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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).

With an academic plan focused on literacy and a flourishing bilingual program, teachers are working diligently at improving their practice, cultivating ties with parents, and supporting their principal. Much of the credit for that success is no doubt due to the sort of trust Laho inspired by removing the big office counter. That practical and hugely symbolic decision opened up lines of communication with staff and parents that enabled the school community to develop and agree on a direction in which to take the school.

Laho and her staff created a reading curriculum that requires all students to read independently in class each day and to hear teachers read aloud. Students must take books home, keep weekly reading journals, and have those journals signed by their parents indicating that the work has been done. Parents attend monthly school assemblies where they read with their children and listen to students read favorites poems or passages from books. A local Starbucks provides free beverages for the event.

The Burley staff worked together to stop grade inflation and tighten standards by writing their own grade-by-grade frameworks. Special education teacher Nessy Moos, one of Laho's first hires back in 1993, says Laho has found just the right mix of being a strong leader without being autocratic. "We really have one view," she says. "There's no question Nancy is our leader, but she's also very supportive of us." The positive, trusting relationship between staff and principal has created good will among teachers, too. "Our relations are good, though sometimes controversial," says Moos. "Nancy hired people with strong personalities, people who are leaders. So we all have strong opinions about how things should be done. But there's no question everyone is committed. And we know ultimately that Nancy is our leader."

That confidence informs the professional development program that teachers themselves direct. Since they have helped develop the curriculum, each teacher knows what others in the building are teaching, and how. They present case studies, discuss books about teaching, and consider questions about learning and instruction. "We own the practice," says teacher Rusty Burnette.

Respect for Laho's leadership and integrity has helped the Burley staff weather a significant amount of turnover. By her second year, she had replaced six of the 15 teachers on staff, and she makes no apology for "encouraging" those who don't believe in the school's mission, especially its reading program, to work elsewhere. "When you counsel out staff, you have to do it in a way that shows respect," she says. "If you don't, teachers will rally and unite behind that person, even if they don't support their practice. Things like that can tear your staff to shreds if you're not careful."

Parents and Community

Knowing that any successful turnaround of a school requires the support and input of parents, the staff has worked hard to develop better ties to parents. Before Laho took over, Burley parents were fractured along racial, ethnic, and class lines, says Steve Renfro, a bilingual lead teacher with 13 years' experience at Burley. Today the school has an active, multicultural Parent Teacher Association that provides much needed support for academic and extracurricular efforts.

Laho set the tone with her open, hardworking style. "The principal here is very accessible," says parent Tanya Suawicz. "She is easy to reach and responds quickly, so you know if there's a problem, it will get addressed. You know what she's going to do and why. She always tells us her reasons." PTA president Faith Spencer adds: "[Laho] doesn't always agree with parents but she always gives a fair hearing. We respect that."

Teachers get thumbs up, too. "You don't feel like you're bothering teachers when you visit a class," says Awilda Salzedo, treasurer of the PTA, who was impressed enough with Burley to transfer her children there from a parochial school. "They're welcoming."

The PTA shows its appreciation for teachers by making them dinner, giving them flowers, or giving them gift certificates to buy school supplies—money that would normally come out of a teacher's pocket. And this year it organized a volunteer group of "Homeroom Moms" to help teachers with time-consuming work, such as recruiting other parents to take part in school events. "So far it's worked really well," says Elsie Rosa, the PTA vice president. "We don't think teachers should have to get bogged down with all those details. They should focus on teaching kids." PTA members offer to serve as translators at school meetings in order to encourage Latino parents to take part.

For her part, 2nd-grade teacher Kary Eichstaedt invites parents "to hang out in class and check out the room," and she distributes a weekly newsletter informing them of upcoming curriculum units to encourage them to do "prelessons" at home. Meanwhile, Renfro and the school's Bilingual Advisory Council host workshops and classes, teaching computer skills, alcohol and drug prevention, or "How to Talk to Your Maturing Teen."

"The challenge is to break down some cultural inhibitions about getting involved," says Renfro. "For example, some parents who have come from other countries are used to very authoritarian schools, schools where, if parents confronted the principal, the kids would pay. So some are reluctant to talk to [Principal Laho] if something's wrong. I end up hearing their concerns and relaying them to her anonymously."

The outreach is paying off. But as teacher Rusty Burnette points out, the true measure of a school's success will always come back to instruction. "The biggest influence on parent involvement comes from students themselves. If they're happy and they're learning, the parents have a reason to get excited," he says. Indeed, the enthusiasm and teamwork among teachers, parents, students, and administrators that pervades the old building on West Barry Avenue is every bit as remarkable as Burley's rising test scores.