Around 1:30, Jared Washington steps into his third classroom of the afternoon, squeezing the knob silently and easing open the door. It’s a few minutes after the bell, and as Washington sidles in, a dozen or so sixth-grade heads turn, looking up at him from lab tables and cross-legged perches on the floor, before returning their gaze to the teacher, who’s explaining the classifications of sea life: crabs, whales, seaweed; bottom dwellers, nekton, plankton. Washington picks his way to the back of the room, sits down beside a skinny kid in khaki corduroys, and asks, “What are you working on?” “The ocean,” the boy whispers back. Washington sets up a small video camera on the table and presses record. Then he opens a black notebook and begins writing down everything: the whiteboard drawings of fish and wavy lines, the lists of key terms, the questions the teacher calls out to her students—“Is a jellyfish a producer, a consumer, or a decomposer?” “What are the abiotic factors?”—and the answers they call back.
He makes note of the three girls swapping lip gloss in the corner, the boy next to him making paper footballs, the kids one table over who raise their hands excitedly at every question. As the class winds down, he passes out slips of white paper, asking every student to write what the day’s lesson was about and whether it was too hard, too easy, or just right.
Washington is the founding director at Carter G. Woodson Middle School, which opened in 2008 as the fourth campus of the University of Chicago Charter School. In other words, he’s the principal. Bald and stern faced—although he’s not as stern as he looks—Washington is a man of big gestures and a bigger voice, and he seems propelled by a perpetual knot of energy. He’s rarely in his office; instead he’s in classrooms and hallways, talking to teachers and students, checking out science projects and social-studies papers, keeping order. Surrounded by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, Washington thinks constantly about college and how to get them there. How to make sure they reach the other side with a bachelor’s degree and a future they can choose for themselves. “Our goal here is to get kids not just to college, but through college,” he says. Which means helping them pick the right high school and making sure they’re ready when they get there. “Getting into high school in Chicago is like getting into college. It sets you on the path.” You can feel him almost physically pushing them forward.
In many ways, the wind is with him. As the principal of a charter school, Washington has more power, he says, to “make change rapidly” than other public schools in Chicago, more freedom to put new programs in place, more control over teacher-hiring decisions. And Woodson’s affiliation with the University means he has resources at his disposal—support from the Urban Education Institute and access to a wealth of research, not least of which is the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s 20 years of data on what makes for a good school, a good teacher, a good principal.
But there are harder realities. Woodson—or CGW, as it’s known to students and staff—is located on the South Side, at 45th and Cottage Grove, in a neighborhood that struggles with poverty and crime. Eighty-two percent of Woodson’s 400 students come from low-income families. Students walk home past liquor stores and vacant lots and boarded-up apartment buildings. What Washington calls the “fine pasture” out front, a grassy field stretching almost a city block, is what’s left of the public housing this school building originally served.
Washington is haunted by statistics. Consortium studies show that about half of Chicago Public Schools students do not graduate from high school, and that CPS students have only a six percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by the time they’re 25. “Our kids are coming in, many of them at grade level, but some of them two years or three years behind,” Washington says. “And even that—just meeting grade level on the ISAT, the Illinois achievement exam—is not good enough. If you’re just meeting grade level, you’re not on track to get a 20 on the ACT. And if you don’t get a 20 on the ACT, then your chances of going to a decent college and persevering are very low.” In 2011, 77 percent of Woodson students, and 81 percent of the school’s eighth graders, met or exceeded ISAT standards in reading, math, and science, a seven-point gain from 2010. Those numbers are good; compared to other CPS schools, they’re really good. Washington wants them to be better. “The raw fact is, for many kids coming from the neighborhoods we serve, if they’re not on track by eighth grade, they’re probably not going to get on track.”
To Washington, middle school offers the “last best chance to intervene” in students’ lives before the statistics harden like concrete around their ankles. It’s the last best chance, he says, to instill habits they don’t yet know they’ll need, to show them how to study, how to think, how to live. “They’re still figuring out who they are. If we have the right type of institution, the right type of people, the right systems, the right program, we can have a hand in giving kids the sense that they’re intelligent, they’re supremely capable, that the world is theirs.”
He knows these kids. Twenty-five years ago, they were his classmates in Hopkins Park, Illinois, where he grew up the youngest of ten children. His family was poor—so was most everybody he knew—and the local schools, he says, didn’t offer much learning. But at home his parents fostered an “informal habit of reading,” and most of his siblings went to college. By the time he was in kindergarten he knew how to read, and when he was five, he spent a summer living with his oldest sister, who was in grad school. College wasn’t abstract to him; it was a real destination. He knew he would get there, even if school didn’t help. Not everyone could count on that. He remembers looking around at his high-school graduation and wondering, “Where’s everybody at?”
When Woodson started, it wasn’t yet Woodson. It was a hallway upstairs at North Kenwood/Oakland elementary, the charter school’s oldest campus. That’s where Washington helped develop the middle-school program from scratch and incubated it for four years before spinning it off into its own campus in 2008. After all the years he spent organizing the curriculum and sorting out policies and systems and facilities, Washington says he’s finally able to devote himself to the job that ought to be any principal’s biggest one: instructional leader. “It’s a strange paradox—most principals don’t get to do the thing that they’re held accountable for every year. You’re measured by your results.”
