UChicago Charter School builds upon early lessons

Charter school’s remarkable success began with what Marvin Hoffman learned in founding the school’s first campus.

In the renovated wing of a church at 46th Street and Ellis Avenue in the summer of 1998, Marvin Hoffman launched a charter school that opened a new phase in the University of Chicago’s education of children on the city’s South Side.

The North Kenwood/Oakland location was the first campus of the University of Chicago Charter School, which has since grown to four campuses that are part of the University’s Urban Education Institute, offering students an excellent pathway from prekindergarten to college. That beginning was a learning adventure for Hoffman, the students, and the school community, with lessons he has summarized in a new book, Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, which Hoffman co-edited with Lisa Arrastía.

The first meetings of teachers for the new school took place in the living room of Hoffman’s home. He writes: “It’s been reputed that ‘All revolutions begin in someone’s living room,’ and ours was no exception.”

As a newcomer to school leadership, Hoffman quickly learned the importance of choosing a curriculum that was challenging for students, and of involving all parents in the life of the school. He also got a crash course in how mundane crises can distract school leaders, including concerns about real estate matters, fire codes, and faulty sprinkler systems.

That experience offered lasting insights into how public schools and a major research university could work together and enrich each other — insights that continue to guide the UChicago Charter School, now under the leadership of Director Shayne Evans.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write, but we’re also teaching them to be citizens,” Evans says. “What matters to us is sending students to college and preparing them to be leaders, and that all started at NKO.”

Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey Director of the Urban Education Institute, also has praise for Hoffman, now associate director of UEI’s Urban Teacher Education Program, which is celebrating a decade of preparing urban teachers.

“He helped bring our Urban Teacher Education Program to life — developing the next generation of exemplary teachers for Chicago,” Knowles says. “And he has mentored many of us — at every step.”

’We told them how important they were’

Getting the new school off to a good start in Hoffman’s five years as director required working with community partners to build a new school culture. The school served a predominantly African American population of students— 75 percent of them from low-income families and 25 percent from middle-income households.

“I wanted to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds the same opportunities that children from more privileged settings had,” he says. “But I had no experience as a school leader. I had always been a teacher. It was a steep learning curve.”

The school leadership met with all families that applied, says Barbara Williams, a former public school principal who helped found NKO with Hoffman and UEI colleagues, including the late Sara Spurlark. Williams says the family meetings were vital, even though many would not be selected in the school’s random lottery.

“In a sense, we told them how important they were,” says Williams, who later served with Hoffman as co-director of the school. “We wanted parents, extended families, and the community to feel invested in the school, whether they had a child there or not. In the long run that’s probably why we didn’t have many break-ins or vandalism, because we were part of the community. They felt like, ‘That’s my school.’”

Finding the right balance

But the interest in tailoring the school to students’ needs also could cause errors in judgment. Hoffman shied away from using the University of Chicago-developed mathematics curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, in favor of one that purported to be designed specifically for urban schools. That curriculum was not fully developed, so Hoffman returned to Everyday Mathematics, which required more grounding in basic math facts but wound up serving the students well.

Another important decision was to seek experienced teachers rather than start the school with younger staffers, as many new schools try to do. It was one of the leaders’ best decisions, Hoffman says, providing stability as well as winning “the confidence of many wary parents who weren’t sure just what they had signed on for.”

Students, who called Hoffman “Dr. H”, also remember him for engaging their interests, including in the classes he taught while being director. “One thing that I remember about Dr. H is how he would read to us out loud as a class, and how much fun it was,” says former student Akilah Terry. “I remember one specific instance where Dr. H read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The story was about a young man who had to survive alone in nature using a hatchet, and you could hear a pin drop in the classroom whenever Dr. H would read it.”

Charter school builds a record of excellence

Now, 15 years after the first conversations about starting a charter school, the UChicago Charter School has compiled extensive successes, with 1,750 students on four campuses. In addition to NKO, the charter school operates Donoghue, a pre-K to fifth-grade campus founded in 2005; Carter G. Woodson, a sixth- to eighth-grade campus founded in 2008; and Woodlawn, a sixth- to 12th-grade campus founded in 2006.

The UChicago Charter School has achieved impressive results since that beginning —this year 100 percent of the graduates of Woodlawn were accepted to college and 20 percent of the graduates of Carter G. Woodson were accepted at the city’s most selective high schools.

“Our success is built on Marv’s work,” Evans says.

Charter School representatives have continued the early partnerships with scholars at UEI and the UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Research to track student progress and make use of research findings. For example, the UChicago Charter School has placed additional emphasis on success in the ninth grade in light of UChicago CCSR research showing the pivotal importance of that year for future success.

“Here you get the opportunity to integrate philosophy, research, theory, and practice in one place,” Evans says.

The lessons in Chicago have had national implications, says Anthony Bryk, former director of the University’s Center for School Improvement, which established NKO. Bryk noted that research on what works best in small charter schools was limited when NKO was founded.

“New small schools were just beginning to form, and no other major research university had yet taken on this task,” says Bryk, now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “So what Marv did those first five years was truly innovative.”