Friday, March 23, 2012




     When Alice Felice Henry first walked into James Weldon Johnson School in North Lawndale, she knew the turnaround she was about to undertake would have to be total. Ms Henry says the building at 1420 South Albany was filthy, with holes in the walls and graffiti scrawled across hallways. Windows overlooking Douglas Park with a view of downtown Chicago from uniquely-designed common areas on each floor were painted black so children could not see out and light could not come in, giving the school a dark and depressing atmosphere. She made her first task to draw up work orders to clean and repair the building and change the entire mood of the school. She had the paint scraped off the windows and the whole building received a fresh, bright paint job. Then Ms Henry set about to hire staff that matched the new environment with an enthusiasm for teaching that would inspire the students. 

     James Weldon Johnson had been designated by CPS as a turnaround school three years ago and given to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to manage. Alice Felice Henry was selected as Johnson’s Principal because of her 22-year professional career in education. She served for ten years as principal of an alternative school with experience working with young people displaying behavioral, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Her teaching career includes schools in Atlanta and Chicago. Ms Henry knew she needed to improve the school environment quickly. She selected 75% of her new faculty from AUSL-trained teachers and retained 25% of the existing staff. 

    Johnson is a Chicago public school and all faculty members are union teachers. Johnson School of Excellence is NOT a charter school. As principal, Ms Henry reflects the AUSL philosophy of teamwork and support, ensuring teacher success. The assistant principal is still a model teacher. Henry’s mantra is, “Actions against adversity: Don’t do things that get in the way of instructional activity.” She emphasizes attention to detail. Henry observes, “If it isn’t done right on the first day, you will be correcting it the rest of the year.” So, she was determined to set the right tone from Day One. Henry explains that schools need to be turned around “because they are horrifically dysfunctional – dangerous, with no learning going on.” This was the case at James Weldon Johnson. Before she took over, police were a daily presence in the school. She met the local commander shortly after the opening of school and he said he thought Johnson was closed because he had received no calls for service. 

    But, Ms Henry emphasizes that it is the adults who matter in changing the school environment. “We didn’t change any children,” she says. Like all AUSL schools, James Weldon Johnson is a neighborhood school, drawing its entire student body from the surrounding community. Currently, Johnson has rebuilt its enrollment to more than 355 students. The school was built for 500, but only 230 students were registered when AUSL took over management because academic standards had deteriorated and the school was so unsafe. This year, the staff has worked to reduce transfers and encourage neighborhood children to return. Average daily attendance rate is 97% at Johnson. 

   Other factors reducing enrollment were the closing of the nearby public housing projects and the foreclosure crisis. It is expected that the closing of Lathrop Elementary School at 1440 South Christiana at the end of this year will result in its 80 students attending Johnson in the fall. AUSL operates teacher-training academies in Chicago and then pairs resident instructors with experienced mentor teachers. In addition, Johnson utilizes City Year Americorps volunteers to work with students and provide tutoring assistance. North Central College students perform clinical service hours tutoring Johnson students. Ms Henry and the staff have designed the common areas of each floor around themes. The 2nd floor is Just Like Home; the 3rd floor has a garden theme; and the 4th floor is an Internet Café. 

   Teachers take classes to these informal lounge areas for individual reading times, special projects, and tutoring. Christopher Cuengras is the Choral & Keyboard Teacher. Ms Henry stresses that Johnson has the same budget as every other Chicago public school its size. She chooses to utilize a portion of her funding for music and a Fine Arts Classroom. Johnson is still a work in progress, Principal Henry explains. When she took over, less than 40% of Johnson students were meeting or exceeding state standards. 

   Currently, over 60% meet and exceed. And, the trend is upward. Henry says her biggest challenge was getting parents to interact appropriately and become involved at Johnson. She says parent involvement has evolved. At James Weldon Johnson School of Excellence, it is clear that everyone is working as a team and the children are major partners in their academic progress.