Difficulty with reading had always made school a struggle for Kimberly Avant, 16. In 8th grade, as standardized testing approached, she says her teacher even warned her, “‘You’re going to fail.’ When I was taking the reading test, I was still thinking about what she was saying.”Kimberly missed the required score for admission to high school and missed it again, but just barely, after summer school. Already over age for 8th grade, she was assigned to a transition center. In her view, she was headed for a “slow” school.

Launched in February 1997, Chicago’s transition program is intended to be a safety net for older, low-scoring 8th-graders. These students are bused to nine small regional centers. where they get an extra hour of instruction, double periods of math and reading and extra counseling, tutoring and other support services. The per-pupil cost—$12,000—is almost twice that for high schools.

For Kimberly, Sengstacke Transition D in Douglas proved to be a turning point. “The teachers were like, ‘We don’t want you to fail. These are your weaknesses. We’re going to help you.'”

Spurred by the attention, she did every scrap of reading homework, clinched her score on the January retest, and headed off midyear to Marshall Metro High School.

Kimberly is one of 1,549 students who were enrolled at regional transition centers last fall and one of 682 who advanced to high school in January, some after more than a year in transition.

The centers basically are “a good concept,” those who work in them say. Students who would flounder in a large high school can thrive in a close-knit school of 200, they explain.

However, some teachers question whether all students are getting what they need to pass high school courses and graduate—the ultimate goal of the transition center program.

Transition teachers praise the program’s structure—small schools, longer school day and extra social services. But they say the instructional program needs work. They also feel that some recent developments, such as an increase in class size, have diminished the program’s potential. In January, the board announced that students who had “passed” the ITBS midyear would immediately transfer to high schools instead of finishing the year at the centers. With the drop in enrollment, some transition teachers were abruptly loaned out to high schools.

So far, the board hasn’t tracked the progress of transition students who have made it to high school, but it plans to do so beginning this semester. For now, the success of the $13 million a year program is measured by the number of transition students who move on. Of 1,305 students who arrived at the centers in August 1997, “only 42 are left and did not meet promotion requirements,” says Buckney. “That’s definite proof that the concept of the transition center works.”

The board declined to say, however, how many of those 1,305 actually met the cutoff scores for promotion and how many transferred out the system, dropped out, were granted waivers or were put into special education and automatically promoted.

In the first semester, the average score of students who had been assigned to the centers because of reading difficulties rose from 5.8 to 6.7. For students behind in math, the average score rose from 6.5 to 6.8. Younger 8th-graders who had been retained in elementary schools showed similar gains.

A transition student’s academic life revolves around the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). With high school admission in the balance, students undertake a program of intense test preparation: 100 minutes a day each of math and reading plus a 50-minute computer lab tutorial formatted like the ITBS. In addition, they take social studies and gym.

This fall, transition centers also ran after-school math and reading programs. Board-funded consultants fanned out to every center to share test-taking strategies such as “answer easy questions first,” “eliminate obviously wrong answers” before guessing, and when in doubt, choose “b.” (“C” is no longer the most frequent answer, they advised.)

Poor test-taking skills—as much as academic difficulties—are what prevent students from entering high school, many transition staff feel.

But some question the focus. For example, in December, every transition student took a “mock” ITBS exam; teachers were to spend the last two weeks of the semester exclusively on test practice. That’s “two weeks when I could be giving them ideas, I’m going to be teaching them how to take a test,” says reading teacher Cathy Cunningham-Yee of Higher Learning Transition C in Fuller Park. “You’re educating them for something-short term.”

Like many reading teachers, Cunningham-Yee feels that students would benefit more in the long run by spending time on writing and projects, and from reading instruction tailored to their individual levels. The board ought to research programs for struggling adolescent readers that have been successful in other places, she says. “It baffles me that they didn’t in the first place.”

The reading curriculum at transition centers is aimed at teaching skills tested on the ITBS like “finding the main idea,” and “drawing conclusions.” According to Joyce Bristow, who oversees the transition program citywide, the primary materials transition teachers should use are skills books with short passages and multiple-choice questions like those on the ITBS, and the computer lab tutorial. Literature should be used for supplementary reading, she says.

