Last fall, Patrick Davis seldom made it to class at Sengstacke Academic Preparatory Center. The problem, says the 16-year-old, was dragging himself out of bed at 6:30 a.m. in time to catch an early bus to school.

On those days he did show up, Davis didn’t put much effort into his studies, says Principal Janell Taylor. Sengstacke’s two truant officers tried to help him. They called when he was absent, visited his home in North Lawndale and met with his mother at school conferences.

Nothing worked. In January, the school dropped Davis from its rolls, and Taylor suggested he enroll in an alternative school. But Davis—a low-scoring student who was sent to Sengstacke because he was too old to remain in 8th grade— dismissed the idea outright.

He pleaded with Taylor to change her mind. “I begged her to let me come back,” Davis says. “I was sitting at home watching TV most of the time. I had a long talk with both sides of my family, and they said if I didn’t go to school, I wouldn’t go nowhere in life.”

Taylor relented, but set two conditions. He could return, she said, if he found several teachers to mentor him and if he agreed to buckle down and get serious about schoolwork. Since he returned to school in February, Davis’ attendance and class work have improved significantly.

For now, at least, Davis has escaped becoming a dropout statistic. He earned passing scores on his Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) in January, and he plans to attend Manley High School this fall. But the odds are against his ever graduating from high school.

The School Board first launched its transition center program in 1997 to better prepare low-scoring students for high school work. The goal was to increase such students’ chances of graduating. However, though most students eventually pass the test, they gradually fall by the wayside. After entering high school, many drop out.

Roughly three-quarters of transition center students eventually get “passing” scores on the ITBS and move on to high school, reports Joyce Bristow, who oversees CPS transition centers and middle schools.

And the percentage of transition center students who move on to high school is creeping up, she adds. “These are 1,600 children [each year] the system has almost given up on.”

However, CPS does not track students after they leave transition centers. Using CPS data, the Consortium on Chicago School Research took a headcount in the fall of 2000 and found that 24 percent of students who entered transition centers the previous year, 1999-2000, had dropped out. Of students enrolled in transition centers in 1998-99, 43 percent had dropped out of school. Of those enrolled in 1997-98, more than half, 57 percent, had left school. (See chart: Dropout rates for center students.)

Retrieving truants

Keeping chronic truants, like Davis, in school is a constant effort, say truant officers. To retrieve wayward Hernandez Academic Prep students, truant officer Frances Cook has driven to their homes, marched into their bedrooms and pulled the covers off their beds. “You have to go and get them,” Cook says. “Some of these students need that extra push.”

CPS provides students free bus service, and each transition center has a social worker, a counselor and a nurse on staff. Early in the school year, much of their time is spent persuading students to view transition centers as support, not punishment.

“They don’t want to be here, and they’re angry,” says Valerie McKinney, a social worker at Sengstacke. “There’s a lot of pressure from peers to drop out. I try to help them think it through. I ask ‘What will you do? How will you take care of yourself?’ They don’t really know. Most stay. Once they feel connected here, it’s easier for them.”

McKinney adds that the smaller class sizes (a maximum of 20 students) and the low enrollment (about 200) make it easier for staff to develop close ties to students.

McKinney recalls one truant student. “I kept talking to him and saying I expected to see him here. I’d call [when he was absent] and touch base with him whenever he was here. He saw somebody cared enough to keep tracking him down.” He began coming to school regularly, she says.

In September, Sengstacke had 226 students on its rolls. By May, enrollment had declined to 196. Hernandez started the year with 200 and fell to 180. Hernandez Principal Anthony Finger points out that initial enrollment figures include students who never show up at all. “I’m not sure the children were ever at the grammar school, either,” he says. “We make an effort to find them, and sometimes we can’t.”

Some students enroll briefly, then drop out. Transition center principals cite a number of reasons, including pregnancy, juvenile delinquency and peer pressure.

Yovanny Matias, 16, who has spent two years at Sengstacke, says he knows at least 10 students who dropped out because they got pregnant, become involved in gangs or had problems at home.

Matias, whose family emigrated from Mexico in 1995, passed math but failed reading on the ITBS as an 8th-grader at Orozco Elementary in 1998-99 It took him until January 2001 to score high enough in reading to go on to high school. Before passing the test, he often considered dropping out, getting a job and eventually trying to get a GED. But his parents and transition center teachers helped keep him on course. “The teachers here really care about you and take time to talk to you,” he says. “When I said ‘I can’t do this,’ they said ‘You can.’ I’m glad I didn’t drop out.”

Transition centers permit truant students more leeway than high schools, in some cases, allowing 30 to 40 absences before dropping a student. Every year, though, a few students get kicked out. Finger dropped nine students from Hernandez this year.

Counter to expectations, students who fail to pass the ITBS in January typically do not drop out, say principals. By then, they’ve developed connections with other students and staff that keep them tied to the school. About 10 percent of transition center students fail the test again in May. Facing a second year at the transition center—and watching peers get promoted to high school—they are more likely to quit school altogether.

High school credit

In 1999, the School Board experimented with sending transition center students to high schools mid-year if they passed the ITBS in January. The experiment lasted only a year. “We felt the kids did better if they stayed a full year in the smaller setting with the extra nurturing and mentoring,” Bristow says.

Instead, those students can earn high school credits by passing transition center classes in English, math, social studies, physical ed and computers. Science is not part of the transition center curriculum, so teachers encourage students to a summer course before starting high school.

“In a perfect world, we could have children who enter high school as sophomores,” Finger says. But most often, transition center students enter high school as freshmen.

At transition centers, students get double periods (90 minutes) of reading and math every day. A heavy dose of test preparation work—which teachers bemoan, yet feel is necessary—is part of the curriculum as well. Activities to boost self-esteem fill out the program. At Sengstacke, for example, Thursday physical education classes are led by motivational speakers who discuss a variety of social and emotional topics.

Doris Clay, an English teacher at Sengstacke, says the transition centers’ focus on basic skills leaves no time for other educational activities. “There were times I would have liked to take a field trip or bring in a speaker … but I don’t want to take time away from reading or math. That hurts.”

Declining enrollment

Next year, fewer students are expected to be sent to transition centers. A change in the promotion policy last spring allowed teachers discretion to promote 8th-graders with borderline ITBS scores. Eighth-graders who scored 8.0 get promoted automatically; those who score at least 7.0 may still go to high school if other factors, such as class work, weigh in their favor. “I do anticipate lower enrollment next year,” Bristow says.

Two transition centers—Dorsey and Olive— are being closed, saving the system $3 million. In 2000-01, the program cost a total of $13 million, says Bristow.

No one tracks transition center students once they move on to high school. Some transition center staffers keep tabs on former students informally. Hernandez truant officer Cook has a list of about 30 former students whom she calls periodically to see how they’re doing.

Of those, about half, she estimates, are still enrolled in high school. A couple are in jail. A few have had babies and dropped out of school. Many have dropped out of school to take jobs. “They say they have to help support their families,” says Cook.

It’s not unusual for former students to show up at their old transition center school to tell teachers they wish they could come back, say some staffers.

“There’s a comfort level that develops here,” said principal Finger. “This isn’t a place kids are clamoring to come to at first, but as the culture develops during the year, they feel safe here. When they get out into the larger high school, they struggle.”

Sengstacke P.E. teacher Bob Faire says transition center students could use more support, such as mental health counseling, vocational training and mentoring. The latter, he believes, would increase the number who stay in school.

“Some of these kids aren’t getting parental guidance,” Faire says. “We need to do some kind of outreach, so they have someone to turn to when they leave here.”

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