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School year at South Loop Elementary ended with pride, but work still remains

Submitted on Mon, 06/11/2007 – 03:50.
Story by Damon Maloney
On a recent afternoon at South Loop Elementary, the sky had turned gray and rain was beginning to fall. Parents sprinted from their cars to pick up children who had completed another day of learning.

In the past, this school had seen its share of rainy days. But during more recent times, including the school year that just ended, its outlook is much brighter.

“School change is really tricky. Not all schools are ready for the same things to take place. You have to create a degree of readiness. As principal, I’m responsible for the lives of the children here. I don’t believe we should let lives be wasted. I’m serious about my work,” said Pat Baccellieri.

According to its 2000 Illinois School Report Card, 66 percent of South Loop Elementary’s third- through eighth-graders failed state achievement tests. Back then, the school’s population was 98.9 percent African American and nearly 93 percent low-income. In 2002, Baccellieri was hired as principal and over the years, neighborhood and school demographics have shifted – as have test scores. Today, South Loop Elementary reports 65 percent of its student body is African American and 37 percent low-income. Meanwhile, test scores have dramatically increased. In 2006, nearly 82 percent of third- through eighth-graders passed state achievement tests. Few disagree that Baccellieri helped turn around the once-struggling school.

“The start of the school year was interesting. I could see that there were a lot of behaviors that really weren’t conducive to learning and the mechanisms for people working together weren’t really there,” said Baccellieri.

The challenge of changing behaviors and bringing people together wasn’t new to Baccellieri. He’s spent most of his life working as an educator, turning around struggling programs. The West Coast native’s first job in the Windy City was in North Lawndale at the Better Boys Foundation, a non-profit social service organization. There, Baccellieri served as director of education, heading a number of after-school programs for area schools.

“Most of the programs were on their last leg of probation with the state. I had to get things up and running, and I did,” he said.

After successfully working with the Better Boys Foundation, Baccellieri’s resume floated around the city. He accepted a teaching position at Saint Ignatius College Prep and worked there for a few years in the 1990s. Then he decided the classroom wasn’t where he belonged.

“When we look at the history of education, we see that urban districts have had a really hard time making change. We see the level of student achievement not getting worse — it just hasn’t gotten better, and I wanted to help create change. As a teacher, you’re busy teaching and it’s hard to be involved in rigorous school change,” said Baccellieri.

He teamed up with Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that provides grants to schools to help students learn about history and encourage them to make smart decisions in life. During this time, Baccellieri worked with three South Side schools, mostly on citizenship education. It still wasn’t enough for the man who wanted more done to improve education for all children, especially those who were disenfranchised.

“In the non-profit world, a lot of people talk about the problems in urban schools. I felt it was critical for me to put my life on the line and say, ‘If you care that much about it then do something,’ ” he said.

After receiving his principal credentials and completing the New Leaders for New Schools program, a non-profit organization that prepares experienced teachers to become principals, Baccellieri worked a number of administrative jobs. In August 2002, he was hired as interim principal at South Loop Elementary. Four months later he accepted the contract position.

According to Illinois School Report Cards, roughly 30 percent of South Loop Elementary’s third- through eighth-grades passed the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT) between the years 2000 and 2003. In 2004, Baccellieri’s second years on the job, 49 percent of the students passed. Scored increased another two percent in 2005, and in 2006 jumped to a whopping 81 percent.

Teachers, parents and officials from Chicago Public Schools credit Baccellieri for the improvements.

“I thank him for the work he’s been able to do here. This school has absolutely been transformed,” said Arne Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the school district.

“He provides the school with a vision of excellence and the means to achieve it,” said Mary Varveris, a second-grade teacher at South Loop Elementary.

Baccellieri is quick to praise teachers, parents and students for the success. “They are the ones doing the hard work,” he said. But he does take some credit for putting the right people and methods.

“There’s a lot of talk about: Do you first change people’s beliefs and then get different results? That ends up being a philosophical debate and doesn’t help kids today,” said Baccellieri. His first moves focused on changing behaviors to get different results.

