Last spring, for the first time, five Chicago elementary and middle schools gave their 8th-graders a critical choice: They could move on to area high schools or stay put for their freshman year.

At Chavez and Seward schools, both in New City, and Douglass Middle School in Austin, about 50 percent decided to stay. At Lozano School in West Town and Hope School in Englewood, 35 percent stayed. Meanwhile, Hancock School in Ashburn, which had no 8th grade last year, recruited students to add a 9th grade.

The graduating 8th-graders had a variety of reasons for not moving on.

Maria Martinez, 14, says she stayed at Hancock with a clear goal in mind: “I wanted to improve my reading and math.”

Esmeralda Arceo, 14, of Lozano says her parents wanted her to stay close to home as long as possible. Besides, she says, “I thought it would be exciting. We’re the first class to do this.”

Jaime Baltazar, 14, of Chavez wanted to improve his grades, but he also had a more basic reason. “In high school they give you a hard time,” he says. “Here you can stay with your friends. No gangs in here.”

And Jarvine Colbert, 16, of Hancock liked the small class size. “In high school, it’s overcrowded,” she notes. “Here they have no more than 20 students in a class.”

“The students that ended up staying were the students that would have struggled in high school,” says Lozano Principal Aurelio Acevedo, echoing most of his colleagues. “Research shows that if students continue on in the same school, they benefit.”

The goal of these new “freshman academies” is twofold. First, they aim to get a year’s worth of high school credit under kids’ belts before sending them into the mainstream of high school life. Second, they hope to bolster students’ self-confidence and social skills.

The academies’ small size is a major asset. (With one exception, each has no more than 60 students. Douglass is the exception; it has 137.) As a result, students have more contact with staff members, most of whom were recruited from within the schools.

The academies must follow state and city guidelines for high schools, providing a longer day than in elementary schools, smaller class sizes and the basic high school curriculum of algebra or pre-algebra, English, science, history and P.E. The academies also have adopted the traditional tracking system, though not every academy offers a full complement from remedial to honors.

Features vary

However, each of the six principals chose different ways to blend the academic rigors of high school with the support of elementary school.

Hancock Principal James Iles says that at the beginning of the school year, he had an individual conference on school procedures with each of his 47 new freshmen. “I told them, ‘This is not High School U.S.A.,'” he says. “We’re not going to have all those activities that Bogan has, that Gage Park has.'”

Iles also schedules weekly small-group meetings with 9th-graders and their teachers, where students are encouraged to talk about both academic and personal problems. “Our school is for that kid who’d be afraid to go to a larger high school,” Iles says. “If he comes here and is successful here, we’ve given him a basis of self-confidence.”

At Hancock, which offers grades 6 through 9, freshman classes are kept on one side of its small, one-story building. The students have a packed schedule with only one break, a 20-minute lunch period. The 9th-graders have their own extracurricular activities, including a basketball team complete with cheerleading squad.

At Lozano, the 9th-graders share an annex with 5th- through 8th-graders. Spanish is offered as an elective. The school counselor regularly brings in speakers to talk to the freshmen about career options; she also sets up freshman field trips to area universities. Lozano freshmen have their own uniforms—wearing them is voluntary—and their own lunch menus, but for now, they share extracurricular activities with the 8th-graders.

Acevedo says he’s already heard from about 10 recent Lozano graduates who want to return to the school for 9th grade. “High school was too large, too impersonal,” he says.

On the other hand, he adds, two current Lozano freshmen came to him earlier this year wanting to transfer out. Seemingly jealous of their friends in high school, they wanted, as Acevedo puts it, “more liberty.” He says he persuaded them to stay by suggesting they might be better prepared to deal with high school if they stayed put until June.

Marcey Reyes, principal of Seward, sees her 9th grade as an enrichment program for students who show academic promise but need encouragement. “We felt a lot of our good kids had fallen through the cracks,” she says. “Our very best and brightest kids were not making it through freshman year.”

This year, Reyes had the computer and science labs renovated and made Seward’s third floor into a “junior high” for 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders.

Reyes says she designed the freshman curriculum at Seward with help from suburban principals; she also had Seward teachers visit area high schools to get ideas. What she came up with was a highly structured day that includes study-skills classes and high school electives, including business and Spanish.

“We’re hoping that this academic program will give them the head start they need to survive high school,” Reyes says.

Seward also offers its junior high students a variety of extracurricular activities: newspaper, chess club, communication arts, cheerleading and sports. The freshmen have their own basketball team.

Douglass is another example of an “enrichment” freshman program. Eighth-graders must meet certain standards to be admitted, including good conduct and attendance and a grade average of C or better. “We wanted to plan an academy that would be successful,” says Assistant Principal Leatrice Mowitt. “It’s very supportive, but it’s not watered-down.”

The school’s freshman class is the most independent of the six. It has its own wing of the building, its own dress code and its own detention and study facilities.