In practice, most transition centers strike a balance between multiple-choice worksheets and teaching ITBS skills through short stories, plays and even newspapers.

Whatever materials a teacher selects, the board requires that all students receive instruction at the 8th-grade level unless diagnosed with a learning disability. Teachers “may have to do some preliminary things to get them to that level, which is fine,” Bristow says. “But they are supposed to be teaching the 8th-grade skills that are tested.”

Some reading teachers, however, think students would be better off with instruction that started at their current level and advanced to the 8th-grade level over one or more semesters.

Maureen Erickson of Lake Shore Transition A in Uptown teaches a typical range of transition center students. Some “don’t know how to sound out words. They don’t even know the sounds,” she says. Others can read but do so haltingly. “Then you have kids who can zip right through it, but you ask them a question and they have no comprehension.”

Her colleague Deanne Jester, a special education case manager, says that she has flexibility to aim instruction at students’ reading levels “but the general educators don’t—and if they did, we would see a lot more progress.

“I know a kid who’s at a 3rd-grade level and has been sitting there with an 8th-grade textbook for two years and can’t pass. He’s not the only one.”

In contrast, she’s seen some of her learning disabled students advance several grade levels in a year. “Children who never read a book before—and it took them a month to read the first one—are now reading four a month. It can happen but it all depends on reaching them at a place that’s still challenging, but they can succeed at.”

Mary E. Curtis, director of the Boys Town Reading Center in Nebraska, which works with troubled adolescents, agrees that students progress faster with instruction aimed at their level, not above it. “When you’ve got kids who are 15 years old and older, they are going to be failing for a variety of reasons,” she notes, echoing Erickson. “One is, they can’t read words.” That group needs phonics, she says.

A second group “can read words, but they do it so slowly that by the time they get to the end of the sentence, they can’t remember what it said when they started.” That group needs lots of practice, she explains.

“Then you’ll have a third group of kids that can read the words fluently but don’t know enough about what the words mean to make any sense of what they’re reading. [That] group needs intensive vocabulary work. Unless the kids get those kind of interventions, they’re not going to be successful.”

Transition reading teachers do use timed readings to build fluency, and they assign vocabulary words from worksheets or stories. And three centers are experimenting with a phonics program for a select group of students.

But most teachers spend the vast majority of time targeting the ITBS reading skills—making inferences, drawing conclusions, finding the main idea— that they say give students trouble.

Curtis says that trouble with inferences often arises from problems with reading fluency or vocabulary. Once those problems are addressed, making inferences comes naturally to most kids, she says. “Many wouldn’t be alive if they weren’t capable of making inferences.”

She believes that Chicago’s transition centers are trying to tackle too many problems at once, none of them intensively enough. “To spend time teaching inference-making to somebody who can’t read the words is a waste of time.”

Boys Town places high school students reading below the 8th-grade level in one of three semester-long courses targeting phonics, fluency, or vocabulary.

The full sequence takes longer than the semester that Chicago’s transition students have before the January ITBS, Curtis acknowledges. But students who are years behind are going to need more time to catch up anyway, she notes. “Why not predict that ahead of time and give them what they’re going to need from the beginning?”

Math teachers are also struggling to reach a range of students—from those who have trouble subtracting to those who appear ready for algebra.

The board wants transition teachers to spend the bulk of their time on multi-step word problems. “For the last nine years, these students have been given basic skills,” says Mark Moskowitz of the board’s Curriculum and Instruction Department. “I made it clear to the [transition] teachers that I wanted them to concentrate on something new.”

What he’s advising: “Do a very short instructional component and then go into small-group activities with real problem solving.”

“Over 70 percent of the ITBS is problem solving,” he adds. “There’s a very small computation part of the test.”

Teachers agree that students have the most difficulty with multi-step problems. But many continue to concentrate on computation and basic concepts. “How can you think on a higher level if you don’t know what decimal points are?” asks math teacher Richard Galli of Unity Transition B in Belmont Cragin.

