Ten years ago, when CPS decided to end social promotion, it quickly faced a dilemma: a backlog of 15-year-olds who were far behind academically and too old for elementary school.

The board quickly tried to resolve the problem by creating nine small regional centers (called academic prep centers) to work intensively with overage elementary school students, with the goal of raising their math and reading skills. The hope was that by the end of the concentrated tutorial, students’ academic deficiencies would be addressed and they would achieve the test scores needed to move on to high school.

The program failed. Kids made almost no standardized test score gains in math and reading. Even those who eventually hit the targets needed to enter high school typically dropped out before earning enough credits to complete their sophomore year, the CPS Office of High School Programs reported.

Administrators went back to the drawing board. In 2003, CPS scrapped its free-standing centers and established achievement academies, now in nine high schools. The academies’ two-year program, based on a national model developed at Johns Hopkins University, is designed to help smooth the transition into high school coursework.

Students are expected to earn their 8th-grade diplomas in the first semester. They enroll in three double period courses: math, reading, and a seminar that teaches study skills and life skills such as conflict resolution and goal-setting. All three courses count toward elective high school credits.

Those who pass all three courses earn an elementary diploma. Those who don’t pass still move onto 9th-grade coursework in their second semester and, if they pass, will still earn their 8th-grade diploma. Kids continue in the program through 10th grade and then move on to 11th grade in a regular high school.

Unlike the old academic prep centers, the academies are as much about acceleration as remediation. Instead of working to get overage elementary school students to hit certain test scores in order to be promoted, the objective is to equip students with the skills to do high school work. To do so, the district spends $8,250 per academy student, compared to $6,250 for other high school students, officials say. (That figure, however, does not include the costs of additional professional development and classroom coaching for teachers provided by the Office of High School Programs.)

But now in their third year, the jury is still out on whether achievement academies can put kids on a path to success in high school, based on data analyzed for Catalyst Chicago by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Academy students are less likely to drop out within two years compared to kids who attended the academic prep centers, but their attendance is still poor. Students, on average, are earning too few credits to meet the academy program’s goal of earning 14 credits before 11th grade, or to make adequate progress toward graduating from high school on time.

Academy teachers who spoke with Catalyst predict that many of their students—estimates range from 30 to 90 percent—will not be ready for 11th-grade work. Lack of motivation, disruptive behavior and personal issues, they say, are even bigger obstacles than low academic skills. Daniel Nicky, a biology teacher at Chicago Vocational Achievement says that some of his students “envision a life for themselves where they’re going to end up selling drugs or a victim of gang violence. You hear things like, ‘I’m probably not going to live past 21.'”

In addition, teacher turnover at academies is high, and a substantial number of academy teachers have minimal experience, according to a Catalyst analysis of data provided by CPS. (See related story)

‘Evidence looks good’

Overall, the first two groups of students to enter achievement academies have posted lower dropout rates than students in the shuttered academic prep centers.

In 2002, the last group of students to enter the prep centers posted a one-year dropout rate of 19 percent, according to the Consortium’s analysis.

The following year, the first students to enter the revamped academies had a one-year dropout rate of 12 percent. The rate rose slightly for students entering in 2004, to 14 percent.

Despite the recent bump-up in one-year dropout rates, “that seems like a substantial amount of improvement in a short amount of time,” says Elaine Allensworth, an associate director at the Consortium who has studied dropout trends in Chicago. A more rigorous analysis of the data is still needed, she adds, but “the preliminary evidence looks good.”

Propelling kids into high school coursework keeps students motivated and less likely to drop out, suggests Melissa Roderick, a Consortium director. The academies have provided extra support as students transition into a full load of 9th-grade courses, a big advantage over the prep centers, she says.

Teachers and students say small class sizes—capped at 20 for freshmen—and double period schedules provide time for individual attention, which helps keep kids in school.

With 90 minutes instead of 45 minutes per period, kids have time to start homework in class and get help, vastly improving the chances that they’ll complete it at home, says math teacher Muhie Tabbara. “I want them to do five or six problems in front of me.”

Academy staff find that dozens of juniors who graduated from their program last year still drop by to visit—some almost daily. One former student at Chicago Vocational Achievement Academy phones the school from Texas. Many who spoke with Catalyst say they miss the attention.

Nina Doston, now a junior at Chicago Vocational, says she still comes by student advocate Malann Marshall’s office because she hasn’t found other adults to talk to. “Some teachers don’t even explain the work,” she says. “They just give it to you and go back to their desks.

Academy staff members, by contrast, appear much more attentive both inside and outside of class. Teachers are available before and after school for tutoring. Many hand out their cell phone numbers.

At Clemente Achievement Academy, algebra teacher Monica Roach sits beside a desk cluster, carefully leading three freshmen as they solve an equation. In the hallway, director Sally Hill spots one of her worst-behaved students and hugs him.

At Robeson, academy leader Loretta Young-Wright stands at the entrance with a box full of prizes such as pencils and fingernail polish for students who arrive on time to their Friday morning classes.

When one young man repeatedly skipped school, two teachers hopped in their car and went out to find him, says English teacher Gerdlyn Hyman. Spotting him on the corner, “We pulled him into the car,” she says. “He was a little embarrassed, but he came.”

