Robeson Achievement Academy Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

It’s mid-August, two weeks into Robeson High School’s launch as a year-round school, and Principal Gerald Morrow gathers his staff in the dimly lit auditorium to ask their opinions on several logistical matters. 

The mood is hopeful. Robeson, one of just two regular (non-turnaround, non-charter, non-selective) high schools in Englewood, has been a catch-all for struggling students who don’t get in anywhere else. But this year, the school is set for a fresh start: Under the Culture of Calm initiative to enhance school safety, Robeson is getting $1 million to pay for social and emotional supports for students.

Morrow has already taken steps to improve discipline and order. Big posters now adorn the walls, with rules in red letters and a warning that breaking them won’t be tolerated. Students must be dressed in uniform. They cannot carry cell phones. They must get to class on time.  

At today’s meeting, staff members report that the students already seem to be adjusting well. There’s less swearing at teachers and tardiness is going down.

Morrow nods at the good news. Then he announces: “It looks like the achievement academy will be coming back.”


As though answering an unspoken question, Morrow continues. “If we chase these kids, it will be all right.” 

The uneasiness in the air was not surprising. Achievement academies, tucked into Robeson and seven other large neighborhood high schools, are a byproduct of the Chicago Public Schools policy against social promotion. Fail a student more than once, and you inevitably end up with some who are too old to stay in elementary school but aren’t ready for high school. Some have never even set foot in an 8th-grade class.

The achievement academies are designed to provide two years of intense academic and social help to prepare these students to transition into the junior class of a regular high school. But given the difficult task—which often includes coping with behavioral as well as academic problems—the achievement academies are even more unwanted now than they were when former CEO Arne Duncan set them up seven years ago.

Plus, declining financial resources and upheaval in the host high schools have hampered the chances for success.




The challenge of educating students in the district’s eight achievement academies is evident from the statistics. Among the 1,596 students:

  • After one year, only 44 were on-track to graduate on time.
  • 83 percent were absent at least 18 days, more than 10 percent of the school year.
  • The number of special education students is increasing and is now just over 6 percent. Special education students have different hurdles to clear before being promoted.

District officials are now back at the drawing board, trying to figure out what to do with these students. A strategic planning group is reviewing data on the academies and, over the summer, plans to make recommendations about whether to revamp the program or scrap it altogether for some other strategy.


Meanwhile, officials have already decided to shut down the only achievement academy on the North Side, at Senn High in Edgewater, at the end of this year.

At their host schools, achievement academy students are often viewed as too difficult to be successful. The numbers tell the story: More than 80 percent miss 18 days or more of school. Within five years, only 20 percent graduate. The corresponding high dropout rate is comparable to that for alternative schools and schools for juvenile delinquents.

CPS officials acknowledge that the numbers aren’t promising. “We are trying to understand what happened that it didn’t work as well as we had hoped it would,” says Ernestine Key, who managed the achievement academies until she left CPS this spring.

Former Senn Principal Richard Norman talked about the dynamics that impact students. (Senn’s new principal, Susan Lofton, would not return phone calls.)

“Transportation is often an issue,” Norman said late last year. He noted that many of the students had trouble making it to elementary school, even when they only had to go down the block. It could be a deal-breaker for a student if he or she has to walk a long distance to catch a bus, or from the bus stop to the school.

And these students understand that they have a nearly impossible road to travel. Many of them will turn 16 during their freshman year and won’t graduate until they are 19 or 20. They don’t want to spend that length of time in high school.

“This is a last-ditch effort,” Norman said.

Yet there’s a critical unanswered question: What constitutes success for students who are, as one official put it, “the highest of high risk?”

Robert Runcie, the chief officer for Area 17, says a 20 percent graduation rate is not a good showing, no matter what. All schools should be held to the same standard as a school he would send his children to, he says.

But given the academic background of students who attend the academies, a 20 percent graduation rate might be reason to applaud.

The achievement academies are also making a better, if not stellar, showing compared to the previous strategy, called academic prep centers. These stand-alone centers were launched when the district banned social promotion in 1996, to give over-age elementary students intense instruction and support. But they rarely made the move to a regular high school. Among those who did, few graduated.

According to one study, the achievement academies have done a better job of holding on to these teens. Among students who started their freshman year at age 16, half of those in achievement academies had dropped out by their junior year, compared to 88 percent of those in a regular high school, according to The Parthenon Group, a Boston-based consulting organization that in 2007 issued a report on at-risk students in CPS.  Plus, the graduation rate for prep centers was more dismal: 10 percent of students got their diploma within five years.

Still, achievement academy students are unlikely to make a successful transition to a regular high school. In response, the district has tried to keep them in the academies until they graduate, said Grace DeShazer, former manager of the achievement academies. (DeShazer was laid off last spring.)

Last year, a pilot program at Chicago Vocational Career Academy gave students the option to choose to stay in the achievement academy until they graduate, rather than move into the regular high school.

Cheryl Everett, the assistant principal who oversees that achievement academy, believes the pilot is working. When the juniors came back to the achievement academy, they seemed more mature and focused. They also acted as leaders, showing the newer students around.

“They seemed like they got lost in their host school,” Everett says.

In 2003, former CEO Arne Duncan shuttered the academic prep centers and opened the achievement academies. Some observers charge that the decision was made for financial reasons, since the prep centers were housed in their own facilities and so were more expensive. But Duncan argued that with the new academies, students would be inside a high school—where they should be, given their age—and would earn both an 8th-grade diploma and high school credits, so they wouldn’t feel as though they were wasting time.

