Do What Works

The Power House story teaches us that the old “charter vs. traditional” debate is flawed.


Monday, January 28, 2013

In the heart of Chicago’s Homan Square stands an historic power house. Built in 1905, it provided electricity and heat for the massive Sears, Roebuck & Company world headquarters on the city’s West Side. In 2009, the building was transformed into a school for the kids of North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago that has experienced a disproportionate level of poverty and violence.  Power House High’s recent history, while far from exemplary, demonstrates community and district leaders’ willingness to look for what works (whether from a traditional or charter model - because we know there are bright spots in both), and to insist on high student achievement above all else.


A close low angle shot of a concrete pillar with lights attached to it supporting a roof.


Photo by Seth Anderson via WikiCommons

Power House changed leadership in 2009. To the great disappointment of many, the shift did not make the school an overnight success. In fact, for several years afterwards, scores languished, culture remained stagnant, and kids were not learning at the rate they needed to be prepared for graduation. This led to another shift this fall, when the Noble Network, a high performing charter network based in Chicago, stepped in to give Power House a makeover. This time, it’s been a piecemeal shift – with just 9th grade students now enrolled in the new DRW school. Principal Tom Mulder, a five-year Noble veteran, has begun slowly, strategically to build a school of high expectations and excellent outcomes school the neighborhood so deeply desires. 

Using Noble’s frameworks and systems, Power House has seen some strong early indicators that the school is turning around. According to Mulder’s data, students grew nearly 1.5 points between their April EPAS test and their September EPAS test. This means that in the first few weeks of school, kids were already making huge gains. The school earned an average of 93% on culture audits, Noble’s 5 point assessment that takes into account everything from student and teacher dress code to the environment of the classroom to the cleanliness of the facility. Nearly 90% of parents attended report card pickup earlier this year, up from 38% last year. Student attendance has skyrocketed from 68% to 91%. Homework completion has grown from roughly 25% to 85%. And school leaders have set an ambitious goal of an 18 average on the ACT, which would put Power House in the top 20 schools in Chicago.

Maybe you’ve read stories like this one before: charter network takes over a struggling public school, and (voila!) turnaround ensues! But the Power House story is different - and not only because school turnarounds are neither easy nor quick.

You see, from 2009-2012, Power House was run by a charter management organization. The school wasn’t achieving its goals - namely, to fundamentally transform student trajectories. So community leaders sought a change and approached Noble, which had never taken over an existing school before. Facing poor student results, an unchanging culture and community demand for action, district leaders made a change.

Tensions are rising throughout CPS as we all await school closure announcements, especially when there is talk of charter networks coming in to “save” struggling traditional schools. The Power House story teaches us that the old “charter vs. traditional” debate is flawed.

There are high-performing charter schools and low-performing charter schools, just as there are high-performing traditional schools and low-performing traditional schools. Instead of debating the costs and benefits of the charter school movement, we ought to be asking: “Hey, what’s working?” Then, we should be doing everything we can to replicate those models, no matter where they originated.

The results at Power House are not yet in, but I am excited to see what they are able to accomplish. I hope that we are able to someday look to this school - and many others - as examples of what works.


Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.