Zulyanna Mendoza, 16

Came straight from 7th grade

Many students assigned to an achievement academy get angry. Zulyanna felt relieved. Having repeated both 6th and 7th grades, she was too old to stay in elementary school for 8th grade. The academy would give her the chance to skip ahead and, if she passed her classes, get into 10th grade only a year behind.

“When you’ve got that chance, you might as well take advantage of it,” she decided.

Zulyanna’s route to the academy likely is not what the School Board had in mind. The curriculum is designed to remediate in a semester kids who failed 8th-grade reading and then move them into high school coursework. The first semester, it forgoes science and social studies in favor of double periods of math and reading and a study skills class.

But a growing number of academy students were retained more than once before getting to 8th grade. Nearly 350 of the 1,100 students enrolled in achievement academies this fall came directly from 7th grade, another 32 straight from 6th grade, and one from 5th grade.

Rita Jung, director of the Senn Academy, says the students who came from 7th grade do about as well as those who failed 8th. Zulyanna passed her first-semester courses and earned her 8th-grade diploma.

Zulyanna’s reading difficulties in English may stem from her Spanish-speaking background. Born in Chicago to Mexican immigrants, Zulyanna moved in at a young age with grandparents who speak primarily Spanish.

Math came easily to her, Zulyanna says, and indeed she scored above grade level on standardized tests. But reading was a different story. “Once I finished reading, I didn’t remember what I read,” she explains.

In 6th grade at Bateman Elementary, she missed the reading cutoff score and repeated the grade at Scammon Elementary following a family move. Her aunt, Maria Ayala, says Zulyanna took the setback nonchalantly. “She said, ‘Oh, well next time I will [pass.]”

Despite her struggles, Zulyanna recalls mostly enjoying elementary school. In 5th grade, she won 3rd place at the school science fair. Her second time through 6th at Scammon, she and her friends did a history fair project on their elementary school and won an honorable mention, she says. “When it comes to projects, I’ll do it.”

But towards the end of elementary school, her motivation petered out. Her second time through 6th grade, she says she’d do her work once in awhile. “It was easy.” She didn’t work any harder in 7th grade. At the end of that year, she was retained once again.

Although there are no promotion requirements for grades other than 3rd, 6th and 8th, schools have retained increasing numbers of students in the other grades. In 2002, Scammon retained 24 percent of its 7th-graders, including Zulyanna.

Scammon’s principal, Peter Bushbacher, says that many in that class were unmotivated. “I don’t feel we’re serving students by promoting them and keeping [our] fingers crossed that they do better.”

The second time through 7th grade, Zulyanna says she made hardly any effort. “It gets boring when you have to do the same thing over again. We read almost the same stories.”

It took promotion to the achievement academy to re-energize her. While Zulyanna doesn’t do all her homework, reports English teacher Steve Kanoon, her questions and comments keep his class going.

And she’ll reread a difficult passage until she understands it. “A lot of the kids, if they don’t understand it, they give up.”

Now Zulyanna has her sights set on college and a career as a massage therapist. “I actually changed when I came to this school,” she says. “I promised my family I was going to do it.”

Ashley Serrano, 14

Landed there by accident

Ashley Serrano doesn’t belong at Senn Achievement Academy, her teachers agree. After graduating from a Catholic middle school with a B average, she was set to enter Gordon Technical High School, according to her mother, Rhonda Serrano.

But when Serrano lost a well-paying job, public school was the only option. “She had wanted to go to Gordon so badly she sabotaged the test for the public school system, thinking that they wouldn’t take her,” her mother explains. “She didn’t realize they would demote her.”

Serrano says she appealed to a contact at central office, but to no avail. “Our policy is clear,” says CPS spokesman Mike Vaughn.

Arriving at the academy, Ashley was initially in shock. The students were rude, and the work remedial. She brought home books that in her mother’s view a 6th-grader could read.

Ashley says she was so bored that she began to wander around the room and help other kids, just for something to do. Soon she had a revelation. “It made me feel good about myself to help other people,” she says. “Later on, those people began to understand, and they started helping other people.”

