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No Magic Bullets, But Harvard Elementary Is Turning the Corner

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You never know when life's big moments will occur. Mine came in 2002 when I grabbed a free newspaper while waiting for a booth at MacArthur's restaurant in Chicago. At the time, I was an executive for an international candy company. I was earning six figures, but I could not shake the gnawing feeling that it was not my calling.

When I opened the newspaper, I saw an advertisement for a teacher residency training program. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of learning from a master teacher and embarking on a career change.

After my food arrived, I put the newspaper aside and forgot about what I had just read (hey, I'm 6-foot-6 and need my nourishment). A couple of weeks later, I used the same newspaper to clean the inside of my car. The whole paper was torn to shreds except for one page--the one with the teacher training advertisement. The ad was still staring at me weeks later. I finally decided it was God's will and made plans to enter the teacher training program. And that's how the adventure of a lifetime began.

The secret sauce in my career transition was the training I received in a 12-month teacher residency preparation program run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). In the span of one year, I earned a Masters degree in teaching and had the chance to spend every day in Chicago Public Schools classrooms learning from a master teacher. I received specific tools and support to help meet the challenge of teaching at an under-performing urban school. One year later when I was teaching my own class, I wasn't nervous on the first day. Why? Because I already had 180 first days.

My first job was teaching a class of students repeating the sixth grade. By the end of the year, 80 percent of those students passed the state test. The district was so suspicious of this huge gain - only 22 percent of students passed the previous year - that the students had to take the test again with proctors present. Good thing there was a retest. This time, 84 percent of my students passed.

In the last seven years, I've gone from a teacher-in-training to a classroom teacher to a principal, all in my hometown of Chicago. Looking back on my experiences before my life as an educator, I was proud of several things, including six years in the military and Gulf War service stationed in Kuwait. But I can honestly say that urban education reform is the most important thing I have ever done.

The non-profit AUSL is charged with turning around CPS's most under-performing schools. We bring in a new principal and specially trained teachers. When the students come back for a new academic year, they return to renovated facilities, a new curriculum and most importantly, an entirely new culture of success.

In the winter of 2007, AUSL was asked to turn around Harvard Elementary School. As the incoming principal, I spent time during the winter before the turnaround in the parking lot, just observing students as they arrived in the mornings and as they left at the end of the day. What I saw broke my heart. No one greeted the children when they walked in. Fights were common and drug transactions occurred right outside the door. Morale was so low that one day more than 60 percent of the teachers called in sick.

The first thing I did when I took over as principal was to direct the teachers to line up the students outside and walk the students into school to start the day. If a student misbehaved, I went to his house at 8 p.m. to talk with his parents. We held students and parents accountable. Our parents realized we are not around the corner; we are in their corner. Soon, some of our fiercest critics became our most ardent advocates. Now, the percentage of students meeting state standards at Harvard has increased by nearly 70 percent.

When I began this journey, education reform was mostly a topic for the policy wonks. So much has changed. Now, a documentary on school reform can be a box office hit. There is a realization that what we have done in the past is not working and we need to make drastic changes.

While I'm of course partial to teacher training and whole-school turnaround, education reform is too big a problem for a single solution. There is no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all cure. Education reform can be a divisive issue, but we can all agree that the status quo is no longer acceptable. That, in and of itself, is progress.

If you're ever in Chicago, I'd love to continue this conversation. I know a good restaurant, called MacArthur's. If you arrive before me, just pick up a newspaper. You never know where it will lead.

Andre Cowling is principal of Chicago Collins Academy High School. He earned a master's degree in teaching in 2003 as a member of the first residency class of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). He has worked as a teacher, dean and principal at AUSL schools.