Last December, Margaret Kirkland enrolled in Austin High’s new evening school. She had been kicked out of its day school for fighting and, at the time, was “barely passing” her classes. But in her first quarter of evening school, Kirkland earned three A’s and a B; the second quarter, she made straight A’s.

“It’s different,” Kirkland says of the program. “In day school, you could just about do anything. With us [students] knowing this is our last chance, we’re going to try and make it right.”

Iva Lane, the school’s director, expects Kirkland to graduate “soon,” perhaps in January.

So far, 56 of the 84 students who enrolled in evening school last year have graduated—17 in June and 39 in August. Most of the rest, like Kirkland, returned this fall, when enrollment shot up to 227.

The evening school was created a year ago September, when then-Principal Al Clark invited a number of students who had been kicked out as troublemakers to return to Austin. (See CATALYST, November 1995.) Howard Saffold, a retired police officer who heads an organization called Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, was the founding director; Lane, a member of Austin’s original remediation team, took over in December.

The school offers classes solely in the core subjects students must pass to graduate: math, English, science and social studies. Students can take electives through NovaNet, the Chicago Public Schools’ new computer network, which offers lessons for almost every course offered in the system.

“If you find yourself a credit short in music or art or writing, you now have the ability to catch that credit,” says Lane. “You don’t have to wait for summer school or find an independent study. We had more than one [student] who made the commitment and did it on their own.”

The evening hours are convenient for students who have day jobs or children, but the primary purpose of evening hours is to engender the kind of close-knit atmosphere that would not be possible when the regular student body is present. Students say the school’s small size and the determination of its older, more mature student body also promote a sense of unity and are key factors in the program’s success.

Tomeka Cannon says she likes the program “because I’m not too good with socializing with a whole lot of people. I can learn better here, because there’s no fighting or gangbanging.”

“It’s a one-to-one basis,” says Tashia Love. “Everyone’s trying to get somewhere and be somebody. There’s an all-for-one thing going on.”

With smaller classes and fewer administrative tasks than their day-school colleagues, evening-school teachers, who have provisional teaching certificates, can provide more personalized instruction to students.

“Teachers [here] have time to come to you if you have a question,” says Nereia Burwell.

“They teach you to value things,” adds Tashia. “In day school they just go over it. Night school teachers, they take the time to explain things. They do it in better terms than day school.”

To improve students’ math and reading skills, the evening school also has adopted Direct Instruction, which Malcolm X College’s Personalized Curriculum Institute (PCI) taught teachers last summer. Lessons include drills—some of them timed—in tasks such as correct pronunciation of letters and letter blends, and reading decimals.

Some students dislike the lessons—one student called out during class one day, “That -ix, -ax, -ux, that’s stupid”—but others say they have been helpful. “It’s basically what we already know, but they’re helping us get better and better at it,” Margaret Kirkland says. “It’s a challenge for us.”

Funding has been a challenge for the evening school. Austin used its own money to launch the school a year ago. Then Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas came to the rescue with money to carry the program through August, according to Region 3 Education Officer Hazel Steward. And now it’s being funded through the Alternative Schools Program. However, the program is growing beyond its budget and had to drop its contract with PCI, though staff expect to continue using the techniques, according to teacher Jerome Thurmon

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