Reva Klein reports from a school in a mixed area of Chicago that has blown away its rivals
From the outside, nobody could mistake Perspectives high school in Chicago for paradise. It looks like a big, yellow tin box, flanked by housing projects on one side and smart townhouses on the other. But Perspectives is at the forefront of school reform. It is a charter school and, like many in the district, is part of Chicago Public Schools' small school programme for those with up to 300 children (Perspectives has 163).
Charter schools, which are run and funded by the school district but raise matched funding from other sources, can be set up by educationalists, community groups or businesses. They are awarded a charter (contract) by Chicago Public Schools on the proviso that they achieve certain academic standards. How they do so and which curriculum they follow are left to the individual schools.
Perspectives was founded by two young teachers who wanted to create a place for children who were struggling in conventional schools. Kim Day and Diana Shulla-Cose were determined to have a mixed school; in the segregated, 93 per cent minority world of Chicago schools, this meant bringing together Hispanic and African American children.
But the school's most radical aspect is its approach to education.
Generically known as an essential school - meaning it is part of a national network - it is, says Mike Klonsky of the University of Illinois' Small Schools Workshop, "about depth rather than breadth".
Instead of the focus being on teaching subjects in discrete blocks, students are taught how to think critically, how to solve problems and, through wholly cross-curricular teaching, how to make connections between subject areas. They are required to apply their learning in real situations outside the school environment by way of internships and work experience on a fortnightly basis. They are, moreover, expected to make choices about their learning.
One of the fundamental ways they do this is through assessment. "Our kids come to us having learned by rote in their previous schools. It's different here, where they're given the choice of conventional testing or alternative assessment," says Ms Shulla-Cose.
The assessment options reflect Howard Gardner's principles of multiple intelligences, as well as the school's emphasis on practical and experiential learning. Students may choose to give a speech to their class on an agreed curriculum topic, or write a review aimed at a New York Times Book Review readership, or give a presentation with a popular TV chat show in mind (Larry King Live). Journal assessments are another option, in which students address specific questions raised in class.
Project-based assessment is a popular choice. For this, students work in teams on a topic for eight weeks, including giving a presentation and staging a final activity. Last year, in a study unit on social justice, one group held a rally with other schools as its final activity. Another wrote an article on homelessness for the Chicago Tribune.
Perhaps the most unusual choice of assessment offered to eighth and 12th graders (13 and 17-year-olds) at Perspectives is something called Passages.
Ms Shulla-Cose explains: "The idea is based on rites of passage. Students mark their progression through the school by delving into project work that draws on their personal lives.
"The eighth-graders are asked to research the theme of identity, which involves unravelling their family histories. Often, the Latino students will tell the story of their family's journey to the United States, which invariably includes the role of the coyote (the man who brings them across the border). African American students find out and write about their families' migration up to Chicago from the southern states and the circumstances surrounding their decision to move." Children invite their families into school for the presentations.
In their final year in the 12th grade, those who choose Passages for their assessment are asked to develop a detailed six-year plan of their immediate future. This involves thinking carefully and realistically about their life after graduation, the subjects they wish to study at college if they choose that route, their job opportunities if they go straight into employment and how to budget for the life options they have chosen. Students, no matter what their assessment scores, cannot graduate until they either have an offer from a college or a place of employment or have arranged to enter the armed forces.
Out of the 21 students in 12th grade last year, all graduated and have gone to college. With such a tiny number of students, you might say this was to be expected. But no other school, small or large, in the entire Chicago Public School System boasts such a success rate. No wonder Perspectives now has a 400-strong waiting list.
Ms Shulla-Cose plans to keep in touch with former pupils. "We need to track these students to find out what they're doing 10 years down the line to see what sort of impact we've made," she says.