One of Baccellieri’s first initiatives included improving what students were learning and how lesson plans were being taught. This required adopting the Standards-Based Curriculum Initiative, which allowed faculty and staff to create end-of-the-year outcomes that students ideally would meet at the conclusion of each grade. The test, which focuses on comprehension, fluency, writing and math problem-solving, is administered to each grade three times a year. The results help teachers understand what their students are retaining and what needs to be taught again. It also requires teachers to come up with new teaching strategies. All of this is done in preparation for getting students positioned for the ISAT.

Baccellieri’s next step included getting teachers and staff trained in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). The program was originally used in the manufacturing industry, but has been becoming increasingly popular in education systems. Part of the training included creating school rules, and together South Loop Elementary’s faculty and staff decided upon safety, respect and responsibility. They also had to define what that looked like in a number of settings, including the classroom, bathroom, hallway, playground, bus and lunchroom.

“I think a lot of times people assume that kids [who go to school] all know how to behave. I don’t buy that. What school means to me might mean something else to somebody else. We have to teach them what school means,” said Baccellieri. Fewer parents are called to the school today for behavior reasons than when he first started, he said.

Critics point to shifting neighborhood and school demographics and the addition of a regional gifted center as reasons for South Loop Elementary’s increase in test scores.

Duncan and Baccellieri acknowledge the changes, but said those factors shouldn’t take away from the great work going on inside the school.

“I want all of my neighborhood schools to reflect their communities and to open their doors and be welcoming,” said Duncan.

Baccellieri said those who say minority and low-income students can’t succeed anger him.

“It really makes me mad because I think it is racist and classist. It’s rooted in the disbelief that I had to deal with when I came here, that low-income kids can’t be successful. I totally disagree with that,” he said.

Figures provided by Baccellieri show test scores for low-income students improving 30 percent in reading, from 2005 to 2006, to where 75 percent of those tested met or exceeded state standards. Varveris said it shows proof that, “outstanding leadership and collaborative teaching effort” are working.

Darrah Cousino sends her daughter Sammy to South Loop Elementary. She heard about the school from friends and decided to check it out for herself. She was happy with the academic offerings and chooses to travel an hour each way to send her daughter. She admits to not knowing much about the school during its darker days, but is happy with what’s happening now.

“South Loop is a great alternative to a private school. The academics here are demanding and the staff is extremely involved with keeping the lines of communication open with parents,” said Cousino.

Even when the final bell rings at South Loop Elementary, many students continue to be served by the school.

“Not a lot of people can come and pick up their child at 2:45 in the afternoon. A lot of studies show that children benefit from additional activities during non-traditional school time,” said Melissa Trumbull, co-director of the extended-day program.

Students who attend the program are given a hot snack, are expected to at least start their homework, take part in gym class and are given time for free choice. Trumbull said nearly 180 students are currently enrolled.

“Everything that goes on during the regular day affects what happens during after-school,” said Trumbull, noting that the program’s staff has been kept apprised of major initiatives at the school.

She’s noticed improvements in many of the students’ behaviors and academic work, but still feels more can be done to close achievement gaps. She said it bothers her to know “how much all children are capable of and seeing a major disconnect between the [financial] resources in this country and what gets to children. I think it’s a topic that’s given a lot of lip service,” said Trumbull.

Baccellieri is proud of the fact that South Loop Elementary is a better school than it was a few years ago, but admits that there’s still work to be done.

“With all of our kids we’re trying to push them, whether they’re working on, meeting or exceeding the standards. We’re going to keep pushing to the next level,” he said. “I know that the lives of our kids are precious. We have children and families from all backgrounds working together at South Loop.

“My vision is to be one of the best elementary schools in the city. I think it’s well-situated to do that, with the parent support, high quality teacher team and great administration here. We have a lot of people focused on what matters.”

In the Loop Public Schools & Education
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