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Chicago Valedictorians Struggle to Stay Competitive
It would have been easy for Purham to give up on herself. When she looked out the windows of her classroom at DuSable, 4934 S. Wabash Ave., she saw a foreboding line of beige public housing high rises–"the Robert Taylor Homes. She watched other girls pulling their children along. And in her junior year, Purham could reach down and feel her own baby growing inside of her.
It all scared the girl who, in eighth grade, set her mind on being No. 1 in high school. She wanted an abortion, but an uncle showed her a passage in the Bible and told her it was a sin. So she stopped eating, praying the baby would disappear.
"I felt like if I had this child everything would be taken away from me," she recalled.
But Purham's baby persevered. So did she.
On July 19, 1999, she gave birth to her son, Roosevelt. And on June 9, 2000, graduation day, she read her valedictory poem to the DuSable graduates, congratulating them for making it through and not settling for minimum wage jobs.
The word "valedictorian" conjures up images of the best and the brightest, of high-achievers who are headed to highly competitive universities like Harvard, Stanford or Yale. But many of the best from Chicago's predominantly black and Latino public high schools can't meet the standards of the most competitive colleges and universities, shows an analysis of schools data by The Chicago Reporter. Forty-six of the 60 valedictorians in the Chicago Public Schools' Class of 2000 might not qualify for colleges that are "very difficult." They scored below 26 on the national American College Testing exam–"the median score of students admitted to "very difficult" colleges as listed in Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges.
A perfect score on the ACT is 36; the Illinois average is 21.5. Peterson's, an annual, widely used publication that profiles 2,243 colleges and universities in North America, established its ratings by surveying colleges and interviewing education experts, said Mark Zidzik, director of research development for the Lawrenceville, N.J-based guide.
Eight Chicago valedictorians scored 18 or below on the ACT, and all of them came from high schools where 99 percent of the students were either black or Latino, the Reporter's analysis shows. Like Purham, at least 75 percent of the students admitted to moderately difficult colleges as listed by Peterson's, such as Chicago State University, scored higher than 18.
Thirteen Chicago valedictorians scored above 26, and all but three went to schools that were at least 15 percent white or Asian.
Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, said "it is not acceptable" that so many valedictorians are going to less challenging schools. The center works with teachers and principals in the public schools to improve curriculum and instruction. "These are your top kids," she said. "They should have greater opportunities to learn more and to become better prepared."
"Who becomes a valedictorian is relative to the school," said Peter Martinez, the senior program officer overseeing education grants at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "With notable exceptions," predominantly black and Latino schools produce valedictorians who don't do well on standardized tests, he said, because these schools are more likely to have "low performing" teachers who do not challenge bright students and offer "less rigorous" curricula.
Paul Vallas, the schools' chief executive officer, was not surprised by the Reporter's analysis. "The level of expectation is lower at a lower-performing school," he said. "I would assume as much."
But since he took over the system in 1995, Vallas said, he has been encouraging "poor performing" schools to offer Advanced Placement courses, for which students can get college credit. He also boosted the number of schools that offer the high-performance International Baccalaureate Organization's Diploma Programme from one to 12.
Vallas said he is putting these "exemplary" programs in neighborhood schools, most of which are predominantly Latino and black.
The public schools could not provide information on where its valedictorians went to college. But a survey of 60 valedictorians who graduated in 1990, 1995 and 2000 does reveal trends. The Public Policy Practicum at the University of Chicago conducted the survey for the Reporter, CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio.
All Chicago public school valedictorians surveyed in the Chicago Valedictorian Project said they went to college. Thirty-one of the 69 Class of 2000 valedictorians responded to the survey, and 58 percent said they went to "moderately difficult" or "minimally difficult" colleges, or two-year institutions that were not rated in Peterson's.
Peterson's asks colleges to provide their own self-assessments, which measure factors like the percentage of applicants accepted into the college and students' ACT scores, Zidzik said.