The district contracted with John Hopkins University to use its Talent Development model, which aims to move students through an entire year’s worth of learning in one semester by doubling up on math and reading classes. The plan was to have students earn an 8th-grade diploma in their first semester, then take 9th-grade courses in their second semester. The following year, students would remain in the academy for 10th grade. They would transition to 11th grade in a regular high school.

The first year, CPS paid $600,000 to Johns Hopkins for staff development and other services. The district also spent about $2,000 more per student (as compared to students in regular high schools) to give each academy its own counselor, social worker and psychologist.

But as the years went by, the financial support waned. Morrow, who was the achievement academy leader at Crane before becoming principal at Robeson, says that Robeson’s academy currently has just one counselor and two student advocates, who do outreach to students and parents but do not have degrees in social work. Other support staff, such as social workers and psychologists, are at the academy only once a week (per a CPS formula that allocates support staff based on enrollment).

Morrow, incredulous, notes that these are the students who need the most help. “The model could work, if it was implemented with fidelity.”

Van Robinson, Chicago field manager for John Hopkins’ Talent Development High Schools, says that there have been many challenges to fully implementing the program in Chicago. The model works best when class sizes are small and teachers get regular, ongoing professional development and coaching. In CPS, these things haven’t happened.

Plus, the staff members who are supposed to be dedicated to the achievement academies are often pulled away, Robinson notes. Typically, these leaders are assistant principals of the host high school and have additional duties. The student advocates are sometimes viewed as extra bodies, used for tasks unrelated to outreach, such as lunchroom supervision or security. Class sizes are larger than recommended.

Back when Duncan contracted with John Hopkins University, the model had received accolades. The U.S. Department of Education’s “What Works Clearinghouse” lists the Talent Development High School model as a proven dropout intervention model.

Other models for working with this population are gaining traction. The National Center on Dropout Prevention gave its Crystal Star Award to the Olympia Learning Center in Columbia, S.C.

The Star Academy in the Olympia Center was a key reason. It emerged a few years ago when South Carolina contracted with Pitsco Education, which develops curricula and assessments, to design a program to work with overage 8th-graders, says Matt Frankenbery, director of education for Pitsco.

Frankenbery says Star Academy relies on hands-on and project-based learning. For example, in English courses, the students might write and design a newspaper.

“We don’t do online and we don’t do drill-and-kill,” he says. “We want these students to get engaged in the learning process again.”

More than 98 percent of students in the one-year program, now in more than 20 schools in seven states, make gains. But because it is new, there’s no long-term data yet to show whether or not the students stick with school.

The Star Academy can be located in either a middle school or high school, but Frankenbery says it usually works better in high schools because students don’t feel like they are left behind with little children. 

In addition to dwindling resources, some Chicago principals say it’s detrimental to put the achievement academies in already-struggling neighborhood high schools. Morrow likens the decision to building housing projects with a concentration of poor people. “It is just too many negatives,” he says.

Most of the host high schools have had principal turnover and other upheaval, too. Leaders of achievement academies say that they spend time and energy getting principals to understand and support their work, only to have them leave or be fired. Then, they have to start all over again to win backing.

Everett says she was lucky that the former Chicago Vocational principal, Marie Miles, was supportive of the academy. Miles took pains to give academy students a chance to enroll in vocational programs, such as cosmetology, so that they would feel included.

“The way I look at it, if we don’t get them and save them, then we lose them forever,” Miles said last year.

But Miles and four other principals at schools that house achievement academies were replaced over the summer of 2010. Chicago Vocational’s current principal, Justin Moore, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Two of the academies are at turnaround high schools, Fenger and Phillips, and most of their staff members were replaced over the last year or two. That means that teachers who had training in the John Hopkins model didn’t survive through the transition.

When it was announced last spring that Phillips would become part of the turnaround program, the academy’s staff rose up in arms. DeShazer and Mary McFarland, the assistant principal in charge of the Phillips Achievement Academy, complained bitterly.

Though she admitted that the achievement statistics were not where they should be, McFarland noted that almost half her students are Latino and make the trek across gang lines into Bronzeville, a predominantly African-American community.

“They are used to not coming to school,” McFarland says. “Sometimes they come here at 10 a.m., and we are happy to have them off the streets. We take them whenever we can get them.” And when the school did get them, they often tested at a 4th or 5th-grade level.

McFarland felt that her staff should have been given more time to prove they could be successful, since they had recently been displaced from Englewood High School when it closed. At Phillips, they had trouble winning the support of Principal Euel Bunton, who then lost his job as a result of the turnaround.

Now, DeShazer and McFarland are gone too. Only Robeson and Crane still have the same principals.

Morrow stresses he is not against having the achievement academy students in his building. He explains that the students have sometimes been problematic, making his staff hesitant and wary when they heard the students would be returning.  Since the students come from different neighborhoods, they are sometimes from different gangs and that can create conflict.

The achievement academy students started the school year later than other students, which made it especially hard to get them on board with the new, tougher discipline, he says. (The academy is not on the year-round schedule, which meant a later start and a different schedule from the regular school.)

Morrow has used some money from the Culture of Calm grant to pay for extra staff to focus on the achievement academy. So far, the attendance rate is up 14 percent from last year.
Achievement Academy Director Bonita Furcron says that if they can get students into class on a consistent basis, they often find they can perform.

In fact, this year’s first-time achievement academy students outperformed the regular Robeson freshmen on a standardized test. Five of them did better than average for high schools in the area, and their names are featured on laminated poster boards all around the achievement academy’s section of the building.

“These are bright students,” Furcron says.

But a reality exists that makes it tough for even the brightest kids. At Robeson’s achievement academy, 17 percent of students are homeless and many of the others come from unstable households.

As a result, attrition is a problem: 219 students originally enrolled in the achievement academy. By late March, just 146 remain.

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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