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Englewood, Chatham, Auburn Gresham

The Story Of Perkins Bass Elementary In Englewood, The Little School That Did

A school once written off makes a Rocky-style comeback.

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ENGLEWOOD — Perkins Bass Elementary is the school that love built.

You can see it in the murals that adorn the walls, in the students who proudly show off their class projects, in the way Principal Carolyn Jones talks about her team. It is an enduring love, one that fills every nook and cranny of the building at 1140 W. 66th St.

But it wasn’t always this way. Before Jones took over seven years ago, the little schoolhouse tucked behind Ogden Park had been languishing for the better part of two decades, students forced to attend a school that was literally falling apart around them. Teachers who expressed interest in working at Bass were warned away, told they “would be killed” as soon as they entered school grounds.

“When I started here in 2012, the state of the school was a disaster. There are no other words for it. The following year we became a welcoming school. Granville T. Woods had closed down, and we inherited students ‘supposedly’ from Woods,” Jones said, air quoting “supposedly.”

“The district had talked about this streamlining of one school into another, but once they opened those boundaries, the floodgates opened. We received students from 55 different schools that year.”

Perkins Bass Elementary

The school ballooned from 240 students to 560 and soon Jones was tasked with uniting a skeptical, wary student body and staff as CPS scrambled to find the magic pill that would turn around the school that had been on the lowest rating rung — a Level 3 — for 18 years. Several programs and initiatives were introduced to remedy the issues, but none worked.

“They implemented a union-based program that was supposed to help turn around the school. That didn’t work. Then Bass became a ‘Success For All’ school, which is this very direct instruction literacy program that was supposed to transform the school. Didn’t work,” said Jones, herself a product of CPS schools.

“If you look at trends and data over that 18 years — and this is what brought me here to become the principal — you knew there was something underlying, and it wasn’t about student performance.

“So, that’s when I started looking from a leadership perspective at how those numbers could be changed.”

It took a year for students and faculty to find their footing. Once they were settled, Jones got to work, giving Bass an extreme makeover. Pepto-Bismol pink walls were painted orange and blue (the school colors), the yellow caution tape blocking doorways removed, the books carelessly strewn across dusty tables collected and organized, the broken furniture carted away.

“My first two years here I think I spent $17,000 to $20,000 budget-wise just to get the building painted because it looked bad. We had to aesthetically change the environment,” recalled Jones, who admits she employed “creative insubordination” to get things done. “And in addition to changing that, we tried to bring in this respect and rapport with the students so they’d recognize that this was a place for them.”

Allowing the students to have a say in what the school should look like and what they needed was important. Something as simple as opening the lines of communication made the students feel heard, empowered and cared for, which was the point, Jones said.

Then, the focus shifted to academics. Jones and her staff started looking at “outside of the box” methods of classroom instruction.

“We had always had a mindset of small group instruction. Everyone talks about it now like it’s some big new invention, but I was trained in Balanced Literacy, and you can’t do that without small group instruction,” Jones said. “We were already doing what everyone else was working towards, and as we partnered with LEAP, we realized we had something good here, that it would strengthen the work we started.”

Taking The LEAP

LEAP Innovations, an organization that teaches educators how to implement personalized learning in their schools, offered Bass the opportunity to join its Pilot Network. For 18 months, Bass faculty learned new and creative ways to reach their students, developing a set of tools and best practices tailor-made for them.

With LEAP’s assistance, Bass’s math and reading attainment rates have tripled, going from the 2nd percentile in math and reading in the 2013 school year to the 28th percentile in English Language Attainment and 33rd percentile in math in 2018. Teacher retention is also higher than state and district levels, jumping from 76 percent to 89 percent.

“My teachers are amazing,” Jones said. “This is the first year where I’ve had teachers who graduated in May and joined the staff in July. I didn’t have to work real hard to get them in, but I had to get them to stay, and what’s gotten them to stay were the results.”

Thirty percent of Bass’s student body are diverse learners, all of whom are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. Progress is measured in concepts mastered instead of grades earned. Some students can pick up an idea on the first try while others may need a little more time, in which case the students turn to each other for help. It’s about meeting the students where they are, Jones said.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Perkins Bass Principal Carolyn Jones.

“When you put expectations here, students rise to those expectations. They want to please. They just want to know if you’re invested. Once they know you’re invested they’ll go to the end of the world with you and back,” Jones said.

On average, there are three to five diverse learners in every class, a majority of those transferred in from other schools, which adds another layer of complications. Not only is the staff tasked with trying to understand the student’s immediate learning needs, they also have to take into account the student’s previous environment when gauging those needs.

“My strongest support for my diverse learners is my general education staff,” Jones said. “We’ve learned that separating them and putting them in a different class doesn’t work. It’s not the best model for our school. In our network, there’s been a push to have more DL students in general education classes because of the quality of Tier-1 instruction, but I feel like the DL teachers should get more support on how to implement stronger Tier-1 instruction. They’re really masters on how to differentiate, and if you’re in sixth grade doing first grade work, that’s not Tier-1 instruction. Tier-1 instruction is grade-level instruction.”

