ROTC, small schools, a powerful combo

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Eight CPS high schools—Calumet, Chicago Vocational, Farragut, Juarez, Phillips, Steinmetz, Taft and Tilden—have created schools-within-a-school that are organized around a career theme and one of the four armed service branches.

These Junior ROTC academies are fairly new—most opened up just two years ago—but they’re already showing signs of success. “The ROTC small schools seemed to be really engaging,” observes Melissa Roderick, co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

While Roderick was tracking 8th-graders as they moved on to 9th grade, she found that students who were enrolled at two Junior ROTC small schools enjoyed high school more. “I was really surprised,” she says. “They loved it. They weren’t talking about ROTC being different, they were talking about high school being different.”

The prototype is the Junior ROTC Business and Finance Academy at Tilden High in Back of the Yards. Created in 1995, the school now enrolls a select group of 140 students—about 35 in each grade.

Students take classes with their grade-level peers for most of the day. A typical course load includes honors English, math, science and history; an ROTC course; and, for upperclassmen, at least business or finance class. Teachers have common planning time to prepare lessons and discuss the students.

The model gets results. The attendance rate for academy students is 90 percent, a full 10 points higher than Tilden’s 80 percent average rate. Last year, academy freshmen had a 2.6 grade point average; while other Tilden students averaged 2.0.

The close personal attention teachers give to students is one reason for the academy’s success, says sophomore Nichola Davis. “They are very observant,” she explains. “They watch over us so we won’t go in the wrong direction.” Teachers know students well enough to intervene in interpersonal conflicts long before they become fights, she adds.

Students keep tabs on each other, as well, both socially and academically. “Our classmates, we’re like family,” Davis says. “If we see one student slipping down, we help out. We never let each other fall.”

Teachers encourage such closeness. “They tutor each other,” says Maj. Ronald Crosby, chief military instructor. “If one is low in math and three are high, we tell those three …”

“‘Hey, you gotta bring somebody along,'” interjects academy director Bernice McEachin, finishing Crosby’s sentence.

Teachers at most successful small schools share a common philosophy that helps them bond as a team. Academy faculty say their shared military background cements the staff. Seven of the 11 academy teachers have military experience.

“We just know how to get it done,” declares McEachin, who served in the Army for four years. “We don’t procrastinate, don’t whine about it, just get it done. That’s what we learned in military training. We don’t have a problem with authority, and [Principal Essie] Lucas is the general.”