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The Schools

(page 4 of 5)

(a high-school campus of Chicago International Charter School)
1817 West 80th Street
773-478-4434; cicsellison.org

In Chicago’s Grisham neighborhood, at the Ralph Ellison school, onlookers will see lots of smiles as students walk from one class to another. What they won’t see is rowdiness. At Ellison—named for the African American author who wrote Invisible Man—there’s no time for high jinks, and tardiness is never tolerated.

“We want bell-to-bell instruction,” says Beth Purvis, the executive director of the Chicago International Charter School (CICS) network, which has 12 campuses. “Our students should be working 99 out of every 100 minutes they are in school. I don’t think we should shy away from saying that our students need that time to close the achievement gap.”

Today, Chicago International schools are big on the basics and offer a hard-core academic program. It didn’t start out that way when the network’s first school opened in 1997. “We used to do a lot of the Stand and Deliver speeches [a reference to the 1988 movie starring Edward James Olmos] about getting kids to love learning,” says Purvis. “But that wasn’t working. They also need rigorous instruction and scientific methods.”

At three-year-old Ralph Ellison, as in other CICS schools, students take a barrage of standardized tests throughout the year, far more than only those required by the state. In addition, Ellison students sit briefly for assessment tests every Wednesday in math, reading, English, or science. “The teachers administer the assessments, and they know right away who’s having problems with commas, or punctuation, or whatever it is,” says Eboni Wilson, Ellison’s principal. Teachers can then adjust their instruction, either for the whole class or for individuals, to fill in the holes.

Those weekly questions mimic an ACT-style exam, and it seems ultimately to pay off when CICS students sit for their college entrance exams: At Northtown Academy, a six-year-old CICS campus in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood, the average ACT score is 20; the CPS average is 17. Which raises the question: Is CICS merely prepping kids to take the ACT? “No, we’re teaching them the skills they lack,” Wilson says. “The places where our kids have the most problems on the ACT are vocabulary and the understanding of inferences, which they aren’t getting from the environment they grow up in. We’re not teaching them to take the test; we’re teaching them the skills they need to be successful.”

Purvis, too, defends the weekly rounds of testing, even though they cost the network about $14 per student per year. Besides, the extralong school day and school year at CICS provide the opportunities to fit in those extra tests. “Even with time taken out for all our assessments,” she says, “we’re still ahead on instructional time.”

GRADES: 9-11 (will add a senior class in the fall)
COMPOSITE ACT SCORE (2007-08): First junior class takes exam this month.
SNAPSHOT: “Bell-to-bell instruction,” hard-core academics, and frequent testing help students bridge the “achievement gap.”


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