In September, Chicago Vocational High School was put on remediation because of declining test scores; only about 15 percent of its students scored at or above the national average in reading.

Last month, CVS received national recognition for its educational reform efforts. Along with four other schools singled out by the U.S. Department of Education, CVS will receive help expanding and promoting its initiatives under a project called “Changing the Subject: The New Urban High School.”

“We were more interested in seeing kids go to work or go to college and stay there [than in test scores],” says Larry Rosenstock, director of The Big Picture, a non-profit education research and advocacy group that helped identify the schools. “So even if CVS had been on probation, it would not have stopped us from choosing it. While it is not ideal, I think there is something that can be learned from the school.”

Rosenstock says that 70 percent of CVS graduates go on for post-secondary education and that of those, 60 percent enroll in four-year colleges. Another 15 percent of graduates land employment, and 5 percent go into the military, he adds.

The school was chosen for having personalized education for its 2,700 students by dividing into eight small schools, each with a faculty that plans integrated units of study across all subjects.

In addition, says Rosenstock, 40 percent of seniors and 20 percent of juniors have internships, giving students real work experiences.

“Also, you do not have a great school without a great principal,” he says. “And Betty Despenza-Green is a great principal, very dynamic, who comes from a curriculum and instruction background.”

A year ago, CVS was cited for outstanding leadership under the school system’s Exemplary Schools Program. Initially, Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas withheld the award, saying the school’s test scores were too low. Eventually, he let the leadership award go through.

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