we knew when we created the school that we wanted it to be a dual-mission school, not only educating children but training future teachers for the school district.”

Koldyke was pleased with Chicago Academy’s success, and since then AUSL has opened or taken over five more training academies. The six academies combined have graduated more than 240 teachers, over 80 percent of whom are still teaching in Chicago public schools. “We were putting them out one there, two over here, one over there, three over here,” Koldyke says, “with the predictable result that, by and large, the majority of the classrooms that these residents were put into got better. But the schools didn’t get better, because the culture didn’t change.”

Koldyke approached Duncan with his idea for turning around the lowest-performing schools in the district. “The kids stay, the adults leave, and we would train this cadre of residents and put them in en masse into a school with new leadership,” Koldyke says. Duncan, meanwhile, was launching CPS’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which aimed to close failing schools and open one hundred new ones by 2010, a goal CPS is on track to meet. Although CPS counts AUSL’s turnaround schools toward that total, Feinstein makes clear that “to me, it was never about Renaissance 2010 with our program.” Unlike many Renaissance 2010 schools, AUSL’s turnaround schools aren’t charter schools, don’t receive Renaissance 2010 funding, and are staffed by unionized teachers.

In 2006, AUSL got their first opportunity to test out the turnaround model with Sherman Elementary. The following year Harvard was added to their portfolio. Harvard teacher Devondra Barrett remembers the reaction among the faculty when the turnaround was announced: “Sad. Chaotic. Of course there was a lot of crying. Teachers were upset, parents were upset. I felt sorry for the teachers who were about to retire, who only had one year left, a couple years left. Everybody was really close-knit because everybody had been here for so long.”

Barrett herself had strong community ties; she had grown up nearby in Englewood, gotten a Master’s degree, and then returned to teach at her old elementary school seventeen years ago. She chose to apply for a job at the new Harvard School of Excellence, although she had her doubts about AUSL. After meeting some of the new teachers, more than half of whom had just graduated from one of AUSL’s teacher academies, she says, “I would sit back and I would say, ‘Some of these teachers are not going to make it,’ because they were so nice and sweet.” But AUSL accepted her, along with two other faculty members from the old Harvard, and Barrett decided to give the organization a chance. She started to get “a good feeling,” in particular after meeting the new principal, Andre Cowling. “It was just certain things he would say that the other principals didn’t say,” she says.

Barrett’s instinct was right. “They came in and they just changed this school from bad to excellent,” she says. “I was shocked, because being here so long I didn’t think anyone could change it.” Between 2007 and 2009, while the average composite score on the ISAT in both the city and state crept up a few points, Harvard’s score nearly doubled, from 32 to 56 percent. Today, students at Harvard arrive in uniforms, walk quietly in the halls, and treat teachers with respect. “At the old Harvard, you would tell them they would suffer the consequences, but the children who wouldn’t listen knew they were going to get out of it,” says Barrett, who says their attitude was, “Well, go ahead, tell the teacher, go ahead tell the principal, what they gonna do?” “You don’t hear nobody here saying, ‘Well, go ahead, tell Mr. Cowling, what he gonna do?’ They don’t say that here.”

Of course, the sudden departure of almost all of Harvard’s adults took its toll. Barrett remembers that kids old enough to understand what was happening were upset at the loss of the teachers they’d known for years. The Chicago Teachers Union agrees. “We have concerns that when you break up relations between students and teachers, kids are affected by that,” says CTU spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova. “Look at Fenger.”

Fenger High School, which attracted national attention last September when junior Derion Albert was beaten to death in a gang fight, was just beginning its first year of in-house turnaround under CPS’s own Office of School Turnaround. In a column on the Fenger tragedy published in the Chicago Sun-Times last October, former CTU president Deborah Lynch wrote, “School turnarounds have turned out to be the deadliest reform of all. How could anyone expect that completely eliminating all the professionals and staff of a tough high-poverty high school could be a good thing?”

AUSL tries to reach out to parents as soon as a school is assigned to it, including bussing them to other turnaround schools so they can see how the model works. Barrett reports that parents have become much more involved in the past two years, in part due to AUSL’s continuing efforts to bring them in; recently Koldyke took a group of principals and parents to dinner at Maggiano’s with Mayor Daley. And many parents have become supportive, even contributing testimonials for the AUSL website. “Many of the most harsh critics of the district now are our greatest fans, and they’re our most vocal,” says Feinstein.

CPS under Ron Huberman appears set to continue sending a stream of turnaround schools to AUSL, and the organization couldn’t be happier. According to Koldyke, AUSL hopes to grow to more than fifty elementary schools over the next eight years, as well as a smaller number of high schools. Feinstein predicts that if AUSL’s expansion continues, it could become a sort of “district within a district.” Although the turnaround process itself should only last three to five years, he says that’s only the first stage of school improvement, and AUSL plans to keep managing its schools as long as CPS keeps renewing its five-year contracts. “Let the district worry about the 640 other schools,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a dearth of need.”

Correction: This article originally stated that “Unlike many Renaissance 2010 schools, AUSL’s turnaround schools aren’t charter schools, don’t receive CPS funding, and are staffed by unionized teachers.” In fact the schools do receive CPS funding via AUSL; however, they do not receive any funding through the Renaissance 2010 program.