The academy program emphasizes group work and encourages students to teach each other. Ashley’s social studies teacher, Leonard Evans, credits cooperative learning with fostering teamwork and even transforming some students’ attitudes towards school. “Our class is really connected,” Ashley agrees.

For instance, three soft-spoken Mexican girls who were failing at the beginning of the year worked in a cooperative group. When one girl decided to pull her grades up to A’s, the other two followed her lead, earning B’s and C’s, Evans says.

Ashley is her class’s best role model, Evans reports.

In mid-March, after completing a textbook chapter on the Middle East, Evans gives them 45 minutes to draw one photograph from the textbook and write a caption explaining its significance.

Ashley goes all out with her Sumerian ziggurat, folding her drawing of the ancient golden temple to stand upright and attaching a long staircase to create a three-dimensional model.

At the end of the period, a troubled boy whom Evans says Ashley has taken under her wing, presents her with his Iranian flag sketched in magic marker. He smiles as she teases him about his lopsided stars.

While the year has set her back academically, Ashley plans to persevere in school and perhaps pursue a career in marine biology. Already she has enrolled in a junior life-guarding course. Now she’s trying to motivate classmates to take school more seriously.

“Some of the students say, ‘I’m going to drop out and become a drug dealer.’ Well,” she recalls explaining, “you’re going to need to know math to become a drug dealer.”


Fell short on 8th-grade reading scores

Juan says he’s angry at the district’s new policy that would return him to Senn next year instead of his neighborhood high school. The academy program is good, and the teachers are helpful, he says, but the commute is too much.

Senn Academy students come from the widest geographical area and have the longest commutes—up to three hours round-trip on public transportation. Juan’s morning commute alone would take over an hour, but his mother spares him. “My mom is quitting her job because she has to take me to school. There’s no way I’m staying in Senn.”

But students like Juan, suffering with both low academic skills and personal issues, are those most in need of extra supports and supervision.

Juan arrived at the academy by the most common route: He failed to hit the reading scores he needed to graduate from 8th grade.

Born in Mexico, Juan started school late, enrolling in a bilingual program at his Northwest Side elementary school. At the end of 4th grade, when he transitioned out of the program, his reading scores were well below average. In subsequent years, his scores slipped further. He finished 8th grade with reading scores in the bottom 20 percent, an F in English and only marginally better performance in math.

At the academy, he continues to struggle. “He can read, but a lot of these kids say the same thing, ‘I can’t remember anything I read,'” says social studies teacher James Lohmeier. “I don’t know teaching reading. I don’t know where to begin,” he adds.

Juan’s English teacher, Melissa Taguchi, says she doesn’t have the diagnostic skills to help him, either.

And his math teacher, Valerie Douglas, says that Juan’s math skills are so low that she doesn’t think he can complete the work independently. She doesn’t have time to work with him one-on-one during the school day, and he won’t stay after school for tutoring, she adds.

First semester, Juan barely made the grades to earn his belated 8th-grade diploma. Now in 9th-grade classes, his grades are slipping.

In late winter, Juan’s teachers began to fill out the paperwork needed for special education testing. Virginia O’Brien, the academy’s special education teacher, says that while it’s possible for learning disabilities to go undiagnosed until high school, she thinks that’s unlikely. “Usually we get these kids by 3rd to 5th grade.”

Academy staff has turned around some of Juan’s behavior problems, however. First, Tony Colston, who assists teachers with discipline and tutoring had a talk with Juan after he repeatedly blew up at his social studies teacher. “He said, ‘Stop doing it because you’ll be in more trouble,'” Juan says. “He was right. I changed my attitude.”

Then, after Juan skipped a day of school, student advocates Doris Lebron and Leticia Arroyo showed up at his house on Saturday. Finding no one home, they returned again on Monday. This time, they found Juan home alone. “You should have seen the look on his face when he saw it was us,” says Lebron.

As requested, Juan’s mother attended a school conference and spoke to each of his teachers.

Since then, Juan has come to Lebron and counselor Jacqueline Ray for help with some serious family issues that were interfering with his attendance.

He hasn’t skipped school again, Lebrone reports. “He saw that we care and that we are not giving up.”

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