Robeson High School Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

Research confirms the early signs that students are on their way to dropping out of school: They are older than their peers; they are failing classes; and they are increasingly absent.

Now, CPS is trying to figure out what it can do to get these students to change course.

The Office of Dropout Prevention now has a three-pronged approach. For the first time this year, all graduating 8th-graders will be invited to summer programs before their freshman year, an approach previously offered only to underperforming students. Another initiative, Youth Engaged in Schools, will focus on students who have some involvement in the juvenile justice system.

But the biggest effort will come in new “freshmen on-track labs.” These dropout-prevention programs will be piloted in six high schools—Kelvyn Park, Kenwood Academy, Michele Clark, Phillips, Robeson and School of the Arts—in the fall. Each lab will cost $310,000 for 18 months—$142,560 for the coordinator, $118,560 for the facilitator and about $50,000 for discretionary spending on projects to keep 9th-graders engaged.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding two labs and CPS will pick up the tab for the other four.

In announcing this effort in late February, CPS released a report (paid for by a Gates Foundation grant) that shows 44 percent of CPS students drop out, and outlines the progression that takes them from being off track to leaving school entirely.

In 2004, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research reported similar figures and introduced the idea of “freshmen on-track rates.” The Consortium defined an off-track student as one who failed a core class or had fewer than 10 credits at the end of freshman year. Consortium researchers have determined that students on track at the end of their freshmen year were nearly four times more likely to graduate than those who were not.

Across the district, CPS says 57 percent of freshmen were on track in 2007.

Selecting schools

Of the schools chosen for the labs, only two, Robeson and Phillips, have below-average freshman on-track rates, according to district data. At Robeson in Englewood, 35 percent of freshmen in 2007 were on track; at Phillips, in Bronzeville, 52 percent met the mark.

Paige Ponder, the project’s director, defended the decision to put four of the labs in schools where the majority of freshmen are already on track. CPS administrators wanted to open labs in a variety of schools to determine what works best in different situations, Ponder says, and eventually the successful practices will be incorporated in all schools.

“Hopefully, patterns will emerge so we can say, ‘If we do things this way, we will get these results,'” Ponder says.

Initially, each of the schools will have a unique focus—from programs to cope with students’ emotional problems to convincing all freshmen to attend extra-curricular activities—chosen jointly by the principal and lab staff.

The common thread is that all the schools will rely on timely data to direct their efforts. Lab staff, for example, will have reports listing the students who failed a class after the first semester or have missed numerous days.

“The point is, we can’t let them spiral out of control,” says Ponder. “We can’t wait until the end of sophomore or junior year and then say, ‘What’s going on?'”

Ponder wants the labs to focus on prevention, intervention and credit recovery. And she wants them to look for systemic solutions that can be sustained over time without extra staff, because the funding for the labs will run out after 18 months.

What works

At Phillips, Principal Euel Bunton says he wants the lab coordinator and facilitator at his school to focus on having freshmen develop lasting, quality relationships with adults. He says that students need that connection so they feel someone cares about them and wants them to do well.

Bunton’s school is part of High School Transformation, the district’s effort to improve failing schools by focusing on tougher curricula. But what is needed, he notes, is increased focus on some of the emotional problems that prevent students from succeeding.

“I call this action-research,” says Phillips.

Henry West, principal of Michele Clark, says he’s looking to the lab coordinator to bring together the school’s disparate programs aimed at shoring up freshman performance. For example, the attendance office is doing some tasks, while the social workers carry out others.

Students at the Austin high school are chosen through a lottery, and it boasts a 65 percent freshman on-track rate. Still, many youngsters there are grappling with the same social problems as those at hard-knocks neighborhood schools.

“We have a lot of issues with homelessness, teen pregnancy and kids that just come from really broken homes,” West says.

To combat that, West wants the coordinator to implement a nationally known program called FAST (Families and Students Together). The program encourages parents and their sons and daughters to talk to each other about what is going on in their lives and work together to find solutions to problems. He believes the program would help work out some of the social issues that students are grappling with, allowing students to focus on school.

At Robeson, Principal Gerald Morrow believes what happens inside the classroom ultimately has the most bearing on whether students stay in school. To that end, he wants his lab to have an instructional focus. Murrow says he worries that initiatives that don’t focus on education miss the point. Eventually all students have to take the ACT, he points out.

He wants attendance to be monitored. Then, students who are failing would be offered tutorials and Saturday school, which he provides not as a punishment, but as a support.

He also wants the on-track coordinator to determine which teachers are keeping students enthralled and which ones are losing them. He then wants the coordinator and facilitator to connect the more effective teachers with the less effective ones, so the better teacher can share her strategies.

Murrow also believes it is critical to get each freshman involved in an extracurricular activity. “You may not be an excellent bowler, but you can join the bowling team and have some fun,” Murrow says.

Murrow says he would like to see the on-track freshman rate increase from the current 35 percent to 65 percent. But he is not ready to commit to 100 percent. “We have young men at the juvenile detention center, young women become pregnant or have babies and daycare issues,” he says.

The bottom line, Ponder says, is getting significant results.

“We are not looking for small changes; we are looking for dramatic improvement,” says Ponder, who was hired in August. “We want to move the needle on freshmen on-track rates.”

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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