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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 06:09 am

The Lanphier lion learns to roar

A high school reinvents itself with a big pot of money


A concrete lion mascot stands guard outside Lanphier High School. The lion is Lanphier’s mascot.

The halls of Lanphier High School are strangely quiet. About 1,100 students file through the school’s maze of corridors several times each day, bringing the usual sounds of slamming lockers, chatty children and a shrill bell announcing the start and end of every period. But absent are certain sounds that used to be common at Lanphier just a couple of years ago: cursing, fighting and open defiance of teachers.

That was the scene during a recent walk-through of Lanphier by the Illinois State Board of Education, which lauded the progress in turning around what was once considered a dangerous, failing school with help from a large federal grant. Lanphier has struggled with truancy, dropouts, discipline and poor achievement in recent years, but changes to staff, procedures and even the school day itself seem to be making a difference. Attendance is up, achievement is up and discipline appears to be more consistent. While Lanphier still faces major challenges, the school’s teachers, students and parents say the improvement is noticeable. The next challenge will be sustaining the change once the grant money runs out.

Lanphier principal Artie Doss started took over at Lanphier in August 2010, emphasizing discipline and a “change of culture.”

The school

Lanphier sits at the corner of North Grand Avenue and 11th Street on the city’s north side. The school’s 1,137 students mostly live north of Jefferson Street and Clear Lake Avenue, with part of the school’s southern population boundary extending to Cook Street on the city’s east side.

The school is about 53 percent white and 39 percent black, with small numbers of Hispanic, Asian, Indian and mixed-race students.  About 62 percent of the students at Lanphier come from low-income homes, which is slightly higher than the 55 percent at Springfield Southeast High School and far higher than the 35 percent at Springfield High School. Students from low-income homes tend to score lower on standardized tests, meaning schools with high proportions of low-income students usually post lower scores overall.

Lanphier has been on the state’s “academic watch list” for about nine years, but a 2008 report from the City of Springfield’s Office of Education Liaison and The Springfield Urban League showed the problem of low achievement at Lanphier goes back at least as far as 2001.

Standardized test results from Lanphier show that fewer than half of students meet academic benchmarks for reading and math. The most recent data for 2012 show that only 42.1 percent of Lanphier students met benchmarks for reading, while only 32.2 percent met benchmarks for math. Despite a few years showing improvements, standardized test scores at Lanphier have dropped about 10 points over the past decade. From 2007 to 2011, juniors at Lanphier taking the Prairie State Achievement Exam performed worse than their counterparts at Southeast High School and at Springfield High School.

The data also show large achievement gaps between white and black students. While 52.6 percent of white students met the reading benchmarks for 2012, only 22 percent of black students met the same benchmarks. Likewise in math, with 41.2 percent of white students and only 10 percent of black students meeting benchmarks.

Lanphier’s graduation rate has decreased each of the past three years, from 89.7 percent in 2009 to only 64 percent in 2012. The graduation rate counts students who earn a diploma in four years or fewer, and it accounts for students who transfer in or out of the school. The current rate of 64 percent is down from a high of 98 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, dropouts increased rapidly from a low of 0.9 percent in 2008 to 5.9 percent in 2011. The most recent data show dropouts declined in 2012 to 4.4 percent.

Lanphier draws most of its 1,100 to 1,200 students from Springfield’s north side and part of the city’s east side.

In addition to the poor academic performance, the school previously had a reputation for heavy-handed discipline that accomplished little. During the 2009-2010 school year, Lanphier administrators handed out nearly 1,300 suspensions, which remove troublesome students from the school but also increase the number of days those students miss classes, potentially putting them further behind. Many of those suspensions were for fighting, using profane language and blatantly defying teachers.

The poor academic performance and discipline problems at Lanphier over time created a negative public perception of the school. A history section on Lanphier’s website bluntly sums up the school’s reputation.

“Many believe the stereotype that Lanphier is inferior to the other local high schools,” the website states. “Yet, all students who attend (and have attended) Lanphier have a strong pride for their school.”

The transformation

Danielle Cougan is a senior at Lanphier and president of the Student Government Association. She wants to attend college for business and coach volleyball. Compared with her freshman year, Cougan says, the school now holds students to a higher standard, and the quality and depth of teaching has improved.

“I feel like we’re getting into deeper learning and teaching from bell to bell and being on-task,” Cougan said. “It’s higher-level thinking, more asking the question ‘why’ and comparing it to events that will happen in your daily life.”

Ryan Edwards, senior class president at Lanphier, said he has noticed a huge change in the “culture” of the school.

“I would have to say that the Lanphier of my freshman year is not at all the same Lanphier that we have today,” Edwards said. “Discipline was a much larger problem back then. There were kids openly defying teachers in the hallway. I rarely, if ever, notice that today.”

He says the school’s half-hour “enrichment” time has helped him learn about several topics like student loans for college and how to manage credit cards.

“I’m not gonna lie: at first enrichment wasn’t the most productive thing in the world, but come second semester of my junior year, I felt the ACT prep was very beneficial – especially taking practice tests and stuff,” he said.

The Lanphier Madrigals singing group, led by vocal and piano teacher Maryna Mitchell (not pictured), practices a series of songs during a visit by the Illinois State Board of Education during December.

