LAWNDALE — When Romanetha Looper decided to become a teacher, it was in order to help one very special little boy.
“I went back to school basically so I could help my son,” Looper said.
Eight years ago, her son Gordon was a fifth-grader struggling with a learning disability.
Feeling the school was failing her son, Looper, a stay-at-home mom, began home-schooling him. Wanting to help him further, she got involved with Illinois’ Grow Your Own program, which sends parents and community members back to school so they can become teachers in their own neighborhoods.
Gordon’s performance levels shot up. And in 2010, after attending four years of college at both Daley College and Northeastern Illinois University, Looper became a teacher at age 41.
Now Gordon is a sophomore at Hales Franciscan High School and Looper teaches science at William Penn Elementary.
Last year, in her first year of teaching at a Chicago public school, Looper raised her fifth graders’ standardized test scores from 62 percent passing up to 85 percent, according to CPS data.
She said the secret is to get them to read. And then read some more.
“If they have a difficulty reading, that means they can’t read [anything] in math, social studies, science. So you have to focus on that problem,” she said.
But Looper said it wasn’t easy.
“The kids were so far behind,” she said. “I still have kids in my classroom that read at a second-grade level.”
Sherryl Moore-Ollie, principal at Penn, said Looper is an absolute asset to the school.
“I interviewed her and fell in love with her,” Moore-Ollie said of Looper. “She’s great. I put her over in the science curriculum in middle school and I told her she’s going to be the science guru. And she has not let me down.”
Looper said she’s always been drawn to science. She took advanced chemistry classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago while still in high school at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and in 1987 she majored in chemical engineering her first year at Iowa State University.
The fifth-graders whose scores improved last year are now Looper’s sixth graders.
“I know that it works when a teacher follows the students,” Moore-Ollie said. “Especially when there’s strength in that first year, that second year is just super.”
Though her formal teaching career began later in life, Looper is a co-founder of Demoiselle 2 Femme, a nonprofit organization that originally started in 1994 as a mentoring program for young women in Englewood.
“I guess I’ve always been a teacher at heart,” Looper said. “I feel like I’ve been teaching forever.”
She continues to mentor through an after-school program for math and reading started by Moore-Ollie.
Alancia King, a 12-year-old student at Penn, attends the after-school program. She said Looper has helped her especially with long division and ratios.
“At first, we didn’t even know how to pronounce it or what is was,” she said of the ratios. “But now we know it so well.”
King, a student Looper has had two years in a row, has scored in the 90th percentile on her standardized tests.
Looper said placing kids in groups with peers who are on similar performance levels helps them to feel they are doing their best.
“I just want them to feel successful. Once they start feeling it, then they want to do more,” she said.