MELISSA BLOCK, host:
School districts across the nation are trying all sorts of things to close the achievement gap that separates poor minority students from their white peers. A principal in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Chicago believes he's come up with the right recipe, a school that defies nearly every rule that district-run public schools follow. Jay Field of Chicago Public Radio paid a visit.
JAY FIELD: First-graders finish up a reading assignment in Room 105 at John Spry Community School.
Ms. BRENDA ROMO(ph): (Ninth-Grader): Okay everybody's going to write one sentence or two sentences about what happened in the story, okay?
FIELD: Brenda Romo circles the table watching the students and offering advice.
Ms. ROMO: What's the title of story?
Unidentified Children: Quack.
Ms. ROMO: Okay, everybody's going to write that on the top and write your name and date.
FIELD: Romo acts and sounds like a real teacher, but her looks give her away. She's a ninth-grader at Spry, and every week she comes here to help and sometimes cajole the little ones. The first-graders are all native Spanish-speakers. Romo says she wishes her first-grade teacher had had a few extra hands in the classroom.
Ms. ROMO: It was really difficult for the teacher because she had to deal with all the students, and sometimes they didn't get to me, so I think they have a good experience because we get to help them too, and everybody gets help that way.
FIELD: But this isn't a simple act of good will. Romo gets graded on her classroom teaching. It's part of her coursework and just one of many unconventional approaches to learning going on at Spry. Carlos Azcoitia, the school's principal, is a veteran educator with wire-rim glasses and a neatly trim goatee.
Mr. CARLOS AZCOITIA (Principal, Jack Spry Community School): Many times, you know, schools operate in the same manor all the time with the same schedule, and even though in many places we haven't had good results, we still have not made changes.
FIELD: For years, Azcoitia dreamed of opening one school that could take on the complex educational challenges facing Latino children nationwide. Spry is one of just a handful of schools in big urban districts where kids can enroll in pre-kindergarten and stay all the way through 12th grade.
Mr. AZCOITIA: So as you can see, all the high school students are coming in. It's about four minutes to 3:00, so the teachers are waiting for them...
FIELD: Seniors arriving for their first classes of the day pass second, third and fourth-graders on their way to after-school activities.
Mr. JULIO ORTEGA(ph) (Sophomore, Jack Spry Community School): I'm not a morning person.
FIELD: At Spry, sophomore Julio Ortega doesn't have to be. The elementary grades run on a normal public-school schedule, but the high school has staggered start times. Ortega walks here from his home a few blocks away.
Mr. ORTEGA: (Unintelligible) I wake up like so early and seeing the busses, and just think oh - I thought it was going to be like such a drag, so it's good that there's a high school that starts at 12:00. It's like whoa.
FIELD: It turns out lots of teenagers are like Ortega. Some national research suggests adolescents learn better later in the day. Spry also expects its high schoolers to graduate in three years with coursework in the summers. Senior Crystal Avila(ph) admits the compressed calendar has been rough at times.
Ms. CRYSTAL AVILA (Senior, Jack Spry Community School): Like when I talk to my other friends, when I graduated from elementary, that they're getting ready for their junior prom or for homecoming. At those times I do think that I'm missing out on stuff.
FIELD: But if Avila had gone to a bigger high school nearby, she wouldn't have spent the mornings during her 10th grade year working at a local hospital. Spry asks all of its sophomores to do some kind of work for credit. This year, Avila is already taking courses at a local university.
Ms. AVILA: They think I'm in college, but actually I'm still in high school, and they're really surprised at my age and how young I am.
FIELD: Avila will enroll full-time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this summer. If the 17-year-old works hard, she could have a bachelor's degree by the time she's 20. For NPR News, I'm Jay Field in Chicago.
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