Separate buildings, cluster courses, military drills, block scheduling

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Lincoln Park High

Freshmen take over a former elementary school.

As students trudge up the walkway to Lincoln Park High School, freshmen bypass the behemoth columns of the school’s massive main building for a more humble structure and entrance across the path. The smaller, two-story school, which once housed elementary students and a district office, is now the academic home to more than 400 freshmen who enrolled in September.

The move to isolate new 9th-graders—from both upperclassmen and last year’s freshmen who were not promoted—is the latest effort at Lincoln Park to address freshman transition. A quick peek into several classes confirms one of the more obvious benefits of the separate facility and of a new closed-campus policy for freshmen: A full house.

In a school of their own, freshmen are more likely to bond with each other and, more importantly, with teachers. “It’s like growing up in a small town where everybody knows everyone else,” says Marlene Slavitt, a Lincoln Park teacher.

Attendance is up since the academy started this fall, but grades have yet to show similar improvement. When first quarter report cards went out, 42 percent of the freshmen had failed at least one course. During the same period in the previous school year, 45 percent had failed at least one class, though that number includes freshmen who were not promoted. The rate is expected to drop by the end of first semester, as other programs for freshmen have time to show results, says Principal Janis Todd.

For example, an attempt to make classes more relevant yielded some curriculum changes, says Todd. Freshmen have the option of studying more contemporary material in required classes such as early world history and biology—two courses that freshmen often fail. “Kids weren’t as responsive to Phoenicians and places you cannot find on maps anymore,” Todd says.

Instead, students can enroll in a more relevant World Civilization or Topics in Science, a lab course in ecology, geology and life science. Such courses are not remedial, just more practical, Todd stresses.

A new feature is a daily 25-minute “mini-mod” class that all 9th-graders are required to take. These short workshops cover a range of topics such as study skills, college selection and conflict resolution.

Mini-mod was born out of necessity, Todd admits. Cafe Frosh, the freshman cafeteria fashioned out of a former medical office, was too small to accommodate a full lunch crowd. So the period was split in two; while one group is eating, the other goes to mini-mod.

Other freshman support services have been beefed up, such as individual time with a social worker and a 60-minute, after-school homework center.

A staff of 22 full-time freshman teachers—six volunteered, Todd recruited the rest—meet regularly after school to discuss student performance. The sessions have been nicknamed “chubbies” (large group meetings) and “skinnies” (smaller gatherings). Recently, teachers identified 80 students who needed additional help in core subjects and worked on strategies to help them.

Looking ahead, Lincoln Park is exploring options for keeping the group benefits intact next year, when the current 9th-graders are transferred into the main building as sophomores.

Kenwood Academy

Freshmen catch up in clusters.

Seventy students arrayed before her, teacher Nell Smith is reviewing the transcripts for two imaginary students. One transcript indicates a student flunked gym class. “Tell Mrs. Smith, because I don’t know,” she says. “How do you fail P.E.?”

When the laughter dies down, a few students toss out possible reasons. Not in uniform. Cutting class. Failing all the tests.

The object of this exercise, conducted in what Kenwood Academy calls a freshman cluster, is to get students to think ahead. “We want [freshmen] to think about it,” says guidance counselor Joyce Brown, who heads the school’s freshman academy programs. “What’s going to be on [the transcript] when you’re a senior?”

Ninth-period cluster, worth half a credit and required of all freshmen through January, is just one feature of the freshman academy program that greeted Kenwood’s class of 2000 this fall. The extra period was funded by a central office grant.

The grant also paid for a number of initiatives aimed at enlisting more active support from parents.

Kenwood hired two parent coordinators to notify students’ families of poor attendance, behavior and homework. If a student cuts a class, misbehaves, or misses an assignment, the teacher fills out a brief report and then drops it off at the school’s central office. There, the coordinators follow up with a phone call home.

Parents of freshmen also received a progress report on their children’s academic standing after the third week of school—an extra-early notice that was followed by the required five-week notice.

