Principal leads dramatic turnaround of school
Kenyatta Stansberry is tough, but shows she cares.
CHICAGO — A year ago, students at Marshall Metropolitan High School seemed oblivious to the class bell. They'd linger in the hallways, chat with friends, talk on cellphones.
Then last summer the adults in the building were fired, new staff was brought on board and the state poured in millions of dollars to dramatically reverse the school's downward spiral.
Today, the bell rings and security guards usher students along. Four minutes into the break, the Chicago Bulls theme song kicks in as a warning and stragglers sprint. When class starts, the hallways are clear.
Marshall, one of the state's persistently lowest-performing high schools, is wrapping up the first year of the drastic process known as turnaround. At the same time, Chicago Public Schools is embarking on a turnaround of its own.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and incoming schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard have promised dramatic interventions for some of the city's chronically underperforming schools. They've also talked about developing strong principals who can drastically change the culture of failing schools.
In fact, as educators across the country pay close attention to Marshall's reform efforts, this year's triumphs have been due in part to the tattooed spiky-haired principal in 3-inch heels who walks the halls between classes, striking a measure of fear and respect.
"Put your IDs on," hollers Kenyatta Stansberry.
She grabs a student by the arm. "Baby, where's your shirt?" She helps him put on the maroon T-shirt, part of the school uniform. She gives the evil eye to another student who has worn blue pants instead of khaki for the second day in a row.
"Come on y'all," she says. "Let's go."
Stansberry, 39, is one of a new breed of principals charged with reforming some of the worst schools in the Chicago Public School system. This is her second turnaround high school. Where other educators run from buildings paralyzed by violence, chaos, and virtually no learning, Stansberry thrives.
Once school's out, Stansberry, affectionately nicknamed "the Marine," doesn't let up. She patrols Facebook into the night, looking for signs of a brewing school fight or just to tell her students, "It's 11 p.m. Time to go to bed."
"The minute you slip up, the minute they think you're not paying attention, they're going to think, 'It's OK. We're about to get away,"' says the mother of two and former preschool teacher who now butts heads with the most challenging of CPS students. "You have to be consistent."
That consistency has helped Marshall, a school that habitually landed in the bottom rung of the state's high schools, show signs of improvement this year. Attendance has gone up by 22 percentage points. Seventy percent of freshmen are on track to graduate, up from 30 percent last year. Results for the most recent Prairie State Achievement Exams won't be available until July, but school officials are confident of big gains over 2010, when only 2.6 percent of students met or exceeded standards.
The signs of change at Marshall are not due to Stansberry alone. She is bolstered by a squad of reading and math experts, data analyzers, beefed up security and extra social workers and counselors, a special turnaround staff not available to the average high school principal. Still, there's a reason CPS' department of school turnarounds keeps turning to her to lead the next drastic makeover.
"She has the unique ability to hold a student accountable without alienating them," said Don Fraynd, head of CPS' Office of School Improvement, which oversees the district's five turnaround schools. "She will not take any lip. She can defuse a hard core gang banger. You can put her in front of a crowd of angry parents and they'll settle down in 10 minutes."
Stansberry was an assistant principal at Dyett High School when she was tapped in 2007 to become a principal at Harper High School, a chronically failing school in Englewood. Her marching orders: retake control of a school run by gangs.
On an average day, five or more fights would break out in the school. One night, she went home and just cried.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," she said. "I knew I had to have a plan. I called my assistant principals and said, 'no more suits and heels. We're going to wear gym shoes and jeans.' I meant business."
She created hall sweeps at the school, penalizing students found in the hallways five minutes after the class bell rang. She coordinated with the local police commander to help at dismissal when many fights broke out. She talked to neighboring principals to take in her most difficult students. Thirty percent of Harper students would end up leaving.
In 2008, when CPS announced a turnaround at Harper, they rehired Stansberry as principal. Fraynd said Stansberry's relationship with students was the only glue holding that school together.
A year into Harper's turnaround, Marshall was one of few schools to win a $5.7 million federal school improvement grant.
The school found 213 students — nearly a third of the student body — behind in credits and when the school announced that social promotion was essentially ending, and 18-to-20-year-old seniors would be held back, many students pulled out. In all, the school estimates it lost 161 students — 104 of them transferred to other schools, and 34 signed up at Youth Connections alternative schools.
Stansberry identified her core group of troublemakers early on, asking them to meet with her once a week. That group of 10 is now down to five — she calls them "the Fab Five" — who no longer need to meet with her weekly but still drop by. She says building relationships with her students is a lot like raising her own sons — she shows them firmness and discipline, but coupled with a gentle touch like an endearment to show she cares.
"If I get into trouble, she's the only one I can talk to," says junior Larry Myles, 17, one of "the Fab Five" who breaks out in a smile when he talks about Stansberry. "She cares about me."
Before turnaround, Kentrell Rocquemore, 18, a senior, had clocked in 300 suspensions. When he got into a fight in October, Stansberry gave him a one-day suspension "even though she could've given me a lot of days," he acknowledges. He's brought up his grades to A's, B's and C's, and will stick around an extra year to finish credits so he can graduate.
"It's the best thing in my life," he says.
But not all parents or students have supported her efforts. When she tracked down fights that occurred after school or even on weekends, parents complained that she was getting involved in something that wasn't her concern. But Stansberry insists if Marshall students are involved in a fight that could carry into the building, it is her business.
At dismissal, she and her deans walk to Madison Street, making sure students safely leave the area. When students took a fight onto a CTA bus earlier this year, she got the bus video, punished the culprits and then sent security guards to ride the bus. When her students gathered for a fight at a nearby charter school, she gathered her assistant principals and deans and showed up there.
She was making a statement — there was no ducking this principal.
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