Along with Jarred Brown, his assistant principal—the two work in such tandem that many students think Brown is their principal—Washington spends much of his days in classrooms, taking notes and recording video that he later goes over in detail with teachers, discussing what they did well and what they might have done better. He pushes them to expect more from their students and from themselves. “We have really great teachers here,” Washington says. “Fifteen-, 20-year veterans. But the difference in the quality that has to be done when you’re trying to close the achievement gap is so significant that even the best teachers have to step their game up.”
His job is to help them do that, he says. And to harness the school’s resources—not just faculty but also the parents and the community. “What’s going on down on 47th Street, I can’t change that,” says Washington, who learned as a principal in training a decade ago on the far South Side how a neighborhood’s problems can flood into a school. “I can’t take the liquor store from that corner. But I can change what happens in this school. I can change who we hire, the philosophy, I can make sure what we do is rooted in a body of knowledge. When we know better we do better. What the teachers can change is what they do, and what they plan to do, in the classroom every day.”
Studies from the Consortium on Chicago School Research support Washington’s beliefs. In 2010 Consortium researchers published Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (University of Chicago Press), a book that synthesizes longitudinal surveys and data from 390 of the city’s public schools. The authors identified five “essentials” for school improvement: strong leadership, ambitious instruction, involved parents and community, collaborative teachers, and a nurturing and safe environment. Schools need all five to improve and thrive, and leadership often acts as the catalyst. “When I talk about the book, I usually say that the findings make sense, and they’re logical, and one almost has to ask why you have to do a study to establish them,” says Penny Sebring, Consortium founding director and one of the book’s five coauthors. “But the fact is, if you go out into Chicago and look for schools that are strong in three to five of the areas, you won’t find that many.”
She says the principal’s job is singularly difficult and important. The principal is the one who must build trust among teachers while also holding them accountable—“a cheerleader with an edge,” Sebring says—and build engagement among parents and neighbors, sometimes in neighborhoods where there’s more crime than community. The job takes its toll. Sebring points to a 2008 Consortium report that found principals stay an average of four years, and that at any given time, half of Chicago Public Schools principals had been in their jobs for fewer than that. “That’s not very long,” she says. School improvement requires stability.
At North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO), Tanika Island-Smith is in her fifth year as director. She came in 2001 as a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. The campus opened in 1998 near the corner of 47th and Ellis, and almost 15 years later, it is one of the few schools that the Consortium has identified as strong in the essentials. Like Washington, Island-Smith sees her primary role as an instructional leader, and she spends most of her days making rounds through every classroom, listening in on teachers’ lessons, talking with children about what they’re working on. She takes a pad of Post-its with her to write feedback, which she sticks on the wall by the door for teachers as she leaves. One morning in early December as she cycled through the classrooms, she listened to a fourth grader read aloud a page of notes about Mount Rushmore; asked two second graders to read a Navaho poem aloud to her, and then again, concentrating on their halting cadence as they struggled to sound out the words; and listened to a third grader trying to explain why the grandmother in an assigned book might have thought of her heirlooms as “her treasure.” She hugs every teacher—“they know me as a hugger,” she says—and kneels down next to students to talk with them. Often she tells them to focus. “They know what it means.”
Collaboration with teachers is central to Island-Smith’s leadership, she says. She describes NKO’s professional development sessions, in which all 25 of the school’s teachers gather to critique videos of each other’s lessons. “Part of my role as the instructional leader is to empower everyone here to become experts,” she says. “It can’t just be me giving that feedback. We’re all professionals, and we all want to be the best we can at what we can do.” Building trust with and among the faculty is integral to that process, she says. Trust fosters a sense of family and safety among the staff. “It’s not that we don’t have difficult times or hard conversations that don’t go as wonderful as we wanted,” she says, “but we always recover because of the established relationships and what we’re trying to do. People understand we’re here for the kids. We’re not going to have a conversation that’s not directly tied to student success and students’ needs.”
At Woodson, Washington has a similar system. Sitting down with the ten pages of notes he took in two days of observing the sixth-grade science class, he rubs his head. On one side of each page he’s written what the teacher said; on the other, what students said. He analyzes how the teacher asked questions to the whole classroom, how she “whips them up” before asking them to sit down. He wants her keep her lectures shorter, to put students to work sooner, to show them exactly what she wants them to do—to “give them a scaffold to climb on”—and then hold them to that expectation. “That’s how we close this achievement gap,” he says. “When kids get that good ambitious instruction on a regular basis, we see that they’re able to make serious gains.”