Further, Kenwood has hosted four information and discussion meetings for freshman parents since the beginning of the school year.

The school’s efforts are beginning to pay off in a number of ways. Ninety percent of the freshman parents showed up for the first report card pickup, about 20 percent more than the previous year. At the same time, the freshman failure rate dropped by 3 percentage points, and the number who received three or more failing grades dropped 4.2 points. The class has the highest attendance record on campus.

Freshmen who do well will be rewarded. All those who get C’s or above in every class will be released from second-semester cluster and will be able to go home early. At the end of the first quarter, some 50 students who got all A’s and B’s were eligible to be released from cluster; they opted to stay.

“At first, I wanted to know why we had to be here,” says Autumn Dennard, 14, whose first-quarter grades were a C, a B and the rest A’s. “It’s OK, considering we’ll be out of here by the end of January.”

Christian Mines is practical in his assessment of cluster. Struggling with a D average in math, Mines got help from tutors in his cluster class. Now he is aiming for a B. “[Cluster] is a credit,” he says, with nonchalance. “They help people not to fail.”

The real test begins second semester, when cluster sessions will be populated solely with students who are most academically needy—the ones who got D’s and F’s despite parental monitoring and tutoring.

Most vexing to Brown and others are freshmen who attend class regularly and make an effort but still fail.

In some cases, students are dealing with personal issues that interfere with school work. Three social workers from the Blue Gargoyle, an agency affiliated with the University of Chicago, will work with cluster leaders to help students who come to school but have failed three or more classes. The social workers will not strain the school’s budget because they are volunteers.

Keeping an eye on freshmen is not a new concept for Kenwood, which for a number of years has hosted Freshman Focus, a four-day orientation for incoming students. This fall, 80 percent of the freshman class showed up.

“We’ve been focusing on freshmen for a number of years, outside the freshman academy mandate,” Brown says. “We tell everyone we’re making this up as we go along.”

Manley High

Freshmen do military, academic drills.

A sky-blue sawhorse barricade marked “Chicago Police” limits access to the second-floor wing that houses Manley High School’s freshman academy—a telling symbol perhaps of what is a major obstacle to academic success at the tough West Side school: student conduct.

In September 1995, Manley freshmen racked up 18 arrests for mob action. At about the same time, a school policy kicked in that requires all 9th-graders to register for ROTC, a program that teaches self-control and promotes student comraderie. Since then, freshman student arrests have fallen off dramatically. This September, there were only two.

Deloise Funches, whose son Abdul Butler is a freshman, gives the program a thumbs up. “He likes to play too much,” says Funches who paid a visit to Manley one morning in January to check up on her son. “I like ROTC.”

“One of the things we like to give our freshmen is a sense of discipline,” says academy director Timothy Mooney. “For the most part, parents are behind us 100 percent.”

The sight of more than 200 freshmen in uniforms is striking. But Mooney credits other, less visible changes for much of the school’s progress. Even before the school sent in its proposal last spring, it had organized small schools, offered block scheduling and conducted a six-week summer program.

The new freshman academy complements Manley’s overall small schools structure, dubbed VocAdemics for its dual focus on careers and college preparation. By the end of their freshman year, students must choose to enroll in one of five tracks: hospitality management, construction skills, graphic arts and journalism, medical arts and health, or information processing.

Each small school, including freshman academy, has block-scheduled classes for the first two periods of the day and the last two.

Manley’s staff of 11 freshman teachers meet weekly to discuss student progress and plan lesson strategies. Their teamwork has fostered a more coordinated effort to assist freshmen in making their choice of career tracks for sophomore year.

Average attendance for freshmen is up to 85 percent, 10 points higher than last year’s norm. But cutting the failure rate remains an elusive goal. After the first 10-week cycle, teachers gave out nearly as many Fs as they did passing grades.

Mooney attributes a major portion of those failures to a new attendance policy: Students who rack up five absences in a class get an automatic F. Though the policy is aimed at deterring students from cutting class, they do not seem to be taking it seriously, Mooney says. “I bet 50 percent of those failures are attendance,” he concludes.

