This is just the second year that Danielle Porch, has been at her post of principal of Caldwell Academy on Chicago’s Gresham neighborhood, but she has made big changes in that short amount of time – most notably, moving the school from a Level 3 to a Level 2 in terms of academic performance. Level 3 means the school is on probation, while Level 2 indicates it is in good academic standing. In addition to adding more rigor to the school’s curriculum, Porch also has set about changing the school’s culture into one focused on giving back to the community in which the school is located. In fact, just a few Saturdays ago, Porch led a group of 80 parents, students and staff in an effort to clean up the neighborhood around the school.
“I want our students and community to feel a sense of ownership and pride in the school,” said Porch, who had taught at Caldwell for over a decade before becoming its assistant principal and now its principal. “I want to instill in our students that it’s their responsibility to give back, that it’s not always all about them.” Next on the “Caldwell Helping Hands” agenda is a food drive in November for needy families within the school community. Besides contributing canned goods and nonperishable items to the drive, students also are writing letters to local grocery stores asking them to donate vouchers for turkeys or soda to the more than 50 families that the school hopes to feed over the Thanksgiving holidays.
The caring culture that Porch hopes to encourage seems to be taking root. She tells the story of a 7th grade student who carried his books and supplies in a plastic Jewel bag and a compassionate classmate who wanted to help. “Seeing this student carrying his books in a grocery bag affected one of his classmates so much that he asked his mother if he could buy a backpack for the boy. So one day in the hallway, the classmate presented the student with the new backpack. The student hugged his classmate in thanks for the unexpected gift right there in front of everyone. Later, hearing about what happened with the backpack, we publicly thanked the gift-giver for the gesture over the school intercom. He was surprised that we were even aware of his generosity, because he certainly didn’t do it to get any praise from us,” said Porch.
In addition to encouraging students to be sensitive to the needs of others through her Helping Hands program, Porch also set her sights on changing the academic climate of the school in a big way. “I remember when Caldwell students participated in academic bowls.” Porch said. “However, I saw the quality of the education that the school was providing decline over the last several years, and with it our enrollment. We went from more than 600 students to just 230 in the year that I started as principal.”
Mining the data available to determine the subject areas the students across all grades were weakest academically, Porch asked her teachers across the board – Kindergarten through 8th grade -- to focus their instruction on one skill per month in the core subject areas of reading, math and science in addition to the regular curriculum. Porch then checked in with teachers on a weekly basis to report on their students’ progress based on weekly assessment tests patterned after the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).
To incent students, every Friday, Porch gave out three “traveling trophies,” one each for classrooms in primary, intermediate and upper grades. At the beginning of each week, Porch announced what the week’s competition would be based on for each grade level – such as the highest number of correct answers on the week’s assessment test or the highest number of correct answers on a math problem.
To give students additional academic support, every weekend from November through February Porch held school on Saturdays for all students, paying participating teachers with money set aside from the school’s budget. Parents were more than happy to bring their children to “Saturday School,” as it was called if it meant helping them achieve academically.
Peteesa Curb, mother of a daughter in the 8th grade at Caldwell and an active school volunteer, is one such parent who appreciates that the caliber of education that students are receiving has improved. “They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job,” said Curb. “She has more ideas and is more passionate about the students than previous leaders. She really knows how to motivate them; she’s a very motivational person. Kids see how much she cares about them and this makes them want to work harder.
“She’s also has brought more opportunity to the students here, such as classes in computer technology and French, which we’ve never had before,” continued Curb. “She also brings people in to talk to the students about careers and even the possibility about attending high school abroad, which my daughter now wants to investigate. She even started a Beta Club here, which we’ve never had before. She pushes the kids to do their best and lets them know she expects a lot from them.
Curb and the other parents also have noticed a marked difference since Porch became principal and the changes she has brought to the school beyond academics. “The kids wear uniforms now; boys wear ties. School rules are enforced like they never were before. She is a no-nonsense person, and the kids really respect her. The parents respect her as well and appreciate that she is available to them when they need her,” said Curb.
“If it’s important enough for a parent to come to school to speak with me, then it’s important enough for me to make myself available,” Porch said. Porch reaches out proactively to parents as well, and believes that parents whose kids may not be model students, need to know when they are having a good day just as much, if not more than, as when there is an issue. That’s why she and her staff call parents when they notice something going right, not only when something’s wrong. “Parents are often surprised to hear from me and my staff with good news, since they are more used to hearing from their children’s school when the news is bad. But I think there needs to be a balance,” said Porch.
Parents must appreciate Porch’s approach, because more of them are showing up at meetings and other activities than they had been under previous leadership. In fact, parents have really taken to Family Movie and Game Night, which Porch holds every month complete with a large movie screen and free popcorn machine and sodas. “I started this to bring families together, not only with members of their own families, but also with those of others at the school. I want them to feel that this is their community, not just a building where they send their kids during the week,” said Porch.
Students have certainly responded to Porch’s leadership as well, and are starting to feel more pride in their school. “There are two selective enrollment elementary schools in our immediate area, and students want to prove to themselves that they are as equally as smart as those who attend the selective enrollment schools,” said Porch. “I sometimes pull students aside and conduct mini focus groups with them just to see what things they are thinking about. When I started doing this early on, I was surprised by how many students were angry because they didn’t feel like they were learning.”
The students are definitely learning now, if the school’s composite ISAT test results are any indication. Caldwell’s scores are up 6 percent from the previous year. Third grade scores increased an incredible 20 percent, from 70 to 90 percent of students testing at a meets or exceeds level. The school also can boast the highest gains in science among schools in its network. All in all, gains were seen in every subject area, including those where students were weakest the year before. The school is now a Level 2 school in good standing, which Porch intends to celebrate by holding a special assembly for students and staff to thank them for their hard work.
Things are definitely looking up at Caldwell, and people are noticing. Enrollment is up to 343 students from the 250 that the school had just a year ago.
Congratulations to Principal Porch and the parents and students at Caldwell Academy for a job well done! Keep up the good work!