Changes, growth recognized at Palmer
by BRIAN NADIG
In his second year as the principal of Palmer School, La Shawn Ray has seen his school receive the top performance rating given by the Chicago Public Schools, and he hopes that is only the beginning.
"We have a great school, and a great staff," Ray said. "We can be better than any school in our network (on the Northwest Side)."
Ray said in his state of the school address that Palmer was a Level 2 school 2 years ago, with a performance score that was closer to a Level 3 rating than a Level 1 rating. Level 3 is the lowest rating.
"Keep in mind that we were near the bottom of the network in nearly every statistical category in the 2012-13 school year," Ray said. "We experienced growth from the 24th percentile to the 91th percentile in one year in reading."
The school had some of its biggest gains in reading growth among Hispanic students and special needs students. The school also made significant gains in its average daily attendance, which is 96.6 percent this year, and it has reduced its chronic absentee rate from 15 percent 2 years ago to 0.1 percent this year.
Palmer, 5051 N. Kenneth Ave., has an enrollment of 889 students, which includes pre-school children, with an average class size of 26 students. The diversity of its enrollment is reflected by the 18 languages that are spoken by students at the school.
The school has implemented curriculum changes and formed partnerships with agencies to help it reach its goals, but those programs alone are not responsible for the improvement, Ray said. Palmer has 10 nationally board certified teachers, with only Young High School having as many in the city, and it has 15 additional teachers who are seeking to become nationally certified, he said.
"I’m a firm believer that programs don’t change schools, people change schools," Ray said. "We have a fantastic dedicated staff that works hard each and every day to ensure that students are achieving at high levels."
Ray said that the school’s teachers play a key role in developing their lesson plans, which incorporate the standards that the students citywide are expected to learn. He said that the goal is to develop a stronger curriculum that comes from teacher collaboration and that teaching plans are continually being improved based on the latest student achievement data.
When students do poorly on a test, efforts are made to re-teach the material, eighth grade teacher Cynthia Lohse said. Teachers will analyze the test results and decide how to present the material in a different context and, if necessary, break the class into small groups for those who need the most help, Lohse said.
Lohse said that Palmer’s curriculum takes into consideration the different achievement levels which exist among the students and includes programs to address the emotional and social needs of children.
The gifted program at Palmer has students in an accelerated curriculum that puts then half a year ahead of their classmates, Lohse said. She said that in mathematics, instead of just computing numbers on a test, students are asked questions that require applying what they are learning to real-life situations.
The school’s curriculum also includes an average of 120 minutes of instruction a week in the arts, Palmer music teacher Kristie Friar said. Palmer, which has full-time music, art and dance teachers, recently started a symphonic band program that is led by a volunteer instructor and that meets before school, Friar said.
Palmer, which recently received the school system’s Category 1 creative arts certification, also offers after-school programs including chess, golf, computer science coding, musical theater, yoga, yearbook, tutoring and math, and starting this month it has a full-time counselor that deals with students’ social and emotional issues. The counselor is provided by Lutheran Social Services.
Ray said that when he arrived at Palmer in 2013 he surveyed the faculty and that one of the top concerns was that students were not always being held accountable. He said that there were reports of students being in the hallway instead of in class.
There was noticeable increase in student suspensions last school year, but that the number is significantly down this school year, Ray said. The school processed 90 disciplinary referrals in 2013-14 that resulted in a suspension or other consequence compared to 26 so far this school year, he said.
The school also has implemented a Restorative Justice Program in which a counselor talks to students who have violated the conduct code and tries to identify the issues which may have led to the misbehavior.
Some classes use "signature cards," which a teacher may sign for offenses such as disrupting a class or not turning in homework, and too many signatures could result in a student-teacher conference or other disciplinary action, Lohse said. "Kids don’t like getting signatures on their cards," she said.
A sign that the school has made strides in addressing disciplinary issues is that teachers in the upper grades have stopped using the cards, Lohse said.
Kindergarten teacher Ellen Fritts said that there have been small changes at Palmer which created a positive learning environment. For instance, Fritts said that in the past some students ate lunch in the hallways, but with some better scheduling, all students now eat in the lunchroom.
"It just feels good to come into the building," Fritts said. "The kids feel good to be here."
Fritts said that she hopes to follow in the steps of other teachers at Palmer who have enrolled their children at the school, in some instances transferring to Palmer from another school. She said that she cannot think of a higher compliment for a school than when its teachers trust it for their children.
Ray said that a school’s success often comes down to how the children feel about their school. "Kids want to know we love them and care about them," he said.