This Thursday, In Washington, D.C., John Price will crown a storied five-year term at John J. Audubon Elementary School, as he accepts the U.S. Department of Education’s highest honor on behalf of his school, the Blue Ribbon Award.
The truly remarkable turnaround of the Roscoe Village school at 3500 N. Hoyne Ave. on his watch helps explain his recent promotion to Deputy Chief of Schools for the 41 schools of the North Side Ravenswood-Ridge network, which also takes effect on Thursday.
When Price took charge in 2006, the school’s students were below the Illinois average for “meeting or exceeding” state test scores, at 76 percent. Last year’s scores hit 93 percent, just 3 points less than Bell Elementary School, a gifted magnet school in Northcenter with rigorous admissions requirements.
But as Price himself is quick to acknowledge, his contribution, was just one of many moving parts in what is, at its heart, a story of a neighborhood reclaiming and rehabilitating a dysfunctional public school.
“Just because it worked at Audubon doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere and that’s important for me to remember,” Price said in an interview about his transition. “There’s no replication, there’s no three-step process; local context is important.”
Ten years ago, five years before Price was hired, the local context at Audubon was this: Just 25 percent of the school’s students were from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, with the rest bused in from crowded public schools elsewhere in the system. More than 85 percent of its students were low-income and 82 percent were minority. Just 55 percent were “meeting or exceeding” state standards.
In short, there was a lot of room for improvement.
When the Blue Ribbon cake is cut November 17 at a party in the school, a big slice will be due to the teachers who implemented an innovative and labor-intensive system of individualized instruction that produced results across the board. Another share, according to Price, is owed to his immediate predecessor, interim principal Linda Sienkiewicz, who made key “table-setting” decisions that were politically tough and financially risky. A final piece will be savored by a group of parents, and one in particular, who worked tirelessly to improve and reclaim and support what has become one of the most enviable public schools inChicago.
A “Free For All”
In 2001, before Kathy Argentar helped found Friends of Audubon and before she began raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the school, she was a mom with two daughters under three shopping for schools.
A Roscoe Village resident since 1995, Argentar had put a 15-year career in marketing and product development on hold to be a parent full time. But as a member of the education committee on the Roscoe Village Neighbors association, she soon found an outlet for her talents.
To shorten this part of the story: Argentar and other parents examined Audubon from all angles, agitated for a leadership change, and at the end of the 2001-2002 school year, longtime Principal Nereida Bonilla retired.
The current principal, Price, is an extremely busy guy and he has a matter-of-factness in speaking that can come off as brusque.
As Argentar puts it, “I have never heard him say something that wasn’t the absolute truth, even when it was something you didn’t want to hear.”
So it’s instructive to hear his take on the school prior to Sienkowicz:
Audubon was, “kind of a free for all.”
“There wasn’t a lot of management,” Price said. “Some classrooms were fine and some were completely dysfunctional.”
He credits Sienkowicz, who was at Audubon four years, with taking the school in hand, cutting the dead wood and creating a professional and cooperative culture among teachers.
A Risky Decision
Sienkowicz and the local school council also cut off the inflow of students from outside the district, which was both politically delicate and financially risky.
Schools get state funding on a per capita basis, so if Roscoe Village parents had not begun sending their own children to Audubon, its budget would not have been sustainable.
“I think it was risky; it was a bold decision,” Price said.
“Ms. Sienkiewicz decided that if Audubon were going to become a neighborhood school we’d have to stop receiving kids from other neighborhoods and focus on building from within this neighborhood.”
Neighboring Jahn Elementary’s principal chose differently, Argentar said, making the case that the incoming kids were getting a far better education than they otherwise would.
“Rightly or wrongly,” Argentar said, knowing that the student mix at Audubon would change over time helped convince parents who had been considering private schools or other options to enroll their kids.
