More than half of freshmen expected to attend CPS high schools this fall signed up for Freshman Connection, a districtwide initiative that aims to prepare soon-to-be 9th-graders for high school.

About 19,000 8th-graders signed up for the program, according to CPS. But that figure includes more than 8,500 students who fell short of 8th-grade graduation requirements and needed to enroll in mandatory summer bridge programs to enter high school.

Without those bridge students, the number of new 9th-graders who signed up voluntarily falls to 10,493—about one in three of next year’s freshmen.

Freshman Connection, combined with early assignment of students to neighborhood high schools, are hallmarks of CPS’ effort to ease the transition to high school and also cut the number of students who register late for school—a phenomenon that disrupts instructional plans and can cause scheduling headaches during the first weeks of school. (See related story.)

Freshman Connection by the numbers

Last September, 31,492 8th-graders were enrolled in CPS. This September, CPS projects that 29,596 of those students will be high school freshmen. Of those, 19,091 students registered for Freshman Connection—10,493 in voluntary programs and another 8,598 in summer bridge programs for students who need to complete 8th grade. The district is paying for 110 counselors and 500 teachers to work in Freshman Connection at 95 high schools, and also hired 900 upperclassmen to serve as youth leaders for $7.25 an hour.

Once school begins this fall, neighborhood high schools will, for the first time, be charged an absence if one of their projected students fails to show up—a new policy intended to force schools to take responsibility for connecting with kids and getting them into class.

“Given that this is the first year we’ve done this program, and it’s the first time the district has tried to do something this extensive, we’re pretty satisfied,” says Greg Darnieder, CPS’ point person for Freshman Connection. CPS counts the summer bridge program as part of the effort because, for the first time this year, classes were moved into high schools to give freshmen one more opportunity to become familiar with their new schools.

John Easton, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, says the results for Freshman Connection so far look promising. “It should be more stable and calmer at the schools at the beginning of the year.” In comparison, he notes, a similar effort launched recently in Pittsburgh’s public schools had considerably lower turnout.

Easton suggests CPS follow up with students—perhaps with surveys or focus groups, and including students who didn’t show up—to find ways to increase participation next year.

CPS is still compiling school-by-school enrollment and attendance figures, but officials estimated that about 80 percent of students who signed up for the voluntary programs have attended the summer sessions so far. (Attendance for the bridge programs has not yet been determined.)

To attract students, CPS offered thousands of free MP3 players and Chicago White Sox tickets to participants. The initiative—an expansion of voluntary programs designed to give students a boost in basic skills—began June 30 and runs through July 25. CPS also hired upperclassmen to serve as Youth Leaders and added staff to help run the program at schools.

Darnieder says attendance seems to be better in the schools that have run similar programs in the past. Proactive schools, he notes, have also been more successful in driving up participation.

All told, he estimates that 15,000 to 17,000 students have visited their new high schools as part of the initiative—a good showing, he maintains, for a district that is trying to smooth the often bumpy transition to high school.

Getting ahead of the high school curve

While attendance at Freshman Connection has been spotty at some schools, teachers and administrators say that they expect a smoother start to the new school year because of the effort to connect students and schools, including the district’s automatic assignment of 8th-graders to their neighborhood high school on April 25.

“We’re trying to get way ahead of the curve this year,” says Darnieder.

Karen January, a counselor at Fenger Academy in Roseland, is upbeat about Freshman Connection. “We’re teaching them about GPAs, about postsecondary [options], about career choices,” she says. “We’re going to be addressing their social, personal and emotional needs.”

Still, she notes, just 48 students are attending at Fenger, out of about 401 freshmen currently projected to attend the school this fall.

At Multicultural Arts High School at the Little Village campus, Principal Jose Rico notes that 45 students are attending Freshman Connection, out of 65 who signed up. Going door-to-door to encourage students to come would help, Rico notes, since many families likely don’t have phones. But the school doesn’t have the resources for that.

At Manley Career Academy in East Garfield Park, counselor Teffiney Ferguson says students are getting to know the “ins and outs” of high school, including credit requirements, the importance of attendance and what it takes to stay on-track to graduate.

As Ferguson puts it, “it takes the fear out of high school.” But just 28 students have been attending regularly, out of 175 who were registered and 337 freshmen who are projected to attend Manley this fall.

Schools are expected to use the summer to develop a class schedule for every incoming freshman

At Foreman High in Portage Park, Assistant Principal Erich Schlismann says the 100 students who attend Freshman Connection—out of 600 to 700 freshmen currently projected for the fall—will “have made a better connection to some of our staff and also our [other] students.”

Eighth-graders who came for High School Investigation Day on May 29 were given a prospective schedule, Schlisman notes. “That’s one less question they will have when they come.”

Interns Brandon Beech and Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.

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