Mooney says the policy was adopted in response to Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ get-tough stance on attendance. But now Manley is considering changing it. “The failure rate is too high,” says Mooney.

Bogan Computer Tech High

Freshman classes twice as long but only half a year.

The central feature of Bogan High School’s freshman academy program involves four required courses: algebra, biology, English and computer workshop. Each is offered daily in 104-minute segments, twice the usual time allotted for a single class. Under this system, freshmen take a year’s worth of two subjects in the first semester. Come second semester, they study the remaining two.

The setup allows freshmen to concentrate their efforts and attention on fewer classes. Instead of having seven classes per semester, Bogan freshmen now register for five. In addition to the two core classes, freshmen take three 52-minute classes that last an entire year: writing, gym/health and an elective such as social studies or foreign language.

Added benefits include fewer chances to be tardy (since students switch classes less often), a reduction in hallway fights (since students aren’t in the hallways as often) and fewer faces to see and personalities to interact with in a single day.

“If kid a doesn’t like a teacher or a subject, it’s over at the end of the semester,” notes Principal Linda Pierzchalski.

The change may have been most difficult for teachers; those accustomed to giving lectures have had to make adjustments. “You cannot lecture to a child for 104 minutes,” Pierzchalski notes.

Nonetheless, teachers approved the new freshman schedule by an 89-to-26 vote last year.

During the second half of teacher Trent Eaton’s English class one January morning, students were perusing want ads in the Chicago Tribune. This life-skills exercise was a break from the more traditional fare of the first 50 minutes of class, when they read passages from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Desks are arranged in four clusters rather than rows, a style akin to an elementary school seating plan, which makes it easier for students to work together.

“I like it for myself,” says Rebecca Staschke, 15. “I learn more [and] I get more time.” But not all her classmates share her sentiments, concedes Staschke, who says some freshmen get bored in the long classes.

To keep freshman parents apprised, Bogan sends failure notices out every two and half weeks and report cards every 5 weeks, or 8 times a year. Parents must pick up two of those personally.

The results so far? Attendance is up, and block classes have a lower failure rate than the year-long subjects.

Hyde Park

Career Academy High: Freshmen get extra time, extra help.

With nearly 10 years experience, Hyde Park is the pioneer of freshman academy programs.

It started in 1988, when the school received a three-year $158,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust to start a teachers exchange program with six feeder elementary schools. The 8th-grade and 9th-grade teachers worked together on curriculum and other issues to help ease high school transition. (See CATALYST, December 1992 and June 1994.)

Since 1991, Hyde Park has conducted a voluntary six-week program during the summer for incoming freshmen; students work toward mastering reading, writing and math skills they will need to succeed in 9th grade. Students who attend seem to enjoy it, says Principal Weldon Beverly. “We found many students chose to stay for the entire time, even though they didn’t have to.”

Once the regular school year is underway, freshmen who have not completed all their assignments or not passed the tests required for promotion are given extra time. On report cards, struggling students get a P instead of an F; D’s have been eliminated. Freshmen get credit only for work that merits a C or higher.

Once a freshman completes the work or masters the skill, the P is replaced by an A, B, or C grade. The P grades do not dampen a student’s spirit to learn like F grades do, says Beverly. “We give [freshmen] success. The teacher must find something where the student can experience success. Some students come to high school never having experienced success.”

Though well regarded, the early years of the program had mixed results. In 1992, before the new grading policy was adopted, two-thirds of the freshman students passed all their classes. That rate dropped the following year to 59 percent and then inched up in 1994 to 60 percent. (The school could not immediately supply more recent data.)

This year, Hyde Park reconfigured the school day to accommodate a 45-minute session for freshman division. Instead of the usual fare of announcements, freshman division is an enhanced study hall, where students can study vocabulary, write in journals or learn critical thinking skills. The idea is to give them time to work on self-improvement and take more initiative in their own education.

“This is kind of a feel-good course for the kids,” says study skills teacher Annette DeAngelis. “We teach them what to expect from high school.”