‘You have to work smarter, not harder.’

On a school tour, there is a stop at one of the fifth grade classrooms, where clusters of students sit tapping away on their Dell laptops. A mountain of bottled water greets visitors as they enter.

“We try to make sure all the students have good water to drink,” said Constance, a fifth-grader and future oncologist.

On the opposite wall there’s a “Healthy Food Station” stocked with fruit, yogurt and Cheez-Its. Positive affirmations line the walls, and the whiteboard runs down the day’s schedule.

Constance is also a budding photographer, proudly showing off shots she took of fellow classmates. Soon other students join her, eager to share their work. When the teacher announces it’s time to move on to the next task, they shuffle back to their clusters.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Constance, an eight-grader at Perkins Bass, takes visitors on classroom tour.

Since LEAP, the number of classroom disruptions and disciplinary actions have dropped. While there are still days when frustrated teachers may dismiss students from their classrooms for poor behavior, these moments are few and far between. As the tour makes its way to another classroom, you notice even the kids outside in the hall are tethered to their Dells, working.

Courtney Smith has been teaching for six years, with five of them spent at Bass. The West Side native and Lane Tech alumna was immediately taken by Jones and her leadership style, something she hadn’t encountered during her time teaching at a school in Auburn Gresham. Her first few weeks at Bass went smoothly. And then came her first “real” day.

“I closed the door and cried. And then, on my second real day, I closed the door and I cried,” Smith said. “You think you know what you’re doing and then a student shows you and is like, ‘Nah, this isn’t that.’ It’s like constantly getting punched in the face and getting back up again.”

“Courtney wouldn’t leave the building until 6 or 7 o’clock at night her first couple of years here. She’s graduated way past that now,” Jones said.

“I leave at 3 o’clock now,” chuckled Smith. “I grab my bag and I’m out.”

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Teacher Courtney Smith leads her class in a group exercise Tuesday morning. As part of the LEAP Pilot program, students are able to learn at their own pace.

“You have to work smarter, not harder,” said Jones, who admitted she’s fussed at faculty for overextending themselves. “Sometimes a 7 o’clock night is necessary, but not every night. It’s important to find that balance.”

Smith doesn’t take work home and doesn’t check her emails until Sunday. She takes one day a week to complete lessons plans, work on classroom decor or finish paperwork. While she may stick around a little longer for new teacher orientation days, she knows when it’s time to call it, which saves her from burnout — something that hits teachers at predominantly black schools the hardest, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Smith has seen, firsthand, the impact LEAP has made in her classroom. But having taught and been taught in the traditional ways made her a little skeptical at first.

“It took me a while to get used to it,” Smith said. “I’m a linear thinker, so the idea of everyone doing what they want to do when they want to do it was tough to wrap my head around, but this is the end result. Everybody is working towards the end, but everybody doesn’t get there the same way.”

Smith noted a marked change in one student who had been regularly disruptive throughout his time at Bass.

“Bob — we’ll call him Bob — was very active, very busy and gets distracted easily. He fidgets, he rolls around on the carpet, he tosses things in the air and his academic performance isn’t at grade level. In a traditional classroom, he’d be sent out repeatedly,” said Smith. “But Bob knows, and I know, that it’s OK. If rolling around on the carpet is what you need to do to get through the rest of your day, then do it. I have to respect your difference.”

While Bob isn’t at the point of total independence, Smith said, he’s able to take ownership of who he is as a person, acknowledge who he is and reflect on his behavior. Bob met his Northwest Evaluation Association goal this year with a little help from Prodigy, a math game installed on his classroom laptop. Smith said as she negotiated Prodigy time with Bob, she slipped in skill assignments, which he completed at his own pace. The progress could be seen in Bob’s homework.

“I’m supplementing what he’s getting, but letting him do it his way, for the most part,” Smith said.

“Bob hasn’t been sent to the office at all this year,” added Jones. “When Bob was in first grade, in second grade, in third grade, Bob was my best friend, he was in the office so much.”

Bob may eventually return one day to show his gratitude, along with the dozens of other students who have come back to pay their respects. Smith has been occasionally taken aback by who appeared at her classroom door.

“It’s the students you never think you’ve made a connection with who come back and tell you how much you’ve meant to them,” said Smith, who will watch the first-graders she once taught walk across the stage at eighth grade graduation in two weeks. “When I got my eighth grade graduation shirt, I highlighted the names of the students I taught.”

For Teacher Appreciation Week, Smith received a gift bag and a letter from a student who loved how she taught math and treated him with respect.

“He said I reminded him of Captain Marvel,” laughed Smith. “I’m not an emotional person—”

“Yes, you are,” Jones interjected.

“OK, I am. And that really hit me,” confessed Smith.

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