This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Creating stronger classrooms, one teacher at a time.” More from this issue

Erikson’s New Schools Project is partnering with seven schools throughout Chicago, providing professional development and teacher coaching that is helping transform the educational experiences of young children, pre-k through third grade.

We talked with two principals who have partnered with the project for several years about their experiences in urban education and with the New Schools Project. Cherie Novak is principal of Robert Fulton Elementary School, a public school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At the time of this interview,  John Price was principal of John Audubon Elementary School, which is located in Roscoe Village on Chicago’s North Side. He has since been promoted to deputy chief of schools for the Chicago Public Schools Ravenswood-Ridge network.

What are the primary challenges you face as a principal in an urban school? What keeps you up at night?

Cherie Novak Cherie Novak: The primary challenge I face as a principal is to build capacity that dramatically increases student achievement. At Fulton, all of our students are receiving free and reduced lunch. Our students deal with poverty, violence, foreclosures, and other challenges every day, yet we do not have the clinically trained resources like a full-time psychologist or social workers to support our students’ social-emotional needs. Our students deserve the best and the brightest teachers who recognize the children’s intellectual capabilities, but not all teachers are willing to work in a high-stakes environment.

John Price: Our biggest challenge is also our biggest strength: the diversity of our students and the range of needs. To name a few, we work with kids who are bilingual, who have had a strong academic start and those who haven’t, who are working above or below or at grade level, and who fall on the autism spectrum. We need to meet the needs of all kids and do it well.

What is your approach to addressing these challenges?

Novak: My logic model is simple: smart teachers equal smart kids. If I can improve the capacity of my staff, I can dramatically change student learning. I, as the principal, have to be a true instructional leader to build the capacity of my staff by providing appropriate coaching and professional development. This is in line with the professional development Erikson provides, which is why Fulton decided to collaborate with them. Getting the staff and community on board helps build a culture of shared responsibility for high student achievement. I cannot do this alone.

John Price

Price: We work to balance continuous improvement on our testing results and other measures with developmentally appropriate practice. We are a high-achieving school, and we’ve done very well on testing, but we also understand that working with children is complex.

We cannot reduce our students to simple data points; we must teach to them and their needs. At the end of the day, we need to remember that we are talking about children.

You have worked with Erikson’s New Schools Project for several years. Describe for me what your partnership entails.

Novak: Erikson is helping us close the learning and achievement gap by working with us to align standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment from pre-k through third grade. A partnership with Erikson means that we build knowledge, skills, and consistency because the Erikson coaches are intentional about presenting our teachers with high-quality, developmentally informed, research-based practices. Students reap the benefits of both the social-emotional and academic learning that is taking place.

Price: Our work with Erikson has helped us make significant instructional reforms, including a new reading curriculum designed with an Erikson facilitator. This was a huge change for us and was created in response to teacher feedback. Previously, there was little vertical alignment of instruction, only horizontal alignment. Teachers didn’t know what students had learned or not learned the previous year or what they were going to learn the next year. Now we can plan each grade and build on instruction grade after grade.

Erikson focuses on micro professional development: instead of conducting professional development in a lecture hall with 500 other teachers, professional development takes place on a one-on-one basis and as close to the kids as possible. This style of teacher development is differentiated for different kinds of learners, just like a strong classroom, and can be easily applied by teachers to their classes.

How has the partnership helped your teachers and your students? Are you seeing any outcomes?

Novak: Erikson and our teachers improve the quality of children’s lives. On average, third graders in schools like ours gained more that seven percentage points in reading on the ISAT compared with a CPS district average of two points, and gained 11 percentage points in math on the ISAT compared with a CPS district average of four points. We have the highest attendance average out of any school in our area — over 95 percent — which is also higher than the district average. In addition, our misconducts are down by 50 percent, and we have over 50 parental engagement activities every year.

Price: Our teachers are reporting a significant difference in student preparation and that they can start teaching new material sooner in the school year, as students don’t have to catch up. The data support our efforts: our third grade ISAT scores continue to increase. This year, Audubon ranked third for increasing test scores in reading and first in math in the district among Autonomous Management and Performance Schools with less than 500 students.

The new school year has started. What are your goals for the coming year?

Novak: Long term, we want to become a 90/90/90 school: a school where even though 90 percent of the students are free or reduced lunch eligible and 90 percent of the students are an ethnic minority, 90 percent are achieving in the top 10 percent of the district and state standards. This year, we want to maintain our 95 percent attendance average. We strive to reduce misconducts by 50 percent. We want all primary students to be on or above grade level in reading and math by the end of the school year. Last, we want all of our third through eighth grade students to be ACT/college ready by the end of the school year as indicated on the ISAT.

Price: Our main goals for the next year are fully implementing the new reading curriculum and building on this cohesive approach to pre-k through third grade education. We want to show that there is no dichotomy between developmental appropriateness, including attention to social-emotional development, and academic and intellectual “rigor.” We also continue to support our teachers’ development. The challenges never stop. We have to continue to improve.