How middle school went from chaos to changing lives
Generations at Risk series looks at Streamwood school that demands accountability, doesn't accept excuses
Third of four parts
When Principal Lavonne Smiley came to Tefft Middle School 15 years ago the Streamwood school was in chaos.
Gangs gathered on opposite sides of the gymnasium during dances. Teachers would jump in to break up fights. Students were caught with brass knuckles and knives.
One fall morning during her first year, Smiley came in to find the window outside her office tagged with graffiti. She had tried to crack down on students making threats and wearing gang colors at school.
"They were sending me a strong message that this was not my school," she said. "It was stunning."
Each year about 100 students would fail, which some teachers regarded as proof they were doing their jobs. There were so many students packed into the in-school suspension room that they spilled out into the hallways. Teachers were grading papers scrawled with gang symbols instead of answers.
One student saw a newspaper article that referred to Tefft as a failing school. He asked Smiley if it was true.
"I had to tell him yes," she said.
Today, Tefft -- which is 75 percent low-income -- has not only turned around its image and test scores, but it stands out as a high achiever among schools in the same income level. As measured by the Daily Herald/WBEZ Poverty-Achievement Index, which analyzes school performance through the lens of income, it has been steadily outperforming other schools with the same level of poverty for several years.
According to the 2014 state report cards, 60 percent of Tefft students met or exceeded the expectations on state standardized tests. The average meets/exceeds performance by schools with 70-80 percent low income was 47.2 percent, on average.
The difference, Smiley and her teachers say, has been to stop accepting excuses and demand accountability from students, teachers and parents.
If you don't do your homework, you have to stay after school. If your parents don't come to conferences, the school will go to them. Teachers' results are shared and measured against their colleagues', and students track their own test scores to understand where they need to improve.
National studies have shown that without high expectations and engagement from everyone in the educational process of students at risk, they will fall behind.
"No one slips through the cracks," Smiley said boldly. "It just doesn't happen here."
Whatever it takes
The front office at Tefft is decorated with posters, including one that says: "Moving all students forward, whatever it takes."
In the face of rising levels of poverty -- from 37 percent in 2004 to 75 percent in 2014 -- and a per-pupil spending rate in Elgin Area School District U-46 that is far below the state average and that of other suburban schools, Tefft has struggled for its success.
A decade ago at a parents meeting, one mother stood up and said she would rather sell her house than send her child to Tefft, Smiley remembers. The room of 300 parents applauded.
Now, the school is a destination in U-46. About 100 Tefft students qualify for bilingual services and should be at Canton Middle School in Streamwood where the district's bilingual program is. They have declined the services and chosen to stay at Tefft.
By 2014 U-46 had the largest number of poor students of any district in Illinois outside Chicago, with more than 24,000 students classified as low-income.
The changes over the past decade are visible from the moment the doors open in the morning.
Before each day starts, students gather in the cafeteria to read and talk quietly. Above their heads hang flags from 60 countries representing the diversity of the school, where only 17 percent of the students are white.
Upstairs, a computer lab opens an hour before school. All 40 computers are taken within minutes. A recent survey revealed 30 percent of Tefft students don't have access to the Internet at home.
When the bell rings for lunch -- normally a hectic time of note passing, yelling and misbehavior -- Tefft students instead file in quietly.
The first 10 minutes of the period are silent, except for classical music that plays over a stereo as students read and do homework before they start to eat.
"They need structure. A lot of them are given a lot of freedom at home, so they need structure here," said Dan Proctor, who teaches eighth-grade history and social studies.
Part of that structure includes a strict homework policy: Not doing homework is not an option.
"You need to do your job as a student, and being prepared with your homework is one of the expectations," Smiley said. "High-achieving schools talk about high expectations. We live and breathe that here."
If a student doesn't have an assignment done, he or she is picked up five minutes before the end of the day and taken to the library. There, students study and work with teachers to get the homework done until a no-cost activity bus takes them home at 5 p.m.
Each day 40 or 50 students find themselves in "PM School," but most don't mind and many more come without being told to. Students in low-income families often don't have the time, space or support to get their homework done at home.