Blondean Davis, the system's chief of schools and regions, noted that students often choose colleges for cultural reasons. Many valedictorians are the first members of their families to go to college, she said, and the families are uneasy about sending them out of state.
Still, the schools have a responsibility to help students break out of their "comfort zones," Davis added.
Eram Alam, the 2001 valedictorian at Von Steuben Metro High School, 5039 N. Kimball Ave., can verify firsthand that some schools do a better job than others of preparing smart, motivated students.
She applied to Von Steuben, a magnet school, because she and her parents feared her neighborhood high school, Carl Schurz, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave., would not prepare her for college.
In 2000, 47 percent of the seniors at Schurz took the ACT, averaging 15.8, while at Von Steuben 91 percent of the students took the exam and scored an average of 20.4, schools data show.
Alam said she was accepted by Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and was put on Harvard University's waiting list. She decided to go to Northwestern.
"My parents don't want me to go so far away," said Eram, 17, whose mother and father emigrated to Chicago from India in the 1970s. "And to tell you the truth, I really don't want to go."
"I was bitter about my high school," said 19-year-old Carlos Gomez.
With a 4.65 grade point average, Gomez sailed through James H. Bowen High School, at 2710 E. 89th St. on the Southeast Side. He enjoyed the school's drafting program, he said, but got As with little homework or studying.
He was bored in his classes, where teachers repeated lessons for the slower students. He was not offered Advanced Placement courses, he said. At Bowen, 13.5 percent of the students read at or above their current grade level last year, schools data show.
In August 2000 he enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's highly rated engineering program. Gomez expected to do well. But he was stumped in the first week, he recalled. He couldn't keep up with the complex concepts.
"My classmates seemed to have had this stuff in high school," he said. "I did not."
One overwhelming and bewildering week turned into two. The university offered tutoring and other support services, but Gomez said he did not feel comfortable asking for help.
He slipped further and further under.
"By the end of the semester, I was really doing poorly," said Gomez. His grade point average fell below 2.0. "It was a domino effect."
Laura Jancaric, who was Gomez's guidance counselor at Bowen, sighed when she heard his story. She has heard similar complaints from other students, she said.
But she said part of the problem is that smart students, such as Gomez, often slack off in high school. "They don't prepare as well as they should have," Jancaric said. "Then they get to college and they are like, –˜Oh. I should have worked harder.'"
Of the Class of 2000 valedictorians surveyed, 21 went to high schools where more than half of all students read below grade level. And the valedictorians who went to these poorer performing schools said they faced "few challenges," ranking their schools an average of 2.9 on a scale of one to five, with one meaning "not challenged at all."
Valedictorians from schools where at least 50 percent scored at or above grade level in reading tests rated their schools an average of 3.6, the survey showed.
Vallas said that when he came on as schools chief in 1995, Chicago's public high schools could be broken down into three categories: magnet, remedial and neighborhood schools.
All schools where 20 percent of students were reading below grade level were put on "probation," and alternative schools were created for students with discipline problems, he said.
And by 1997, every high school student was required to complete a "college-preparatory" curriculum. "I hate saying –˜college preparatory' like it is some new thing," Vallas said. "Every high school by definition should be college preparatory."
Students can no longer graduate with only one year of science, two years of math and an array of English classes that might include journalism and creative writing. Now, they must take four years of English courses such as world literature, three years of math classes, three years of a lab science such as chemistry and two years of a foreign language.
Vallas also hopes to bring advanced placement classes to all 69 high schools. He notes that two schools have accredited baccalaureate programs, 10 are developing them and three others have applied for accreditation.
"By only helping under-achieving students, you are not going to get to the next level," he said. "To get to the next level you need to seed neighborhood schools with exemplary programs."
The baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School, which began in 1980, attracted 130 freshmen this year, all of whom scored between the 88th and 99th percentiles on reading and math tests they took in seventh grade, said Dean Strassburger, senior counselor at Lincoln Park, 2001 N. Orchard St.
