Jasmine Bennett, a sophomore at Bowen High School, works on a self-portrait titled “Bubbles.” It is one of two dozen projects she must include in her portfolio in order to get credit for Advanced Placement Art. [Photo by Lucio Villa] Credit: Photo by Lucio Villa

The sign taped on the door says “No Boys Allowed.” Inside the room, donuts and small, white Styrofoam cups of orange juice and water sit on a desk.

Several young women slowly walk in with a look of consternation on their faces. “It is critical down there,” says one.

“That is crazy,” says another.

Teacher Magen Kilcoyne, whose curly, sandy-colored hair is pulled back and who is dressed in black cargo pants and a black “Bowen Class of 2012” T-shirt, shakes her head as she plops down copies of author Nathan McCall’s book “Makes Me Wanna Holler” on everyone’s desk.

“The boys were at it again,” she says, with a quick roll of the eyes.

Earlier, during lunch, a massive food fight in the cafeteria turned into a brawl. Police were called in, and some students were carted off in two paddy wagons. Principal Jennifer Kirmes says it was Bowen’s worst day so far this year in terms of school climate.

Jasmine Bennett, one of the girls in Mrs. K’s girls-only book club, says she stood against the wall, terrified, as students climbed up on tables and jumped off onto other students’ heads.

Though a fight is disturbing any day, it is especially disappointing that it happened on a Wednesday, a day that Kirmes is trying to make special. On that day, students take a break from their regular classes and pick from special classes that include options like robotics, journalism, chorus, recycling and the book club run by Kilcoyne.

The new initiative gives students at Bowen at least some exposure to the kind of electives that more elite schools routinely offer. Wednesday is also a day during which students can make up credits or attend group therapy to help them cope with problems such as managing anger or trauma.

“Intervention and extension,” says Kirmes, describing the initiative. Though it’s new, students have responded, coming to school more regularly not only on Wednesdays but Thursdays as well.

Without the initiative, Bowen’s course offerings are bare-bones. Every class is one that will count toward graduation requirements.

Within Chicago Public Schools, high school course offerings vary drastically—from paltry, as at Bowen, to robust, as at Walter Payton on the Near North Side. The type and size of the school and the skill level of incoming students are factors that drive the disparity. Bowen is a neighborhood high school with just 522 students, most of them with lower-level skills.

The most drastic dissimilarities are between high schools in impoverished neighborhoods with dwindling populations and selective enrollment high schools in more middle-class communities.

Payton, a selective enrollment school, has a 27-page, full-color catalog of course offerings. In it, students can read descriptions of courses ranging from 20th Century Global Conflicts to Advanced Jazz Band to a physics class focused on electricity and magnetism.

Payton also offers an all- honors curriculum for freshmen and sophomores; in junior and senior year, students can move into Advanced Placement classes.

“The complexity of the texts is pretty significant,” says Principal Ted Devine. “They are college-level.”

Meanwhile, at Bowen, the course offerings are summed up on one page. Other than the special Wednesday classes, the electives are sparse, mostly reserved for seniors and straightforward, like creative writing.

Kirmes says the staff is “toying” with the idea of an honors program, but some teachers do not believe in tracking students. Until two years ago, Bowen was split into small schools, some offering honors tracks.

Most of Bowen’s incoming freshmen score a 12 (out of a possible 25) on the Explore, the standardized test that is the precursor to the ACT. The score puts Bowen among the bottom 10 in the district on this measure, with only eight other high schools posting worse scores.

“There are very few exceptions,” Kirmes says. “There will be maybe one 16.”

Bowen does offer several Advanced Placement classes, but teachers lament that students are not prepared for them.

During her regular history classes, Kilcoyne covers the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson and the fallacy of separate but equal schooling. She points out that so much of what she teaches is still relevant today.

Kilcoyne once brought a group of young women from Bowen to Payton for a tour. Not only did students seem to be learning entirely different, more rigorous content, but the school environment was the polar opposite of Bowen’s.