Moskowitz isn’t advocating that teachers neglect the basics but rather that they teach them in the context of more complex problems. “Computation and basic concepts can come through usage,” he explains. “You can bring in some new ideas like geometry and probability and statistics that students have never seen and really raise test scores.”

Math teacher Darlene Bell at Proctor Transition G in Englewood says that she was inspired by one of Moskowitz’s staff development workshops at her school. “Challenge them more, get them to think,” he told teachers. “And I tried to,” she says. “They were totally lost.” So she gave up on problem solving and went back to computation.

Bell thinks she could do better if a consultant like Moskowitz spent time in her classroom modeling problem-solving lessons to her class. “That way I can really see,” she says.

Math teacher Nick Farina of Transition A says his algebra class will work together on difficult problems without prompting. But his remedial math classes won’t. He describes one as “a quiet, docile bunch of kids who are very far behind” and the other as a group that tends to tune out after lunch.

He wants to know how to get all his students working cooperatively. “Show me,” he says. “Because I’m willing to learn.”

Bristow says she did want to provide in-class modeling at every center but had money to serve only one. She chose Transition B, which she thought would especially benefit from the extra help. A consultant spent eight days with three math and three reading teachers. The math teachers enjoyed her visit, they say. One liked the way she used the overhead projector. Another thought she had a good rapport with students and will try to be more energetic himself. In general, though, they didn’t pick up any new teaching strategies.

Moskowitz suspects that many teachers are more comfortable sticking with computation. “Teachers teach the way they were taught. That’s a professional development concern that all major cities are struggling with right now. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the manpower to do the staff development, to open their eyes, to change those paradigms.”

A few math teachers say they would use more innovative teaching methods if they had the time. Under pressure to cover all the ITBS skills by January, they stick to abstract, pencil-and-paper problems and avoid more time-consuming “hands-on” activities that they believe might lead to better retention of math in the long run.

“We’re so busy trying to do skill-based teaching, they don’t have time to process what they know and integrate it with something new,” says math teacher Jean Rollins-Helms of Transition G, referring to her first-semester classes. “When they prep for the Iowa test, they think it’s the same old, same old. ‘Why do we have to do this again?'”

Second semester she delves into projects. One involved collecting six types of data from March basketball playoffs, and graphing the information to show mean, mode and range. The activity also taught decimals, percents and fractions. Not only did they retain more, their attendance was unusually high, Rollins-Helms reports. “They wanted to finish their projects.”

During the fall semester, teachers at many centers complained of increasing class size. Originally, the board limited class size to 20. Last year, class sizes frequently were as small as 15. This year, a class size of 25 was not uncommon.

“They come from class sizes of 26 and 29,” says math teacher Camilla Samuel of Transition D. “Why am I going to be able to do any better with the same size class August to January, when they couldn’t [succeed] in August to June last year?”

Bristow says that class size still averages 20, except in centers that are short of teachers. Class size decreased second semester as some students moved on but likely will return to the previous level next fall. “I don’t think we can get it any smaller. I don’t think we can afford it.”

At Phoenix Transition H in Chatham, small classes were a big reason that many students passed the January retest, according to one teacher who asked not to be identified. Phoenix had the highest pass rate, with 101 of 122 students moving on to high school. First-semester classes averaged only 15 to 17 students, the teacher says. “Those other centers could not possibly have achieved, with 30 kids, the kind of results that we did.”

On the positive side, teachers say the transition program allows them to focus on the neediest students with an intensity that would be impossible in a regular school setting. For many students, failure has become a habit that staff must work hard to break.

The halls of Transition C are papered with achievement certificates. Whether it’s “Most Improved Attendance” or “Most Improved Grades,” every child gets one. “It makes it easier to work with them when they feel like ‘OK, I can do something,'” notes Demetra Kirksey, Transition C director.

For the first semester at Transition D, “We try to boil the concepts down to the point where if they just pay attention, they will succeed,” says social studies teacher John Goldwyn. “The first A’s and B’s that hit their desks—the tears well up in their eyes. The cycle [of failure] has to be broken.”

