Friday, August 19, 2011


General Colin Powell and Mayor Rahm Emanuel each visited Bethune School of Excellence and both were extremely impressed with what they saw. They met students working diligently to succeed at a school making great strides in academics, the arts, and sports. Students and teachers are proud of their accomplishments – and it shows!
Named for African American scholar and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the school at 3030 West Arthington Street was failing two years ago. The Chicago Board of Education mandated Bethune a Turnaround School and transferred management to the Academy of Urban School Leadership in 2009 with orders to stabilize the enrollment, build academic performance, close the achievement gap, and move students to not just meet state standards, but to exceed them. Bethune needed an image makeover to change neighborhood perceptions about school safety and security.
The Academy of Urban School Leadership has proven itself to be expert at turning around failing schools, changing the atmosphere from accepting failure as natural to expecting excellence, improving the physical structures of the schools they manage, and selecting the best administrators and teachers who bring out the best in their students.
At Bethune, the Academy of Urban School Leadership began its work as it does with all of the turnaround schools it manages: replacing the administration and faculty with the most dynamic principal and finest teachers available. AUSL trains teachers and administrators at Dodge Training Academy and places them in their schools working as Residents under Mentor Teachers and Senior Administrators. They bring to their schools an understanding of both the challenges they face and the best methods for surmounting those challenges to inspire their students and build an expectation of success among everyone associated with the school and its children. Ziporah Hightower is the outstanding Principal at Bethune School of Excellence.
A new faculty was selected for Bethune comprising teachers who all believe in the ability of every Bethune student to reach the highest potential. Teachers at AUSL schools don’t strive for excellence – they expect it. The motto for students and teachers at AUSL schools is No Excuses! Students at Bethune are partners in their academic progress, understanding the roadmap and tracking their journeys on charts outside their classrooms showing each child’s grades and test scores so they know where they are excelling and where they need to work harder.
Finally, the school building itself was repaired, cleaned and beautified because its condition reflects the pride the staff has in the students and the students deserve to have in themselves.
Last year, Bethune had a total enrollment of 379 students in Head Start through 8th grade in a building that accommodates 600 students. A bright note for the future is that Bethune has a waiting list for Head Start.
Ms Hightower proudly points to programs and support services offered by Bethune that are rarely found in larger schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Bethune offers Chef in the Classroom and Urban Initiatives’ Common Threads Culinary Arts Program, Chicago Runs, Aikido, a drum line, an after-school graffiti art program, drama classes, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. The library doesn’t just have shelves full of books; it is a full-fledged Media Center serving today’s multi-media generation. Bethune is the recipient of Community In Schools grants.
Bethune has a teaching staff of 30 outstanding instructors. Although Bethune is managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, it remains a Chicago Public School – not a charter school – and all faculty are members of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Principal Hightower points out innovations like a Study Island for 2nd graders, a fully equipped modern Science Lab available to all classes, and a Music Lab that was a gift to the school from AUSL founder Mike Koldyke. Bethune offers a fully-stocked Teaching Resource Center so instructors can easily select reading support materials for their students. Bethune received a grant of 65 computers from the University of Phoenix, equipping a modern student Computer Lab.
Teachers prepared individualized Summer Reading Lists for students so they could continue their intellectual growth during vacation and not lose academic gains achieved during the regular school year.
Ms Hightower describes her role as “advocate, mother, supporter of families.” She said her first job at Bethune was to set the appropriate tone and establish an orderly atmosphere for learning. When she arrived, children routinely roamed the halls, were loud and boisterous when passing to classes, lunch, or recess. If students became angry or upset, they just left the building and went home.
“We reestablished order in the classrooms and hallways by emphasizing respect and enforcing regulations for behavior and conduct,” Ms Hightower explains. “It didn’t take long for the students to respond positively. We have high expectations for student behavior.”
Ms Hightower bristles at the popular notion that schools cannot recruit parent involvement and that students can be expected to fail if they are from homes without strong support for education. “That is just not true and I hate hearing it,” she declares. “It is our job as teachers to reach out in whatever way necessary to involve parents in the education process and to inspire every child to learn at his or her highest potential. That is what we are trained to do and it can be done. Every child can learn and excel!”
To learn about course offerings at Bethune School of Excellence and to enroll a child, call Ziporah Hightower at 773/534-6890.

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