In 1995, one-third of all high schools offered Advanced Placement classes, Vallas said. In 1996, 5.9 percent of magnet school students took the courses, compared with 1.4 percent in neighborhood schools. Black and Latino students comprised 52 percent of those taking AP classes in 1996, while they represented 85.7 percent of public high school students.
There has been some improvement since then, schools data show. By the 1999-2000 school year, 3.3 percent of the students in neighborhood high schools took AP courses, and 59 percent of all AP students were either black or Latino.
Vallas hopes that baccalaureate programs will eventually be operating in racially isolated schools such as Austin Community Academy High School, at 231 N. Pine Ave. on the West Side, where 99 percent of the students are black. Last year, 50 of 1,069 students took the ACT; their average score was 14.8.
"These were remedial schools," Vallas said. "We are trying to break that mold."
Northwestern University education professor and longtime researcher G. Alfred Hess Jr. said the AP classes, regional magnet schools and baccalaureate programs are good first steps toward keeping the best students in their neighborhood schools.
But engaging the brightest students will be a challenge unto itself, he added, because it is tougher to reform high schools than elementary schools. "High schools are big bureaucracies that are hard to move," Hess said.
One morning in late March, Alam, a thin, unassuming young woman in khaki pants and a zip-up gray sweatshirt, recalled how she got on the path to becoming a valedictorian.
In eighth grade, she enrolled in a special accelerated science program, she said. That qualified her to take an advanced biology class in her freshman year that most students typically take in their junior year, if at all. An "A" put her in the running to be valedictorian because it was weighted more heavily toward her grade point average. "The teacher of the biology class told me I could become valedictorian," Alam said. "She gave me confidence."
Alam's experience is no surprise to Tammy Johnson, program director of the Oakland, Calif.-based ERASE Initiative, a national public policy program that works on issues of race and public education.
Often, the road to valedictorian for white and Asian students begins in middle school, where they are challenged by harder courses, Johnson said. And in high school they get more opportunities to take "weighted" honors classes.
"Students are still tracked based on color," she added. "They are often put in low level classes based on the whims of an administrator."
A March 2000 ERASE Initiative report, "Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in U.S. Public Schools," compared the number of black and Latino students enrolled in AP courses with their numbers in nine school districts. The report does not include Chicago, but in the cities studied, "Black[s] or Latinos or both were underrepresented in these gateway classes, [and] whites were overrepresented," the report's authors wrote. For example, 55 percent of Boston students are black, while African Americans make up 27 percent of the students in AP classes.
DePaul's Radner said that historically the Chicago Public Schools' magnet programs have been used to attract white students, leaving others to languish in poorly funded neighborhood schools.
But the system's move to bring exemplary programs to neighborhood schools "gives me some hope," she said.
In cities like Chicago, students are also tracked by the school they attend, said Gary Orfield, a former education and political science professor at the University of Chicago who studied the city's schools in the 1980s. He is now a professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Magnet schools are often on the upper-level track and neighborhood schools on the lower-level track, he said. "So a trigonometry class at one school is nothing like a trigonometry class at another."
Orfield, who once served on a panel that reviewed admissions policies for the University of Chicago, said admissions officers look for evidence that demonstrates minority Chicago Public School students from low-income areas can handle a demanding curriculum.
"But we knew a lot of them couldn't last a quarter at U of C," he said. "They didn't have the preparation. There were no classes that would prepare them."
Ruth Vedvik, director of admissions and records for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said her staff knows the public schools well and can put a student's application in the right context.
Half of the students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scored between 25 and 29 on the ACT. But Vedvik notes that another 25 percent scored above 29, and another quarter scored below 25. She said standardized test scores are only one factor in admissions decisions.
"The students who we admit in the lower quartile often have strong personal statements that show they have overcome much to get where they are," she said.
The counselors also look at a student's class rank and the types of classes the student took, Vedvik added.
