Weekdays, Ashleigh Johnson’s alarm clock goes off at 5:30 a.m. An hour later she starts a 90 minute, 13-mile trek to the city’s newest high school, Walter Payton College Prep.

By 6:30 a.m., Ashleigh has left her home in Greater Grand Crossing and is heading for the Gresham Metra stop three miles away. She catches the 6:58 headed downtown to the LaSalle Street station. Arriving at 7:20, she cuts through the Chicago Board of Trade to catch the LaSalle Street bus going north; it deposits her only a block away from the sparkling new school at Oak and Wells streets on the edge of the Gold Coast.

Typically with only minutes to spare, Ashleigh hustles up two flights of stairs to make it into algebra class by the time the opening bell rings at 8 a.m.

“We have to be in our seats when the bell rings, or we’re late,” explains the 14-year-old freshman. “I’ve only been late once or twice.”

For both Ashleigh and her mom, Carolyn Lofton, the harried, early-morning commute is a small price to pay for a high-powered curriculum, fabulous facilities and stellar teachers.

“Ashleigh needs to be challenged,” says Lofton. “That’s what she’s getting at Payton.”

Payton is one star in a constellation the Board of Education is spreading across the city in an attempt to keep high-performing students from leaving the public schools when they hit high school. Ashleigh lives within five miles of two other college prep high schools, but neither shone bright enough to attract her parents’ interest.

Lindblom College Prep has suffered from severe leadership and start-up problems, but it was the school’s location at 61st Street and Wolcott that troubled Ashleigh’s family.

“It wasn’t so much that we thought [Lindblom] was bad,” says her dad, Kenneth Johnson. “But we had to consider the area and how she would get back and forth. [Lindblom] is not in a good area. Unfortunately, the school will suffer for that, and that’s not their fault.”

Southside College Prep was simply a cipher

“I didn’t know what was going on over there,” says Johnson. “It seemed to me it kept changing. One minute it was Martin De Porres, then it was an alternative school. I just didn’t know what was going on there.”

Lofton says she didn’t know Lindblom and Southside were regional college preps. “I did my research, and I didn’t see anything about them and, I don’t think Lindblom has the right kind of facilities,” she says.

In contrast, Payton has state of the art science labs and computers and e-mail access for every student. “Ashleigh enjoys science, math and computers,” says Lofton. “We are using computers for more and more things, and she needs the cutting edge. After we found out about Payton, we knew she would get it there.”

Ashleigh’s daily marathon to and from school is representative of a larger phenomenon in Chicago. According to a recent study of Chicago magnet schools and programs, African-American students travel longer distances to attend top-performing schools than do students of other racial and ethnic groups. The study was conducted by the Mexican- American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Consortium on Chicago School Research. (See CATALYST, October 2000.)

When Ashleigh was a student at Black Magnet Elementary, she dreamed of going to Whitney Young Magnet and kept up her grades so she could get there. With A’s and B’s, she was a member of the Beta Club, which recognizes high achieving students, and was a Bulls Scholar, earning high school credits as part of a program sponsored by the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Public Schools. In 7th grade, she won second place in the Chicago Public Schools’ Academic Olympics essay competition.

While Ashleigh had set her sights on Young, her mom, a legal secretary at a law firm, cast a bigger net, using the Internet and other sources to find out what other schools had to offer. “I compiled a detailed, indexed file in a notebook on each school we were interested in,” Lofton relates.

The schools that got serious consideration were Young, Morgan Park and Lincoln Park, for its International Baccalaureate Program. Ashleigh applied and got accepted by all of them.

Meanwhile, Ashleigh’s father, a Chicago police officer based in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, had been watching the construction of Payton nearby. He later read about the school and its resources in the newspaper. He knew it was the right school for his daughter.

“After that, he started bugging me to look into Payton,” Lofton laughs. “I really didn’t have my heart in it. I was sick of the whole process by then—gathering the information on schools, school visits, interviews.”

But a week before the application deadline, Lofton called Payton and asked officials to fax the form. Then, she forgot about it. Johnson hounded her to follow through, and on the last day, she sent it back.

Next, Lofton had Ashleigh’s test scores and grades sent to Payton. Ashleigh took a three- hour admissions test and scored high enough to be accepted. The family received an invitation to Payton’s “open house” at the Adler Planetarium.

Lofton reluctantly attended; she had already decided Ashleigh would go to Lincoln Park. However, what she heard and saw that night changed her mind: Payton was it.

Lofton says teachers presented glowing details on their academic and teaching backgrounds and described how they would teach in new and exciting ways. In addition, an impressive PowerPoint slide presentation showed what the school looked like and the technology it would offer.

“If it was a floor show,” Lofton recalls, laughing, “it was the best I’d ever seen,”

Says Johnson, “I was impressed by the academic resumes of the faculty at the school—staff who’d gone to Harvard and Yale and taught at places like Andover. They were the tops in their fields.”

Lofton agrees, “I was blown away by that. These people were from all over the world: a science teacher had done research in Peru, an English teacher taught at a boarding school in England. I liked the idea of my daughter coming in contact with people like that. When you communicate with people from other cultures and backgrounds, you can’t help but learn something.”

That night, Ashleigh’s parents turned in a card right there on the spot that would lock-in their daughter’s seat at Payton. When Ashleigh found out she’d been accepted, she told her parents she had changed her mind about going to Whitney Young.

“She liked what she saw, too,” Lofton laughs. “Payton beat out Young.”

Johnson was pleased and relieved. In his view, students enrolled in high-level magnet programs that are based inside neighborhood schools (like International Baccalaureate at Lincoln Park) “are often isolated from the mainstream of the other kids that go to the school. … At Payton, I thought they’d be on the same playing field, and I liked the approach to start a school with only freshmen and then build it.” (Payton only accepted freshmen this year and plans to add a class as they move up.)

For Johnson, the politics of the situation also pointed to Payton. The school, he says, has been “earmarked” by schools chief Paul Vallas and School Board President Gery Chico. “This is the mayor’s baby, his pet project. To me, that means they will put everything into it to make sure it works, and I didn’t want Ashleigh at a school that was still in transition. I wanted her in a school that would be stable and around for the long haul.”

So far, the family’s high expectations for Payton have been met. Ashleigh’s class schedule includes honors algebra, honors English, music, biology, health, French and world studies. She is learning about Japanese culture and Web site design in 90-minute weekly seminars, which allow students to study two topics in-depth each semester. Other topics include guitar, sculpture and ceramics.

Only months into high school, Ashleigh already has made the honor roll and picked a college major—pre-med—and narrowed her choice of colleges to the University of Chicago and Loyola University. She hopes eventually to open her own practice.

“We have a good science program at Payton,” she says. “And because we have a relationship with the University of Chicago, I’m hoping that in the future they’ll offer us a special program, so I can study there. If not, I still think that being at Payton will help me fulfill my goals.”

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