Another attractor was a tuition-based all-day pre-k that Audubon implemented as an alternative to the free 2 ½ hour state-funded pre-k program. Two-earner professional families in Roscoe Village were drawn into the schools through the pre-k and through a popular story hour Argentar helped start.
There were tours, open houses, fliers; marketing. And many families bought in.
The Table Was Set
Audubon’s teachers wanted to try a curriculum model of differentiated instruction and balanced literacy, and through an exhaustive search, found a dream candidate in Price.
Taking a detour before law school, the Californian signed up a two-year “service” position at a west side Chicago middle school and “got hooked on teaching.”
“I loved being with kids, the creativity of writing lesson plans and trying to find ways to teach kids concepts and ideas,” Price said. “At that point I decided I wanted to make education my career.”
What he learned teaching low-income children at his first job came in handy at Audubon, where teachers were challenged with students of widely varying skill levels.
But before the creative curriculum, the educational trials, errors and ultimate validation, Price first focused on two things: pushing teachers to build relationships with students and getting parents involved in their children’s education.
He helped Argentar form the Friends of Audubon, an active fundraising group that last year funneled $170,000 into teacher professional development, technology and arts programs. The group’s support was key after the school lost federal funding awarded based on how many poor families live within the attendance boundary.
At the same time another group cropped up to boost parent volunteerism in the school.
The promise of differentiated instruction; that their kids would be taught at their own level of ability, was what convinced some wary parents to sign on with Audubon.
To provide it, Price said, the school had to throw out all the rules, the textbooks, and even many tests. Audubon developed its own methods of judging where each child was and setting goals for them to meet.
“It comes down to a lot of hard work from teachers, to plan those six guided reading workshops instead of one whole-class lesson,” Price said. “What gets taught whole group; what gets taught small group; what gets taught individually? Which skill do I focus on now?”
Students who had been used to coming in to class, getting a worksheet and filling it out were now being asked to think critically; to make decisions about what they wanted to learn and how.
“We have to teach kids how to function in that new kind of school environment,” Price said.
The results, by all the measurements available, have been remarkable.
It’s tempting to think that Audubon is improving because the students who go there are increasingly enrolled by involved, affluent parents, a charge leveled often since the Gust Family Foundation offered to provide millions of dollars for Price to create an ultimately unsuccessful new high school in Roscoe Village for special education students, and has also provided support for Audubon’s teaching program.
But the Blue Ribbon Audubon will receive is specifically awarded to schools where gaps between rich and poor and minority and white children have been narrowed. The “value added” scores, which measure how much each child learns in a given year, rival all of Chicago.
The gaps have not only been closed; last year the school’s Hispanic students out-performed its white students. The gap between white and African American students has been “greatly reduced,” Price said.
“I reject the argument it’s different kids; it’s different instruction,” he said.
“What we’re focused on is not who comes in the door; we’re agnostic on that point. What we focus on is growth for every single kid.”
A School in Transition
A glance through the Audubon yearbook tells the story of its transformation from a low performing elementary that bussed 75 percent of its students from crowded schools elsewhere to one of the most sought after public schools in an increasingly affluent neighborhood.
The faces of the sixth, seventh and eight graders are much more likely to be African American or Hispanic, and these students are much more likely to be among Audubon’s 40 percent low income students.
The faces of the kindergarteners and first graders reflect the school’s embrace byRoscoeVillage parents: they are almost all white and from more affluent families.
And so, ironically, as the school’s success helps homogenize it, all the sweat and tears teachers and administrators have poured into differentiated instruction and closing achievement gaps may be obviated.
A Matter of Time
Audubon’s parents knew that Price would be moving on, Argentar said, but it has left them “reeling.”
“We knew it was just a matter of time, but we didn’t want to share him,” she said.
The news came not long after news of the Blue Ribbon award broke, heartening everyone who had a hand in Audubon’s success.
“I almost said it was more than we ever dreamed of,” Argentar said, “but that’s not right.”
“It’s something we all hoped for and always envisioned.”