Payton was built in 2000 and has state-of-the-art equipment, while Bowen was built in 1910 and needs $38 million in repairs. Bowen’s disrepair is obvious, with broken ceiling tiles, old peeling paint and classrooms that are either too warm or too cold.

For the first time, Kilcoyne says, the young women realized how different one school can be from another. They were stunned.

“The conditions here are subpar,” Kilcoyne says. “This wouldn’t fly at Jones or Payton. It breaks my heart. It makes me want to cry.”

At smaller neighborhood schools like Bowen, programmers have an increasingly hard time offering a variety of classes. If students need remedial coursework, such as a double period of reading or math, it often fills the time they would otherwise spend on art, music or other electives. Many students don’t start working on their required language and art classes until junior year—too late for them to dive into these subjects if they discover a propensity for them.

CPS does not keep or review high school course catalogs on a centralized basis. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials have seemingly realized how inconsistent course offerings are and how neighborhood schools fall short. A push is on to level the playing field.

They designated five schools as STEM Early College schools, giving students an opportunity to go to accelerated math and science classes and eventually take community college classes. Also, Emanuel announced that he was expanding IB offerings. Five schools will become “wall-to-wall” IB schools, while five more will add separate IB programs.

The ultimate goal of the IB program is for students to earn a full-fledged IB diploma. CPS does not currently track how many students in existing IB programs earn the diplomas, according to a response from a Freedom of Information request.

Jasmine Bennett did not expect to attend Bowen. She planned to go to a private Catholic school. Then, her mother lost her job and couldn’t afford it. But like many students at even the worst schools, Jasmine tries hard and has carved out a niche for herself.

This school year, she started an initiative with her friends to encourage students to say five positive things to five teachers. The only rule is that the compliments must be truthful. “So you can’t tell them they look nice, if they don’t,” Jasmine says. “They react with a huge smile.”

Jasmine says she started the project because she imagines it is difficult to work at Bowen.

Now a junior, Jasmine has gotten serious about her studies. She spends about an hour every day doing homework, usually staying after school because once at home, she forgets what work she needs to do.

She and her two friends are clearly treated specially in the school. One Friday, two days after the big food fight, they bypass the cafeteria and instead head to the counselors’ offices to see if they can share the counselors’ stash of food.

No one has anything for them this day, so the young women are forced to go to the cafeteria. Because of the food fight, no hot food is being served. Instead, they get trays with apples, milk and packaged graham cracker-and-peanut butter sandwiches.

After the quick lunch, the girls escape the noisy cafeteria to go to the college coach’s office, where they hang out until their next class. Jasmine talks about college trips she made. Only seniors are supposed to be college ambassadors, but she is an honorary one.

Jasmine says she doesn’t think that she is missing anything academically by attending Bowen. Her teachers know better.

Thinking of one bright young man, Kilcoyne says she worries that he is not being challenged because of the lack of experience writing essays. Instead of a lot of writing, Kilcoyne focuses on discussions in her classes. “Everyone can express their opinion,” she explains.

Tonda Tyre, who teaches Bowen’s AP literature and language classes, also says she is constantly modifying her lessons to make them doable for students, even though AP wants teachers to stick to standard curricula.

By the time students take her AP classes, few are working at an advanced level. This school year, she says, teachers got together for the first time to talk about tackling the problem by aligning content from one grade to the next.

Kirmes told Tyre she could weed out some of the students who signed up for AP, but she didn’t want to do it. She asked the students if anyone wanted to leave and avoid the harder work. “None of them wanted to go,” Tyre says.

Still, not all of the students have stepped up to the challenge. Tyre says she constantly weighs expectations against reality. She models how assignments should be done and makes a big deal out of it whenever a student does something right.

One day, she asks students to turn in their vocabulary notebook, where they are expected to list new words they have come across and the definitions. Not one student takes a notebook out. After a quiz, several students start going through dictionaries, feverishly writing down words they don’t know.

Seeing this, Tyre sighs. She gives them until Monday to turn in the notebooks.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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