And at Transition F in Austin, dropouts are welcomed back provided they “swear they’re going to be good people,” laughs attendance officer Sharon Sebastian-Jones.

The board also has set up volleyball and basketball leagues where teams from each center compete. Most transition centers have chess clubs and student councils, too. In a regular high school, these same students wouldn’t join teams “because they wouldn’t have the GPA to participate,” and wouldn’t join student councils because “the underachievers would not be voted in,” notes math teacher Jean Rollins-Helms of Transition G.

Transition centers offer extra support services. Each center has a full-time social worker and shares a pool of psychologists and counselors. Five centers recruited retired teachers to tutor. Bristow’s office sent an additional four tutors. Vision screening this fall turned up 424 students who needed more thorough exams, and the board is providing them, even for those who have moved on to high school. Already 44 have been fitted with eyeglasses, according to Bristow.

Second-year students got special attention last fall. “We knew one thing—just giving them another test was not the answer,” says Bristow. “We needed to look at them diagnostically.” Sixty were identified as needing special education. Many had been highly mobile in their elementary school years, she explains, and special-education testing started at one school was never completed.

To boost students’ morale, the board’s Interfaith Community Partnership recruited mentors—from lawyers to ministers to construction workers. “Somebody they can look up to and say that’s who I want to be,” says Rev. Ellis May of Interfaith. Mentors talked with them about goal setting and career planning.

Overall, students express mixed feelings about the transition center experience. Many kids, like Juwana Myles, 15, of Transition D say it’s far better than elementary school where “They would just give us some papers off the desk—’here, do it,’ and not explain anything.”

Most find their transition teachers more helpful and demanding. “I ain’t never had no teachers put their foot down on me [before],” reports Juwana. “They want me to learn. It wasn’t good to fail 8th grade, but it was good to meet these teachers.”

Many also say the strict requirements for entering high school convinced them to take school seriously for the first time. In elementary school “I didn’t pay attention in class. I just played around,” admits student Rameaú Williams, 15, of Transition A. Now he gets his work done. “Basically, I’m just trying to get out of here. And I’m learning new things,” he adds.

Some see an advantage in attending a school with other students who failed the same test. “People can’t look at you like you’re dumb, because [their] scores weren’t up to level either,” explains Ebony Williams, 15, of New Visions Transition E in Englewood. She thinks the transition kids are a lot nicer and closer than her elementary school classmates were. “Maybe they’re focused on trying to get out. [In elementary school] they just didn’t care.”

Still, many transition students feel stigmatized, and some lie about where they attend school, teachers say. Hours before Transition D announced January test score results, reading teacher Jena Payne had students write their feelings down. “A lot of them said, ‘I am stupid.'” she says, holding up a stack of essays. “I have to battle that every day—a student feeling that he is less than nothing.”

“When I come here, I feel like I’m no good,” says one 15 year-old girl who reports that her test scores slipped on the retest following summer school. “When it comes to tests, I get nervous. I can’t do it.”

“I call it ‘test traumatized; the more times they repeat the test, the more anxiety builds up,” says math teacher Lauretta White of Transition F. “They begin to second-guess themselves.”

Before the January retest, second-year students already had failed to meet the cutoff score five times. “Their morale is down,” acknowledges Bristow. “There’s no denying that. I think the parents have put them down, lost faith in them. They had begun to lose interest.”

Of 398 students retained last August for a second year, only 210 are still in attendance by January retest. The board declined to say whether the others transferred or dropped out. Of the 210, about 60 were found in need of special education services and moved automatically to high school in January. The rest made cutoff scores or were close enough to receive waivers.

The 42 who remain will take the test again in May. Those who still don’t pass may be moved into high school but with an extra tutoring period and a vocational education class, Bristow says.

This year, for the first time, transition students who passed the January retest were moved into high school, sometimes into the second half of a year-long course. Eighth-graders retained at their elementary schools in August also got the chance to move on in January. Last year, they stayed in elementary school.

“Mid-year promotion is an incentive for students,” says Buckney. “If the goal is to get them in the high schools, that was the next logical step along the way.”