"It's not a punishment; it's more like a reward," said eighth-grader Jada Carter of Bartlett. "Now I get A's and B's instead of C's and D's."
Carter knows how much she is improving because she and all the other students track their own progress.
Among their folders and textbooks is a 50-page bound data journal that students use to chart their test scores, measure growth, track goals and plan their futures.
Carter wants to become a doctor, a dream she never thought possible before coming to Tefft. "I'll be the first one in my family to go to college," she said.
There are more than 800 seventh- and eighth-graders in the building, and for all of them it's make or break time.
"Middle school is a pivotal age," Smiley said. "Research shows that if students are not college- and career-ready by the end of eighth grade, they aren't going to be."
The data journals started as two-pocket folders but have evolved into serious publications that other schools are looking to buy and duplicate.
Eight full school days each year are devoted to working on the journals, as students analyze their progress in every class from math to physical education.
This can lead to hard choices. Students at the very bottom, the lowest 30 percent of the class, lose art and other electives to have an extra period of math or reading.
Under the now mostly defunct No Child Left Behind Act, schools like Tefft would be required to have a school improvement plan.
"We have more than 800 school improvement plans, one for every student," Smiley said.
The journals also help teachers identify students who need extra intervention.
"Good schools don't wait 'til the report card comes out to see if a child is going to fail," Smiley said.
First of all, safety
Success in the classroom would not have been possible at Tefft without addressing the behavioral issues first.
Much of that responsibility falls to Assistant Principal Dave Harshbarger, who wears many hats. The school has only one social worker, one school psychologist who travels among other U-46 schools, and no counselors.
One student is living with an aunt while her mother is in prison. She has disciplinary issues piling up from missing an earlier detention, another for chewing gum.
Another student is struggling to keep up with classes because his family pulls him out of school for trips to Mexico that can last for weeks.
One girl, who became distracted and withdrawn in school after her abusive father returned home, picked up again after he left.
Harshbarger has a jovial but firm manner. He reminds them not to let one detention snowball into a bigger problem.
That approach helped Harshbarger get Tefft's disciplinary issues under control years ago when he started mediating disputes between students and even rival gangs. He would sit both parties down in his office and let them talk it out until their issues were resolved, even if that meant missing classes.
"Unless you have a safe, secure culture, forget the academics," Smiley said. "We don't have to like each other, but we will respect each other."
It also meant accepting that some of their students are in gangs.
"Students who live in poverty might be attracted to things they shouldn't be. Kids just want to belong," Smiley said. "I don't care if you're in a gang, but from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. you're not in a gang. You're a Tefft Trojan."
Administrators also shortened passing periods to three minutes from four, minimizing the most vulnerable times for clashes to spark.
Even so, as students change classes the school's police officer and other administrators are in the halls as extra eyes and ears looking for trouble.
Now, Tefft has the highest attendance rate and lowest suspension rate in U-46. Teacher referrals for discipline are down 40 percent from just last year. But they stay proactive on behavioral issues to make sure the school doesn't slip back to where it was when Smiley began.
"At any given time we know we're just a moment away from total chaos," she said.
Tefft doesn't take excuses from parents, either.
Student-led conferences are held twice a year with students walking their parents through their data journals, showing where they are succeeding and struggling, in whatever language their parents best understand. Those conferences are mandatory.
Years ago Smiley would walk through Tefft on conference night and the school would be empty.
Now the school bustles with more than 1,000 people each time as parents bring younger siblings and grandparents to what has become a community resource night.
"Parents know if they don't come, I'm going to hound them," Smiley said.
Parents who don't show up get a letter and an invitation to a makeup session on the weekend. If they don't have a ride, an administrator will pick them up.
That's helped Jada Carter's mom a few times, when she didn't have a car on conference night.
"I don't think she would have come otherwise," Carter said.
If parents still balk, Smiley and her assistant principal will go straight to the student's house, knock on the door and hold the conference at the kitchen table. She once did a conference with a mother who was in the hospital after delivering a baby.
