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Volume 18, Number 4
July/August 2002

“Wide Open and Welcoming”

How Trust Helped Transform a Small Chicago School


When Nancy Laho became principal of Burley Elementary a decade ago, a number of obstacles hampered the small school in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood. As in most failing urban schools, the curriculum lacked focus, teachers worked in isolation, and parents offered little support. Money for books, supplies, and building improvements was scarce. On standardized tests in math and reading, Burley's scores sagged around the 25th percentile.

Laho's first act as principal demonstrated the kind of school she intended to run. She removed a large counter from the center of the main office to make herself more accessible to teachers and parents. Then she spread the word that no one needed an appointment to see her. "I wanted the office to be wide open and welcoming, so people could walk in unimpeded," she says.

A decade later, Burley Elementary is a bright spot in Chicago's partly sunny/partly cloudy reform. In 2002-03, students performed in the 74th percentile in both reading and math in state rankings—this in a school where 85 percent of students are poor and where many of the 350 students speak English as a second language (about 65% are Hispanic).

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.