In 2009, a year after joining Illinois School District U-46 from his previous post as regional superintendent for Chicago Public Schools’ Area 14, Jose M. Torres made unprecedented cuts to his district’s budget and personnel.
Typical public school revenue streams such as state money and property taxes were decimated by the recession nationwide, and districts across Chicago faced deficits worse than U-46’s anticipated $60 million hole in the coming years. It wasn’t a surprise that cuts in U-46 were necessary, but Torres’ tactics were.
He sought to slice $25 million to $40 million of the district’s approximate $400 million budget to keep it afloat. Of the district’s 5,000 employees, 762 teachers and 33 administrators were laid off. Art, music and physical education were not eliminated, but they were reduced to 30 minutes a week. Special education became staffed at the state level. The early childhood center closed. Middle school football was cut, and high school class sizes jumped to more than 30. Teacher salaries froze.
U-46 finally started to involve the community by conducting surveys and holding forums for families to vote on what they would want to see cut. “At the end of the day, we took ownership of the problem, says Tony Sanders, Torres’ chief of staff. “Today we’re in a much better place.”
Retention Plan Rises
While Torres slashed some areas, he invested in others; especially retention. About 44 percent of U-46 is Latino, as are roughly 55 percent of the district’s third- and fourth-graders, yet the population’s graduation rate is lower than smaller demographic groups. Torres’ focus became engaging U-46’s youngest Latinos enough to stay in school.
“I remember saying to my board, ‘These kids cannot wait for the economy to get better for us to invest in them.’ Part of my theory is that we’re going to be growing, just like the baby boomers … to become 55, 60 percent Hispanic,” he says. “What’s really scary is that maybe we will lose a lot of our Hispanic kids by the time they get to high school.”
He enlisted administrators and staff in a three-pronged approach to keep kids in school: improve student and teacher performance; close gaps between students; the difference between what he describes as teachers knowing what they should do and doing what they should do; and, cultivate relationships. “Students need to know that we’re not after them for test scores; we’re after them because we care,” Torres says.
Programs Toward Change
Torres’ “Ten Boy Initiative” encouraged administrators to adopt a class to mentor. Though numbers are slightly down today, at its peak, 120 volunteers were helping kids feel like they mattered. In 2008, Torres’ office began a letter-writing campaign with follow-up calls to students who had chosen to drop out, encouraging them to re-enroll. Out of 50 to 70 letters per year, Torres gets about 10 kids to return. “Through that initiative we have reduced our dropout rate by percentages,” he says. “We’re down to 2.3 percent, and our graduation rate has increased.”
Three other programs have helped U-46 turn around disengaged students: Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and Crisis Prevention Intervention (CPI). From AVID’s teaching kids time-management skills to ready them for college, to PBIS’s and CPI’s helping teachers learn a systems approach to discipline while de-escalating violent behavior, these programs empower students and teachers.
“Torres has made amazing decisions,” says Greg Walker, assistant superintendent of secondary education. “He is always willing to meet and talk with parents, to listen, and to give an explanation of what’s going on in the district,” says Walker.
Says Torres, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Jose Torres, Superintendent, Illinois School District U-46
- Tenure: 3 years
- Age: 51
- Salary: $223,435
- Schools: 53
- Demographics: 49% Hispanic, 33% white, 8% Asian, 7% black, 2% multiracial, 1% Native American
- Students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches: 52%
- Web site: www.u-46.org
Jennifer Elise Chase is a freelance writer from Massachusetts.