Public TV Features Wells HS Turnaround

According to this WTTW/PBS NewsHour segment, Wells HS has come a long way in the past five years, thanks in large part to the arrival of UIC-trained principal Ernesto Matias.

Other programs training principals include New Leaders -- I'd almost forgotten about them.

What do you think/see/know/have to say about Wells, UIC, New Leaders, or the coverage [besides the fact that life is unfair and you can't get a job and the network heads make all the decisions]?

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  • Ernesto Matias is an impressive principal and we know each other from the Catalyst Editorial Advisory Board, but the PBS story was very shallow. It did not present the complex situation that Mr. Matias and some other general high school principals face in this city.

    There is no question that Mr. Matias and his team pulled Wells off CPS probation status and there is no question that is good thing. But will it be enough to save Wells from eventual closure, I don't know the answer to that. Really the story did not even touch on that issue and it should have.

    Order and structure have made great strides at Wells but academics are not improving at a rapid pace. Rapid academic improvement at the high school level is very difficult to achieve especially for a high school that is over 95% low income and has a 35% mobility rate. Crude indicators like the percentage of students taking the PSAE reading at or above standards in 2012 being only 12% but back in 2006 18.4% of Wells students hit that marker are problematic. Looking at composite ACT scores we see in 2012 the average for Wells was 15.7 and in 2006 it was also 15.7.

    This data does not mean the school hasn't improved. For example the 2012 Wells school progress report shows that the school has achieved average student growth, but because its students are so academically behind that growth level is insufficient to statistically move the achievement dial in a big way. The same CPS report shows a huge improvement in the school's culture and climate and 69.0% of freshman are on track to graduate. The dropout rate also has steadily declined under Mr. Matias' leadership.

    While Wells has many positive metrics going for it, it has several huge problems. One huge problem is the incredible gentrification that has taken place around the school. Effectively the white middle class has become predominate and replaced many moderate income Hispanic families. The high school level educational expectations of these higher income families are greater than Wells can currently deliver. Then there is the issue of Noble Street Charter School's original campus which also draws some of the Hispanic students that might have gone to Wells, at one point about 43.5% of Noble students came from the Wells intake area.

    Only 23.4% of the current enrollment of Wells are students from inside the boundary area of the school. The school is listed as dramatically underutilized by CPS, and was last year using only 54% of the theoretical capacity of the building according to CPS. Even worse for Wells the current CPS capital plan states the school will require $19,984,000.00 to maintain and upgrade with no projected increase in students over the next 10 years according to the CPS capital plan.

    This is the complex reality that Wells faces, none of this was discussed in the PBS story. Maybe its not a reality that PBS even wants to begin to discuss because the focus was on the positive aspects of the UIC principal development program. But there is more involved to urban education than just effective leadership and I think there is no question Ernesto Matias has been an effective principal. Even teachers from Wells believe Matias has been a good principal and some told me that while they were marching on the picket line during the last strike. But the PBS story got to none of the more complex issues facing Wells and Mr. Matias as the leader of that high school.

    Rod Estvan

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