All freshmen attend a structured “study hall tutorial”; some also take ROTC, band and/or computer classes. Freshmen have several separate extracurricular activities, including science and literary clubs, a basketball team, a gospel choir, student government and an honor society. In addition, through a mentoring program, students can serve as tutors and activity leaders for other students.

While students and staff generally are pleased with the program, the question remains: Are they boosting kids’ academic and coping skills, or simply prolonging an inevitably rough transition to high school?

“We won’t know until the end of this year,” acknowledges Marcey Reyes, of Seward, adding that she hopes her students will benefit from being more mature when they enter high school.

The process of installing 9th grades in elementary schools began with a survey by the board’s Office of Schools and Regions. Of the 28 schools that both expressed interest and had space, six went on to ask for local school council approval and, subsequently, modified their 1996-97 school improvement plans. Schools and Regions then sponsored parent forums and principal meetings to iron out the needed scheduling and curriculum changes.

The Reform Board allocated $102,000 for additional furniture and books. Schools also received the state Chapter 1 money that would have followed their 9th-graders to high school. Additional teaching positions, usually one or two per school, were supplied automatically as schools’ enrollments increased.

None of the six schools had to make structural modifications to their buildings.

Indeed, a problem with space contributed to the demise of the city’s first elementary school freshman academy, at Hendricks Elementary in Fuller Park. To make room for its new freshmen, Hendricks had to move its youngest students to an annex several blocks away, which dismayed parents. (See Catalyst, June 1995.) Then the principal, Mahalia Ann Hines, was lured away by Hope, which has ample room.

When Hines left in the spring of 1996, says former Interim Principal Millicent Rechord, “that vision went with her. Parents wanted the little people back into the big building.”

Rechord says the community approved of the program but not moving the little kids. By the end of last school year, she says, everything in the annex had been moved back to the main building, and the freshmen were no more.

Most of the six schools offering a freshman academy are racially homogeneous. Hope and Douglass are over 75 percent African American; Lozano, Chavez and Seward are over 75 percent Hispanic. Hancock is a mix of the two. In all six schools, more than 96 percent of the student body is low income.

The percentage of 8th-graders meeting or exceeding state reading standards was well below the city average, ranging from 20 percent at Chavez to 35 percent at Seward. The city’s lowest scoring schools—those on the state’s so-called academic watch list—were barred from the program; Deputy Chief Education Officer Blondean Davis says that’s because they likely would not have served the new 9th-graders well.

However, the six schools posted much lower truancy rates than did the city as a whole.

Students interviewed by Catalyst say they generally are enjoying themselves and feel hopeful about their futures in high school.

Roger Alcauter, 16, of Lozano, says he has become more self-confident from working with a group of students and a teacher he knows well. “This program has opened the door of faith,” he says. “Most 8th-graders are scared when they start high school.”

Classmate Luis Giron, 15, says he probably would have dropped out this year if he had gone straight to high school. Now, he says, “I’m prepared to go all the way. They [Lozano teachers] teach me the things I have to know, like study skills.”

He adds that the school doesn’t let him get away with impulsive behavior. “Once you give kids free time, they’ll goof off,” he says, referring to a regular high school.

Maria Martinez of Hancock says she doesn’t want to leave. “I won’t get the same attention as here.”

The students have some gripes, too.

Gerardo Garcia, 14, of Hancock, says it’s tiresome to see “the same group of students every day,” a remark that draws nods from his classmates.

“It’s embarrassing to be with the 8th-graders,” says Alex Rojas, 15, of Chavez.

Moneeka Williams, another Chavez student, says, “It’s going OK, but it’s going slow.” She explains that for the first several weeks, her class had trouble getting books and ID cards. And she wishes there were more extracurricular activities. Many students in other schools echoed that sentiment; they feel cheated out of the whirlwind of activities available at larger schools.

With the exception of Principal James Iles of Hancock, whose classes vary with the nature of overcrowding at neighboring schools, all the elementary principals with freshman academies would like to add higher grades.

Sandy Traback of Chavez and Marcey Reyes of Seward say they are considering forming a joint “junior academy” of 9th and 10th grades, perhaps to be housed in a nearby empty Catholic school building. Betty Smith of Douglass says she would like to create two sophomore divisions next year.

Aurelio Acevedo of Lozano would like to acquire an annex that could hold grades 9 through 12. And Hope Principal Mahalia Hines hopes to incorporate grades 9 through 12, no matter what school she ends up at. “I am a firm believer in small schools,” she says.

For more information

Hancock Elementary School

4350 W. 79th, (773) 535-2410

James P. Iles, principal

Lee Fahrner, teacher

Jim Jacobson, LSC member

Seward Academy

4600 S. Hermitage, (773) 535-4890

Marcey G. Reyes, principal

Rhonda Hoskins, team leader

Lorel Madden, teacher

Aida Gomez, LSC member

Lozano Elementary School

1424 N. Cleaver, (773) 534-4150

Aurelio Acevedo, principal

Barulio Gonzalez, teacher

Emma Lozano, LSC member,


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