Senn Academic Achievement Academy Credit: photo by John Booz

Soon after the School Board adopted promotion standards in 1996, it faced a dilemma. With thousands of children now forced to repeat a grade, many were reaching the age of 15 without an 8th-grade diploma. That would leave them too old for elementary school but unprepared for high school.

So the next year, the district opened nine small regional centers where some 1,300 over-age 8th-graders were to be brought up to speed in reading and math. With nearly twice the amount of money per student that high schools had, each center featured smaller class sizes and extra support staff, such as a full-time social worker.

Even so, students made scant headway. On average, students who spent a year in a center made only a half-year’s progress in reading and one month’s progress in math, according to a 2003 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. And 80 to 85 percent dropped out by the end of 10th grade, according to the CPS Office of High School Programs.

While the centers were strong on caring—students reported much more personal attention than did the average 9th-grader—they were weak on curriculum, the Consortium found.

This fall, the district retooled the program, putting the centers inside seven regular high schools and providing a nationally recognized high school program and monthly professional development for teachers.

Veterans of the old centers who spoke with Catalyst were generally positive about the changes but uncertain how large a dent they would make in the dropout rate.

“The weakest students need one-on-one tutoring,” says one teacher. “Even if you have 15 students, you can’t do one-on-one.”

The site change for the Academic Achievement Academies, as they now are known, was aimed at easing students’ transition to high school. It also eliminated the expense of maintaining separate buildings. Next year, academy students are expected to enroll in the high school where their academy is located so academy staff can offer continuing support services.

The new academy curriculum, developed at Johns Hopkins University as part of the Talent Development High School model, emphasizes group work, which teachers credit with motivating students. Consultants from the program provide monthly staff development for academy teachers, and new subject-area coaches visit classrooms to give teachers new ideas and feedback.

But many students have problems with family, drug abuse and other issues that teachers feel at a loss to address. “I think it’s a little late for a lot of these kids,” says one.

Still, by the end of the first semester, attendance and reading gains were outpacing last year’s record. Of 1,100 academy students, 630 passed all their first-semester courses and, therefore, earned 8th-grade diplomas midyear, according to Edward Klunk of the Office of High School Programs

Klunk is eying another outcome, though. “The real measure of the success of this program is how many of these students are ready to go into 10th grade by the end of summer,” he says.

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