Conferences start in October and sometimes go until Christmas, if that's what it takes.
"No excuses. We are very, very serious about this and our parents know that," Smiley said. "We're modeling that persistence, your learning is so important to us that we're not going to give up."
Getting students in a mindset for success is one step, Smiley said.
"Intelligence is not fixed," she said. The school has been studying research from Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck on having a mindset focused on growth, which she said can improve motivation and productivity.
"Students of poverty think their world is their world and it's not going to change," Smiley said. "We give them hope that they can change, but it takes perseverance and resilience."
Teachers also talk with their students about grit, the strength it will take them to overcome the challenges they will face in and out of school. Those "emotional domains" are important, Smiley said.
Smiley said she has heard administrators from low-income schools like hers say their kids are unmotivated.
"My response is, 'Well, it's our job to motivate children,'" she said.
A report from the Center for American Progress found that students whose teachers have higher expectations of them were three times more likely to graduate from college than their peers.
When Dan Proctor started at Tefft 18 years ago teachers stayed in their classrooms. They didn't often come out and compare notes.
"And when they did they would talk about how many students they were failing," Proctor said. "Failing was a badge of honor."
English teacher Val Albuck would get papers turned in with gang symbols drawn on them.
"It wasn't an easy environment to teach in," she said.
Now, at the end of each quarter administrators send out a spreadsheet showing how every teacher's students did on tests.
The idea was to compare, contrast and learn from one another, but the practice was controversial. Some teachers quit over it.
"It's a learning tool for us, not what we did wrong, but what we can do better," Albuck said.
While the classroom experience is under control, many student home lives are as difficult as before.
Proctor still gets emotional discussing students who come into his class talking about the poverty, abuse or unstable homes they face, as if these situations are normal. It drives the staff to keep pushing.
"Every child who comes here has the opportunity to go to college and we let the students know that," Proctor said. "Yes, it might take some work, but it's possible."
Robert Jackson hopes it will be possible for him.
He used to be in PM School every day for either behavioral issues or not doing his homework. Now, Jackson is moving on to high school, but he wants to go to college and become a pilot.
He says the teachers made the difference.
"They expect a lot of you, more than you expect of yourself," he said. "They see your true potential and want you to break past and do greater things than you think you can do. They try to push you to your limits so you can get better. They're helping you out every step of the way."
Like a second family
What was once a school where parents didn't care to send their children has now been designated -- twice -- as a Breakthrough School by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
In 2010, Tefft was one of nine schools in the nation so honored, and it was redesignated in 2013.
When Marbella Quiroz of Hanover Park entered Tefft as a seventh-grader, she got poor grades and landed in detention.
"I would lie to my parents. They would fight a lot. That was really hard for a child to see. My sister moved out," she said.
"I didn't even care about anything. I would do whatever I wanted if it would get me away from the problems I had at home."
Quiroz didn't see a bright future for herself, but the teachers and environment at Tefft have changed that.
"I really didn't think I was going to go to college, but now I realize we all have chances. You just have to push yourself," said Marbella, who just finished eighth grade. "This school changed my life."
The school can't eliminate the problems she has at home, but she said she's learned to focus on her academics, control her anger and reach out when she's struggling.
"They taught me that help is always there for you when you need it," she said. "I feel like Tefft isn't just here to teach you about school. It's like a second family."
Generations at RiskPart 1: Lower income, lower outcomes: The strong tie between poverty and academic in a state where more than 50% of students are considered low-income. See story.
Part 2:How one Carpentersville school with 94% low-income is nevertheless making the grade. See story.
Part 3: Tefft Middle School in Streamwood has transformed itself out of "chaos" and academic failure to a nationally recognized breakthrough school, through discipline, structure and accountability for students, teachers and parents alike. See story.
Part 4: Read a Q and A with new State Superintendent Tony Smith about the changes necessary for Illinois schools to break through the income barrier. Find out what Illinois policymakers say we should do to make education more equal for all students. See story.
Find your schools: Our interactive data presentation lets you look up your school, see how it ranks with other. Check it out at http://reportcards.dailyherald.com/lowincome/