Jessica Pickens is president of the parent-teacher organization at Lanphier, with two children already graduated from the school and another child who is a sophomore. Pickens jokingly called herself “that ridiculous parent” who obsessively checks to make sure her children are doing their homework.

“I have seen a tremendous change in the discipline,” Pickens said. “There’s not anywhere near as many fights breaking out. When teachers say ‘Hey, pull your pants up,’ the students respond. There’s not the pushback that there was when I first started coming up here three years ago. There’s definitely a shift and a change. There’s not kids roaming around now the way there were a couple of years ago.”

Pickens says communication with teachers has also improved, and parents can now set up appointments with teachers and administrators quickly.

“Everything is always very open, and it’s very clear that everyone here is looking forward to improving things for the students,” Pickens said.

What caused the change? The catalyst was a $5.2 million federal School Improvement Grant, and the improvements required a lot of self-examination on the part of Lanphier’s leadership.

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) is a federally funded grant meant to help turn around struggling schools. An eligible school is one that has not made adequate yearly progress for at least two years or is in the bottom fifth of schools statewide with regard to academic performance. Lanphier applied for the grant in 2010 and was denied, but the school applied again and received the $5.2 million grant in 2011.

The grant money paid for several items like new school supplies and equipment, for access to online learning and assessment tools, and for teachers to attend several professional development courses. It also helped compensate teachers who took on additional duties when Lanphier extended its school day. At least three new faculty members were hired with grant money, including Sharon Kherat, Lanphier’s transformational officer.

Kherat formerly taught and served as a principal in Peoria public schools, and at Lanphier she oversees the implementation of the school’s “transformational plan.” The plan includes increased teacher accountability, a big push for parent and community involvement in the school, an early warning system for struggling students, and more in-depth tutoring to keep those students from failing and ultimately dropping out. Kherat says Lanphier is focusing on “empowering” students to do well on their own in the long term.

“We give them a lot of control and ability to get involved in decision making, and then we hold them accountable,” Kherat said.

The grant-fueled changes seem to be working. During the State Board of Education visit in December, board members praised Lanphier as being the highest performing school among all Illinois schools that received the School Improvement Grant. The school posted an 11 percent gain in reading benchmarks, and teachers at Lanphier say their students are becoming better prepared for standardized tests like the ACT.

Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, addresses junior and senior students in English teacher Alice Armstrong’s communications class at Lanphier.

The number of suspensions at Lanphier fell below 400 during both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, following a change in disciplinary focus. For the current school year, administrators have given out a little more than 150 suspensions, which means this year’s total could come in significantly lower than recent years. Fewer suspensions means fewer students missing crucial days of class, along with a decreased likelihood that those students will drop out of school instead of returning once their suspension is over.

Lanphier principal Artie Doss says he and his staff specifically focused on improving discipline at Lanphier with the same approach that Doss used while principal at Southeast High School and at Springfield Learning Academy alternative high school.  

“The kids saw that, and they began to buy into it and to like the respect they were given and that they were able to reciprocate,” Doss said.

Prolonging the change

The efforts to transform Lanphier seem to have been successful so far, but what happens when the grant money runs out? Doss sums up his hopes in three words: change of culture.

“As we look at the initiatives we’ve put in place, we think that we have sustained a push that has allowed our teachers to grow and our parents to understand that we’re here to work together,” he said. “Challenges are still going to be there. We have students coming in at the ninth-grade level who are behind, and about 50 percent of them are reading below grade level. So the work and the challenges are going to continue. But we need to make sure that as we grow, we retain what we’ve learned, so we can continue to put these practices in place.”

Doss started as principal at Lanphier in August of 2010. He replaced Shelia Boozer, who is now principal at Black Hawk Elementary School.  The replacement of Boozer was part of a federally mandated changeup in administration: any school that receives a School Improvement Grant must replace the principal and implement several other changes aimed at improving a school’s leadership – changes like more in-depth professional development for teachers, a new system of teacher evaluations and specific efforts to recruit and retain quality staff. All of those things cost money that won’t likely be available once Lanphier exhausts its SIG money.

Doss lauds the work of the teachers and says his staff is already looking ahead in anticipation of when the grant is exhausted. He says teachers have started coming up with SLOs – student learning objectives – which are customized benchmarks created by teachers in their own classrooms to measure their own students’ progress. The teachers are also creating their own professional growth plans that will guide their continued development as instructors. Doss says he and his staff are looking at other school districts to see how they’ve attempted to maintain momentum after finishing a grant. He says they’re focusing on how to “sustain the partnerships we’ve built to move the students forward.”

Students in family and consumer sciences teacher Andrea Yadron’s foods class give a presentation on what it takes to own a bakery business..

Partnerships with parents and the community at large can remain intact without grant money, given enough deliberate effort, but partnerships with paid consulting firms and professional development providers cost more than just time and goodwill. Likewise, equipment and other items already paid for can continue to benefit students even after the grant ends, but funding for certain programs and the extended school day will likely dry up.

Ultimately, the long-term success or failure of Lanphier rests on the shoulders of its teachers and staff, who may have to sacrifice time and voluntarily continue working harder even after the grant is finished. But with District 186 superintendent Walter Milton and the District 186 School Board grappling over a tight budget that includes cuts to popular programs, Lanphier’s transformation could end before it is complete.

“We know that we can help all students be successful,” Doss says. “The work continues, and we’ve seen the impact and the growth already. Yet we know there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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