Our UCW Charter School Visit

This past August, John, Minke, Gautham and I visited University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Campus in Hyde Park.  We visited early in the morning, and children in uniform were waiting outside so that they could begin their school day.

We met up with Shayne Evans at the front door and I immediately felt comfortable with visiting.  In addition to Shayne’s welcoming personality, he had fostered a friendly environment among everyone in the school.  Mr. Evans knew everyone by name – teachers, students, and staff – and introduced us to every individual that we met.

UCW begins their school day with a circle – all the of the high school students meet in an auditorium where they students and staff make announcements, shout outs and congratulations in front of the entire school body.  This struck me as unusual, because in my high school experience, I expected teachers and administrators to yell at kids to be quiet, or make unruly students leave.  Yet, that’s not what we saw.  Kids were happily singing Happy Birthday to celebrants or receiving congratulations on a good test. None of them were being forced to be there.

Shayne soon led us around the school and showed us several classrooms where we learned about UCW’s culture, philosophy and goals.  One of the main requirements in the curriculum is that teachers follow a curriculum structure constructed by the administration. The teacher hiring process is also interesting. After UCW decides to consider someone for a teaching position, the prospective teacher is invited back for a mock class with real students. He is then observed by an administrator, and the children’s response to the lesson is taken into consideration.  The potential teacher also has to take the ACT test in their subject area.   to demonstrate the teacher’s competence; as Shayne puts it, “How can I expect you to help these kids get a 25 if you can’t even do it?”  While this may seem fairly procedural to many, this was a very hands-on approach to the hiring process compared to my past experiences with new teachers.
Students are immersed with the message that they are going to college from the time that they enter UCW.  We saw this when we were walking through the hallways – everywhere I looked, college banners and college flag pennants hung from the ceiling, representing a wide variety of top and middle-tier universities.  I believe that this decision has a huge impact on the way children can perceive their future.  Woodlawn also requires students to visit colleges and visit universities, such as the University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin every year.  In addition, if the child doesn’t want to go to college, they still find classes for him to take in order to keep giving the student goals in high school.  UCW gives their students the tools to go to college; if a student decides that college is not for them, that’s okay. However, the main point is that the “college-track” should never be a path that is unattainable because of ability. I believe that is the overall lesson that we could learn from UCW – the continual encouragement of students to achieve their goals is something for which we should all strive.

Shayne also had some advice for Mosaic in general: make sure we are clear about what we want.  If the people who work for us are not clear of our goals, any indication of progress may be muddled by miscommunication.  Once our goals are clear, make sure that everyone is completely on board.  Shayne pointed out that Mosaic members already have drank the “Kool-Aid.” Anything we do as a group we need to fully commit to. The challenge comes as Mosaic continues to grow, as we need to convince others joining us that the Kool-Aid is alright to drink, too.

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