Improving Student Outcomes by Transforming Climate and Culture

An Advisory Services Partnership with District 89 (IL)

Over the past three years, AUSL Advisory Services has partnered with District 89 (Maywood, Melrose Park, & Broadview) to create school and classroom environments that nurture high-quality learning and collaboration and develop a college-going culture.

Recognizing the Need for Support

District 89 (“D89”) serves a diverse population of students and families just west of downtown Chicago, with majority being Black, Latino, and qualifying for free/reduced lunch. The district consisted of eight K-8 schools functioning relatively autonomously from each other.

Leading into the 2014-2015 school year, the Board of Education and District Leaders were considering how to better meet the needs of 6-8th graders to help them best prepare for high school and beyond and decided to migrate from ten K-8 elementary schools to seven K-5 elementary schools and two 6-8 middle schools.  One school was closed in the process.

“We wanted to prepare them for next steps and what those would look like. In self-contained classroom settings, all the way from K-8 … they were really staying in a single classroom. They weren’t needing to interact with multiple adults; they just had that single classroom teacher. We also didn’t have the physical capacity for labs and some of the things [to which] we wanted to expose our [middle school] students.”
– Caroline Pate-Hefty, Director of Student Services

While this change was exciting for D89 families and students, it presented challenges for administrators and teachers in establishing a middle school environment. And the emotional and developmental needs of the 6th-8th graders in this very new, more high school-like environment became apparent.

  • 2015-16
  • 2016-17

After working with AUSL, D89 saw a drop of 58% in total (in-school and out-of-school) suspensions. 

As a result, that school year saw a noticeable increase in in-school and out-of-school student suspensions at the new middle schools (from the comparable data at the previous K-8 schools). And district leadership recognized an urgent need to uncover, address, and ameliorate the root causes of the challenges the middle schools were facing to live up to the intention of better meeting the needs of these students, their families, and the community.

“We saw a culture [where teachers didn’t have the tools to manage the growing needs of their students]. And that’s consistent with the number of infractions and suspensions.
– Tre Childress, Director of Advisory Services

To help address these challenges, district leadership approached AUSL’s national Advisory Services business, which marked the start of a multi-year partnership.

Root Causes for Improvement

To kick off the work, the lead engagement manager and Director of Advisory Services conducted a collaborative needs assessment with school leadership in the context of each middle school. This entailed meeting with district and school leadership and becoming immersed in the school and classroom environments across both campuses.

“AUSL really has been a thought partner in this process for us and then supported us developmentally in this journey. So the first piece that we needed … was really kind of an analysis of where are we right now. And then … some baseline expectations [of what could be].  We started with creating, really adapted from AUSL…what our expectations were going to be district-wide, for our school buildings and for our classrooms.”

– Caroline Pate-Hefty, Director of Student Services

Results from the assessment pointed to the need for more direction and support for teachers and staff to better understand and meet student needs in these different school settings. To set baseline expectations on what school should look and feel like at a middle school level, such a shift necessitated clear routines and procedures as well as more robust behavior management policies. Relatedly, leaders, teachers, and staff at each middle school needed the time and space to establish those routines, procedures, and policies as well as to align on school-level goals related to school and student performance.

“The Irving staff is amazing. Initially when we went to visit an AUSL school, they came back immediately and said, ‘Let’s do this. We can do it’ And they immediately designed some AUSL-type classrooms to be a model that [other] teachers could see. But then the second year, I could really see them taking ownership [for] making their classroom a great place for students to feel comfortable and most importantly to learn.”

– Michelle Hassan, Principal, Irving Middle School

Laying the Groundwork for Cultural Transformation

The AUSL Advisory Services team, using knowledge and best practices surfaced through AUSL’s work as an innovation zone managing 31 public neighborhood schools within the Chicago Public School District, developed a multi-pronged and targeted strategy to address these challenges at Irving and Stevenson (both D89 middle schools).

1. Adopting Clear Standards and Policies to Transform the School and Classroom Environment: Through their work transforming some of Chicago’s lowest-performing schools, AUSL has developed a set of standards to establish a positive school environment that supports and enhances student learning. Leaders at Irving and Stevenson adapted and adopted these standards to re-establish the culture and climate in their school and classrooms. This included:

  • School and Classroom “Look and Feel” Checklists
  • Standard Operating Routines and Procedures
  • Behavior Management Protocols and De-escalation Strategies

“There have been a lot of changes and I think she [my daughter] as well as I have had a great experience just taking in what has been done — the changes that Ms. Hassan as well as Mr. Mahone, everything the team has brought in for the school to make the environment inviting.”

– Corita, local parent of Irving Middle School Student

2. Building Systems for School-level Goal-Setting and Continuous Improvement: Working with a network of schools, AUSL supports school leaders in developing and sustaining proven systems for goal-setting and continuous improvement against key student and school outcomes data. Using these experiences, AUSL shared proven practices to establish processes and clarify roles and responsibilities when it comes to setting goals and monitoring progress throughout the school year. These included:

  • Data Systems and Goal-Setting/Monitoring
  • Best Practices in Monitoring and Making Progress
  • Clarifying and Committing to Roles and Responsibilities

Through AUSL’s customized institutes (off-site professional development sessions) and targeted follow-up professional development and coaching for school leaders, teacher leaders, and support staff, AUSL’s partnership with Maywood shows signs of significant impact through Year 3 of the work.

  • 2015-16
  • 2016-17

MAP Attainment Grade Norm-Math (%)

  • 2015-16
  • 2016-17

MAP Attainment Grade Norm-Reading (%)

“I’m really excited about the growth that we’ve experienced, in reading, math and science. Overall, school-wide, we’ve grown in every area and so that’s what’s most important — that students leave here prepared for the next level, that they leave with a desire to go to college and that they understand that it’s important and that it’s possible.”

-Michelle Hassan, Principal, Irving Middle School 

Looking Forward

Though early signs of progress are positive, D89 leadership knows that the work is and will be ongoing with Irving and Stevenson. However today, strong leaders like Principal Hassan are driving the work with the help of AUSL’s coaching support. To continue to build on the impact of the work with the middle schools, AUSL is now also working with D89’s six elementary schools.  Now, a strong and positive culture and climate and consistent goal-setting processes are a hallmark of all District 89 public schools.

“I feel like I’m not really getting teachers but I’m getting friends that want to push me further. I don’t feel like many students around the world get that.”

– Cameron, student at Irving Middle School