What's most notable about the Chicago kindergarten class where assistant teacher Nichelle Bell is temporarily in charge is what is not happening. Teachers are not redirecting their pupils, who are not off-task. Hands are not in other people's spaces. Voices—those of children and adults—are not raised.
According to conventional wisdom, there should be bedlam in the classroom here at this charter school operated by the University of Chicago. The teacher of record is on maternity leave and her replacement has stepped out to attend to a student with a serious medical issue. That's left Bell and a paraprofessional overseeing reading instruction—arguably the most important period of the day—for the other 33 students at this high-poverty school.
One boy in a small group working on a whiteboard can't hold still between his turns. While other kids are at the board, he marches up and down the rug at the front of the room. But when it's his turn again, his focus is intense.
It doesn't look like Bell is doing much, but in fact the scene is the result of careful planning by her and the rest of the kindergarten team. The kindergarteners— working calmly in small groups—are in fact wholly engaged by the activities at the literacy stations set up around the room.
In addition to the whiteboard, known here as the writing center, there's an ABC center, a tongue-twister center, a poetry center, and even a literacy post cleverly disguised as an art center. The adults know which kids need to polish particular concepts or skills. Accordingly, each small group's progression is posted on a bulletin board.
Welcome to the North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO) campus of UChicago Charter, the University of Chicago's four-site charter school, a nationally recognized model for systemic school improvement. One of two programs serving pre-kindergarteners through fifth-graders, NKO—founded in 1998—is one of Chicago's highest-performing non-selective schools.