While Northwestern is listed as "most difficult" in Peterson's, the university does not treat Chicago Public School students differently from others, said Carol Lunkenheimer, Northwestern's director of admissions. But her counselors pay close attention to applications from blacks and Latinos, who are underrepresented at the university, she added. Student essays, which are part of the applications, also play a big role.
"These essays reveal some amazing stories," she said.
Radner believes the challenge starts in elementary schools, where some students don't get the foundation they need. And guidance counselors don't challenge students to set their sights high, she added.
It reminds her of the 1950s, when top-achieving black students were routinely sent to secretarial school, she said.
"Going to a high-level college would allow the valedictorians to be with their peers. The quality of learning at high-level colleges is better, and so is the intellectual atmosphere."
For Patrick Jones, becoming valedictorian meant more than just getting good grades. It was a symbol of the obstacles he had overcome.
The 1990 valedictorian went to Calumet Academy High School, at 8131 S. May St. on Chicago's South Side, where 56 percent of the students who entered in 1986 as freshmen did not graduate. When he entered Calumet, he was assigned to a homeroom for learning-disabled students, he said. But he worked hard, got good grades and earned a spot on the honor roll. He was soon moved to honors classes, he said.
In his valedictory speech, "The Dilemma of the Black Man in America," he talked about how gangs, drugs and violence often claim the attention of young black men.
"It really is a perplexing situation," Jones remembers. "Not everyone makes it, but we are the ones who did."
Jones went on to Tuskegee University, an historically black college in Tuskegee, Ala., that a teacher had recommended. He said Calumet prepared him for Tuskegee, which was listed in Peterson's College Guide as "moderately difficult."
He was active in the drama club at Calumet, which kept him busy and gave him essential speaking skills. And he credits his pastor, mother and extended family for sheltering him from gangs and trouble.
"Everyone surrounded me and kept me focused," Jones said.
Like Jones, many of the 60 valedictorians who responded to the Chicago Valedictorian Survey have confronted socio-economic barriers. Two-thirds reported having at least one parent with no more than a high school diploma; 70 percent came from low-income families.
And these high-achievers are not immune to the problems that face many teenagers.
Charles Mingo, who served as principal of DuSable until 1999, said he felt bad when he learned Wendy Purham–"who he recalls as a bright self-starter–"got pregnant. He saw other pregnant girls at the school, and he believes it prevented them from achieving their potential.
"That was not something we were proud of," said Mingo, who is now principal of Beckman Middle School in Gary, Ind. "The valedictorian and pregnancy thing don't mix."
Still, Lucia Podraza, who once taught journalism to Purham and now teaches commercial art at DuSable, said the teachers looked out for Purham.
Bright students like Purham would be swallowed up in super-competitive magnet schools like Whitney Young Magnet and Lane Technical, she said.
"Here, Wendy was a star," she said.
And while valedictorians like Purham, Jones and Gomez might struggle at times, the perseverance that pushed them to the top of the class will serve them well, said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago-based parent advocacy group.
"These are kids who are on the ball," she said.
Now, Gomez spends three or four hours on homework every night, he said. He studies for tests early on, instead of cramming at the last minute. He seeks help from classmates and tutors. "I am doing better."
So is Purham. She wishes Chicago State was more challenging, but what it lacks in academics, it makes up for in convenience, she said. It's close to her job and to Roosevelt, who is now nearly 2 years old.
She hopes to become a doctor and see her son grow up and go to college. And now she is thankful that Mingo told her the baby would keep her from achieving her goals, she said.
"I used to say it was my son who made me continue on to become valedictorian. But now I say it was my principal, who told me I could not do it. My principal made me push myself forward."
Contributing: Maureen Kelleher, an associate editor for CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and Edie Rubinowitz, who produced and reported a related documentary for WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio. Reporter interns Anita Bryant, Danielle Duncan, Micah Holmquist, Eric Luchman, Elizabeth Raap and Eric Satre, and CATALYST researcher Irasema Salinas helped research this article.