New kids on the block taking over the halls of Urbana High School

URBANA – Laura Taylor keeps wandering into her old office, looking up, then wandering out again.

You can't blame her.

A few months ago, Taylor filled the shoes – and space – of an assistant principal at Urbana High School. But as of August, she's moved a few feet away and into a new role: principal.

Hers aren't the only shoes being filled by new feet at the school. This summer, the entire top administration of the high school will be staffed by newcomers to their positions. Though they lack experience, the team is already full of ideas, enthusiasm and plans for how they would like to improve Urbana High.

"I want all kids to have the opportunity for success, ... that we could actually have the opportunities, time and resources to help every kid," Taylor said. "It's one of those 'world peace' dreams, but it's true."

Beyond the three R's

Taylor plans to continue to provide a varied arts and physical education program, along with the hard academics like reading, writing and math that the No Child Left Behind Act demands.

She believes 10 years' experience teaching special education in Champaign before arriving in Urbana as an assistant principal have prepared her for the challenge.

"Special education gives you a great background for being an administrator. You are forced to look at children individually," she said. "Special ed teachers can be kid-focused. They don't have to be content-focused."

To make sure the school is educating each kid, it has beefed up its advanced placement courses – which grant college credit – like AP art, as well as electives, like a course in the history of contemporary film and music.

UHS also added courses for underachieving students to help them with the core subjects.

"If you come in on a third-grade reading level, we've created a course to help you with that," Taylor said.

The school began the Recapture Program, which allows students who have fallen behind in their grade level to catch up in small, intensive afterschool classes.

Grace Mitchell, a longtime UHS social worker, will oversee the program in a new district position: secondary alternative placement director.

Though her if-I-won-the-lottery dream is to start an alternative high school for Urbana teens with difficulty in the standard school environment, Mitchell sees Recapture as a feasible way to help those kids now and a program she'd like to see grow over the next few years.

Mitchell, Taylor and several others cited the school's 2-year-old student leadership program as another targeted for growth. Administrators identify a group of juniors and seniors representing many cliques to be student leaders.

Starting this year, those students will be trained by Mitchell in peer mediation and lead underclassmen in homeroom activities, where administrators hope the leaders will serve as mentors.

"One of the things I would like to see at Urbana is that everybody is ready for the world," Mitchell said. "I'd like to believe that when they leave this level, they are at least prepared for what they're going to do next."

Teacher, teach thyself

The administrators are planning for classroom teaching improvement as well.

Greg Johnson, a former UHS English teacher who replaced Taylor as assistant principal in charge of curriculum and development, will help oversee the changes.

This year, the school has created an instructional laboratory for teachers and teacher evaluators to watch, record and evaluate that craft.

The lab classroom has a camera for taping classes, and one of its "windows" is a one-way mirror allowing evaluators to watch the classroom without being intrusive.

"This'll take a little while, I think, to become part of the culture," Johnson said, adding that he hopes it becomes a much-used tool. "The biggest thing a teacher needs is the time and the resources to be reflective."

Another tool for reflection: Starting next year, the school will work to create uniform final exams that specifically test district, state and federal standards, with tests for each subject and levels within that subject.

The goal is to ensure that students are coming out of each teacher's class with the same core information, including what they'll be tested on later in state and college-entrance exams. It also could help teachers to evaluate their effectiveness.

A more perfect union

One way Taylor hopes classroom teaching becomes easier is by fewer behavioral problems.

Last year's discipline referrals at the high school dropped dramatically – from 3,859 in 2004-05 to 2,069 in '05-06. It's a trend administrators are keen to continue under Tim Staples, who replaced Polly Washington as assistant principal in charge of discipline and attendance.

Staples, who supervised 750 students in his job as dean at Bolingbrook High, says he works with students as individuals.

"I believe in really investing time with students," he said. "It didn't matter what you did or didn't do – you were my kid."

Part of his time will be spent watching over the school's alternative day program, where students who have acted up in class can go to a quiet room to work with a certified teacher on assignments instead of being consigned to detention or suspension.

Taylor said giving students chances to keep learning is key to keeping them in school through graduation.

"When you see a kid who's 16, they're still a kid," he said. "Let's have a little more empathy."

Steve Thompson, a former UHS dean, has replaced Jeff Isenhower as assistant principal and athletic director, pending school board approval.

Thompson said after-school activity like athletics is another way students can get organized and perform above expectations.

"Their time commitment is much greate; therefore, they're going to do a better job managing their time," he said.

Together, the new administrators plan to keep the school on what Taylor calls "the momentum" of the last few years.

Mitchell thinks success is likely for this group, of which she considers herself "a grandmother."

"They have great potential to do well," she said. "They're young, they're energetic, and I think they bring a lot of talent to the table."

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