Few credits, many absences

While more kids are staying in the academies, few are earning enough credits to have a shot at graduating on time.

Freshmen academy students earned an average of only four credits last year, putting them on track to earn only 16 throughout all of high school. CPS requires 24 credits for graduation, an average of six credits per year. Academy freshmen can earn up to seven credits with electives; they are also given a chance to retake failed classes in summer school.

Assessing the instructional program is difficult. The Office of High School Programs declined to release the results of specially administered standardized tests it uses to track students’ annual progress in math and reading, but student performance on the PLAN, the 10th-grade precursor to the ACT, is not encouraging. Only a third of sophomore academy students who took the PLAN in the 2005 school year earned scores that would predict a good chance at earning admission to a four-year college, according to Consortium data.

A major reason for poor performance, teachers say, is poor attendance.

Academy attendance rates are lower than those for the district as well as the old academic prep centers. Average attendance for the academies last year was 76 percent, according to a Catalyst analysis, compared to the district-wide high school average of 86 percent. The year prep centers were closed and academies were launched, attendance was 78 percent, a decline from the previous year’s rate of 80 percent.

A case in point: One recent afternoon, Lynn Peterson’s 7th-period algebra class at Chicago Vocational Achievement Academy contained more empty desks than students: Only eight of 17 kids showed up. Of those absent, three were not in school, three were suspended for fighting or skipping Saturday detention, two cut classes starting earlier in the day, and one, Peterson believes, was sent home for an infraction of school rules during a fire drill.

“I work with the ones who are here,” Peterson says simply.

The distance some students have to travel is part of the problem. CPS could only place academies in schools that had space, which eliminated most on the Northwest and Southwest sides and forces some students to make long commutes, says Edward Klunk, a consultant with the Office of High School Programs. In some cases, high schools with available space had reputations as unsafe and kids did not want to enroll there, he acknowledges.

With two student advocates each, academies are better equipped to tackle truancy than most high schools, which typically have no staff assigned to combat the problem. Sometimes, the effort pays off.

At Tilden Achievement Academy, one boy who stayed out of school after an assault on the way home was finally lured back by student advocate Rosa Hernandez. She visited his home, phoned him each time he skipped school and even offered a ride home when he felt unsafe. “He was reassured,” she says.

But sometimes there is still little recourse for dealing with teenagers who simply refuse to attend school. Edwin Brown, leader of Chicago Vocational’s academy, says that one mother told him her son wouldn’t come to school because his shoes were too small. “She bought him some new shoes. He still won’t come.”

Real test yet to come

Even though their results have been mixed, some say that the new academies are still an improvement over the academic prep centers they replaced. The old centers were staffed with “very good, caring people,” says Roderick at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, who was part of a team that evaluated the prep centers. “But they weren’t transitioning kids into high school [work].”

In 2002, a small team at central office began to rethink the centers. Surfing the Internet at home late one night, Barbara Eason-Watkins, the district’s chief education officer, ran across a model designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The Talent Development High School model had a strong track record in raising student achievement in schools in other urban districts, including Philadelphia and New Orleans.

The model was a blueprint for reorganizing a low-performing high school rather than one intended specifically as a program for at-risk kids. Still, Eason-Watkins thought it seemed like a good match.

Talent Development enrolled kids in double periods of math and reading, emphasized cooperative learning, and organized small teams of teachers to share the same group of students and meet frequently to discuss their progress.

Invited in, the Johns Hopkins consultants urged CPS to cut back on the time spent reviewing basic skills, Roderick recalls. “They were unwavering about how important that was. Kids needed to feel like they weren’t going to be in remedial courses for the rest of their lives.”

The key component of the academy model is student support—a smaller setting, smaller class size, and slower-paced classes with more individual attention. Chicago added its own twist with two student advocates at each school to counsel kids and monitor their attendance.

Teachers say the extra support keeps kids coming to school. “It’s more personalized because there are fewer kids in the classroom,” says Susan Koca, a 10th-grade English teacher at Chicago Vocational Achievement Academy. “They know if they aren’t there, the teacher will follow up, [ask them] ‘Where were you?’ and nag them.”

“If you take more time with any kid they’re going to be appreciative and want to come to your class more,” Koca adds.

To sharpen teachers’ skills, CPS designated a team of subject area coaches to observe classrooms and provide feedback on instruction. Academy teachers also receive two hours of professional development monthly. But these efforts get mixed reviews: New teachers are more likely to find the guidance helpful, while veterans may well consider it repetitive and a waste of time.

Helping kids stay in school, attend regularly and graduate may require an even more expensive investment, teachers say, such as full-time social workers. Many students’ mental health needs are overwhelming, due to past abuse or other traumas, teachers say. “I do not cry easily, but some of [their] stories would make you cry,” says Sally Hill, leader of Clemente Achievement Academy.

It remains to be seen whether the first crop of academy students will persevere through 12th grade, says Klunk, who helped design the academies with the Office of High School Programs. “This coming year will be a telling year. If there’s a real test of the program, it’s to see how many of these kids graduate.”

Mallika Ahluwalia contributed to this report.

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.

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