Karen Boran reads and replies to about 200 emails a day. On a recent Thursday, her Google calendar shows not a single 15-minute interval free. The first meeting of the day for the petite 56-year-old principal of John Hancock College Prep High School is with a senior afraid she won't graduate because her attendance is below 90 percent. Second, Boran has to call in a teacher who's fallen behind on grade entries. Then comes the mother of a boy with special needs to discuss whether Hancock--a spunky neighborhood school in a yellow brick building that towers over the small square houses surrounding it--will still be the right placement for him as a fifth-year senior. Navigating her office to welcome visitors, Boran steps over piles of books displaced in a January storm that flooded 18 of 36 classrooms, requiring some to relocate to the auditorium.
By late morning, at last, Boran gets to the place where the Chicago Public Schools administration wants her spending the majority of her time: a classroom, to observe and assess the teacher's performance. As of early April, Boran and two assistant principals had collectively done 98 observations using the city's new teacher evaluation system. Boran's assessments take her three hours apiece, from reviewing pre-observation lesson plans to a post-evaluation conference and data entry. "And I'm fast," she said, typing furiously on her black wireless Dell laptop.
The new evaluation system, designed to keep administrators and teachers focused on instruction, is unrolling amid a historic--and historically distracting--year in the nation's third-largest school district. September brought an extended school day and Chicago's first teacher strike in a quarter century, which halted classes for seven days and spurred schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard to resign. One of the strike's central issues was the proposed inclusion of students' standardized test scores in teacher evaluations and pay. The year is ending with the district projecting a $1 billion deficit and massive protests over plans for 54 school closures. In between, the city murder rate has been steadily climbing, disproportionately impacting the young people who populate Chicago's most challenged schools.