“It’s reasonable if done well,” agrees Barbara Radner of DePaul University, a consultant for six high schools. However, “Like every decision, it has benefits and potential problems.”

On the one hand, “The kids themselves are very excited. There are kids to whom hope has been restored.” But on the other hand, she says, “Those kids are going to need some kind of academic support to succeed in their courses.”

Last year, transition students who passed in January had a more sheltered introduction to high school: They began taking high school courses at the transition centers, and took more classes over the summer. The goal was to earn enough credits to enter high school in August as sophomores. None of the students met that goal, but the majority did earn at least some credits, according to Bristow.

Kimberly Avant, for one, would have preferred the old system. In mid-January, she worried about starting high school classes months behind. “Teachers will ask you, ‘Do you know this?'” she imagines, “And you’ll say no and [classmates] will be sniggling. ‘You’re coming from a transition center? What’s that? A slow school?'”

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on those kids,” agrees Principal Donald Pittman of Marshall, where Kimberly enrolled. Marshall has 17 mid-year students from transition centers and 23 from elementary schools. “They will basically be coming into second-semester classes.”

The board did propose a schedule that would have avoided that problem: Transition students were to take double periods of freshman English and algebra to earn a full year’s credit in a semester, plus gym and art or music. They would catch up on science and social studies in the summer. Many schools had space and staff to follow that proposal, or at least to offer first- semester classes. Others, like Marshall, found it impossible.

Kimberly likely will have the smoothest transition into second-semester social studies and algebra. All transition students began high school social studies in the fall. Kimberly also had a semester of algebra. Her center was among those that decided on their own to offer algebra to students who had arrived with a passing math score. At Marshall, students who took only regular math will have to wait until summer for algebra. Other high schools have made the same arrangement.

Kimberly is jumping into second-semester English and biology, however. Radner notes that students entering mid-year probably will lack some skills. But she says they will not be held responsible for first-semester content, because different topics are covered the second semester.

Like many high schools, Marshall has some supports in place to help mid-year transfers keep up.

Marshall offers after-school tutoring and has grouped them in the same divisions and advisories. “They have the same problems and common interests,” Pittman notes. “They should be comfortable speaking out to their division/ advisory teacher.”

Bristow says the board likely will evaluate the impact of mid-year promotion to high school. “Did they make grade, did they come to school regularly or did they fall by the wayside?” she wants to know.

Until January, the board had planned for successful transition students to remain in the centers for their first high school courses, according to Bristow. Eighth-graders promoted from elementary school would have joined them for the remainder of the school year, she says.

Over Christmas break, the board reconsidered. For one, moving an additional 600 to 800 students into transition centers would have cost an estimated $1.5 million, she says. Since high schools tend to lose students during the year, space would be available there at no extra cost. Moving students to high schools also seemed in keeping with the purpose of transition centers, which “wasn’t to be a high school [but] to be a support program for children who hadn’t made it to high school,” she explains.

In another last-minute decision, the board loaned 23 transition teachers out to high schools experiencing the largest mid-year influxes. Teachers received as little as one day’s notice of the transfer.

Loaned teachers may work directly with the incoming students or as regular classroom teachers. They will continue to work an eight-hour day, using the extra time to tutor, counsel or monitor attendance of the recently promoted students. Next fall, they will return to the transition centers, Bristow says.

Some transition staff wonder if their colleagues will indeed return.

“I don’t know how many would be willing to risk it,” says a Transition H teacher who asked not to be identified. With 101 of 122 students moving on, half of the center’s core subject teachers—one reading, two math, one social studies—received involuntary transfers. “It seems like an awful way to say ‘thank you’ to a staff whose students had posted the best achievement. It is just demoralizing.”

Two transition teachers on loan have filed grievances with the Chicago Teachers Union, according to union spokesperson Jackie Gallagher.

Transition H Director Pauline Elifson, who attributes her center’s success to “amazingly wonderful teachers,” is uncertain how the last-minute transfer will affect her program next year.

“I’m praying that they know that they’re on loan, and [that] they will come back,” she says. “I’m praying and praying and praying.”

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