Washington is still working to build the trust among teachers that NKO has. Hard conversations are sometimes unavoidable—that’s what Sebring means when she calls principals cheerleaders with an edge. “In some cases the relationship is tenuous,” Washington says. “In other cases, it’s a very cooperative relationship. We have teachers who come down and seek out me and Mr. Brown: ‘Hey, I’m working on this, can I get some feedback?’ ‘Can you come up and look at this lesson?’” Science teacher and department chair Will Spotts is one of those. “In teaching, excellence is a place you visit from time to time,” he says. “You don’t camp out in excellence. There’s good days and bad days—there’s good five minutes. You don’t get to stay at excellent.” But Washington, Spotts says, makes it possible “to get there more often. And I respect that.”
The critique sessions are part of a larger professional-development system in which teachers meet after school twice a week, much like they do at NKO, to go over lesson plans and offer each other suggestions. “I like the fact that the administrators are hands-on,” says science teacher Davia Parker. “There’s a collaborative spirit here.” Sometimes the conversations are hard, “but if you do it in the spirit of progress and fostering excellence as a professional, then you don’t take it personally.”
Twenty years ago, Parker started her career in this same building, teaching eighth-grade social studies in the school that first occupied this space. She lasted one year. “It was pure chaos,” she says. “I had to leave.” This is her first year at the charter school, and the experience, she says, is different from anywhere else she’s worked. Part of what’s different is the leadership. “Even though we have a lot of expectations on us here, they’re reasonable expectations,” she says. “There are so many administrators I’ve worked under who say, ‘We want you to do this, this, this, this, this, and that within this amount of time.’ And you’re like, ‘That’s impossible.’ Here, it’s a lot of work—and hard work—but it’s doable; it’s reasonable. And it’s for a good reason. It makes sense.”
Woodson remains a work in progress. According to the Consortium analysis, based on student and teacher surveys, Woodson “needs support” in three of the five essentials, including school leadership. But as Sebring points out, it’s the newest charter-school campus, and it’s still finding its stride. Washington is proud of the strides it’s made already, the innovations he and Brown have put into place. One of them is an exploratory class called X-Block. Teachers come up with the subjects—cooking, bicycling, architecture, crochet. “There’s nothing kids won’t try,” Washington says. Each trimester students choose from a new list. “It’s a different kind of teaching,” he says. “Teachers are sharing a passion, students are exploring an interest—that’s a different dynamic.”
In another program Washington organized, students who maintain certain academic and behavior standards—no tardies, no demerits, no missing homework—are awarded “independent scholar” status. They don’t have to wear uniforms on Fridays, and they go on extra field trips to places like the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Chicago History Museum. One year they went camping at a recreated Native American village in Wisconsin; this year they’re heading on a road trip to Atlanta to visit historically black colleges. “We try to think of as many ways to incentivize the independent scholars as possible,” Washington says. A week before Thanksgiving, he and Brown hosted a breakfast in the cafeteria for independent scholars and their parents. In paper aprons and plastic gloves, teachers served up a buffet of cheese grits, sausage, eggs, and biscuits to about 200 students who’d earned an invitation to the breakfast. Washington and Brown bantered with them as they waited in line for food. “I want to make sure everybody here is on the list,” Washington declares, furrowing with fake seriousness. “What about this young man?” he says, as a lanky kid with glasses shuffles past, blushing and smiling at the attention.
“Most of the kids are a little scared of him,” says Tinishia Legaux, Woodson’s director of academic and social supports and Washington’s wife (the two met at work). “But usually it’s the most difficult kids who really get to know him. And after they graduate, they come back year after year to see him, to ask for his advice. And they bring their report cards.”
At 2:38 p.m., Woodson’s school day is over. From every door, 400 students clamor onto the sidewalks in the late-fall gray. In their shared office, Brown and Washington silently pull on their coats and walk outside, Brown in his floppy fleece hat, Washington with the cane he carries for effect. Woodson has no school buses, so students whose parents can’t pick them up must walk home or catch the Number 4 CTA bus at Cottage Grove and 45th Street. Brown and Washington oversee dismissal every day amid a cacophony of students, herding them off toward home before it gets dark and dangerous. “Go home,” Washington commands a group of girls lingering on the corner. And to a boy heading unexpectedly west, away from his house: “Where are you going?” The boy mumbles something about visiting a relative. Meanwhile, Brown calls out to a girl in a pink sweater. “Where is your coat?”he asks. “In my bag,” she answers shyly. “Well, put it on!” he teases. “It’s cold outside.”
“We don’t have crossing guards,” Washington says, “so it’s up to us.” By 3 p.m., all but the last few students disperse, and Brown strikes up a conversation with a seventh grader new to Woodson when Washington wanders over. “How are your grades?” he asks. He asks this so often that students sometimes answer before the words are out of his mouth. “Are they decent?” She nods, but not convincingly. He presses. It comes out that she has As and Bs, except in math. It’s OK, Washington says. He’ll help. “Do you have a plan? Come see me tomorrow.”
How to visit a Charter School campus: Each month, the U of C Charter School opens up to alumni and friends during 90-minute visits that rotate among the four campuses. Woodson, NKO, Donoghue, and Woodlawn. Visitors hear from a charter school director, learn about the charter school and the Urban Education Institute, and tour the facility with students and faculty. To sign up for a visit, go to http://uei.uchicago.edu/support/visit-university-chicago-charter-school-campus