Small school beats odds with first graduating class

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With its first graduating class, Best Practice High School, one of the city’s first small, teacher-run secondary schools, has put itself in the upper ranks of the public school system. About 76 percent of their students are graduating, and 65 percent have been accepted into college.

The graduation rate puts the school of 428 students in the the same league as the city’s top high schools. In fact, Best Practice’s graduation rate might even be higher, if the school had kept track of whether students who transferred out graduated from other CPS schools.

Citywide, the graduation rate is 65 percent, according to the most recent state report card data.

“The graduation rate of the students that we have here is excellent,” says Steve Zemelman, one of the school’s founders. “To be honest, when you start a school, there are so many other things you’re thinking about. Of course, we wanted to see a success like this, but we didn’t think of it too much.”

Best Practice does not base student admittance on test scores, but they must fill out applications and write essays. A recommendation from a teacher, counselor or principal, and one from a parent must also be submitted. The school reserves 10 percent of its seats for disabled students.

Ninety-three seniors are graduating from a class that originally enrolled 136 freshmen. Five students fell short by one or two credits. Forty students transferred out, 27 students transferred in, and about 12 dropped out, says Kathy Daniels, a co-lead teacher who is also a founder. “After freshman year they tend to stick,” she says.

Best Practice starts prompting its students early on about going to college. “Junior year they started telling us we need to decide what we want to do after we graduate,” says Danielle Prater, who will attend Northern Illinois.

Most college-bound Best Practice graduates will attend local four-year institutions such as Northwestern, Columbia and University of Illinois. Many have received scholarships, Daniels says. Prater was awarded $6,000 in scholarships by organizations associated with the Boys and Girls Club, where she volunteers. Another senior, Raquel Torres, applied to 37 colleges and was accepted to all of them. She chose to go to Colorado College, which gave her a full scholarship.

Best Practice is also helping its students with financial aid. The school hosted two financial aid workshops for students and their parents. Counselor Heidi McCaleb has compiled a scholarship file for students to peruse. And this year, Best Practice awarded 15 $1,000 college scholarships, named for Best Practice co-founder Tom Daniels, who died late last year.

The school kept students informed about their academic options with organized campus tours and an ongoing roster of local and out-of-state university speakers. “I’ve had maybe one week where we haven’t had someone come in and that’s because there was a test or something else like that,” McCaleb says.

Senior Alex Chaparro learned about the International Academy of Merchandise and Design in Chicago from one of these visits. “The academy kind of came out of nowhere,” Chaparro says. “Some representatives came to the art class I’m taking. It’s almost like Best Practice because it’s also a small school. I really fell in love with it and just went for it.” He was accepted for enrollment this summer.

While Best Practice did not host a college fair of its own, McCaleb accompanied students to other high school fairs and picked up applications. Students also looked up college web sites on the Internet in the school’s computer lab.

Best Practice took advantage of a number of citywide programs to make sure its students did not miss opportunities due to the school’s small size. While it offered Advanced Placement courses in English and Calculus, students could also register to attend college courses through the CPS College Bridge Program.

Students were encouraged to take college entrance exams. Last year, graduates had the opportunity to take a Kaplan ACT prep course which was held during school hours. The board subsidized all but $50 of the course fee; Best Practice picked up another $25. About 50 students took the class.

This year, the board provided ACT prep materials directly to high school teachers for an after-school course. “They decided that teachers within the schools would have better success because they know the students,” McCaleb says. Student participation was lower than it had been when the class was held during regular hours, adds McCaleb. “But overall I believe that our scores were better for the juniors this year than last year.”

Key to their success with graduation rates and keeping students on track for college has been the one-on-one attention from counselors and senior advisors. “What they wanted us to do [from] day one is look into the future of our lives,” Chaparro says.

Counselors and advisors make sure students are taking and passing the right classes, talk to them about their concerns and fears, and help them prepare for tests. Students also seek their assistance with letters of recommendation, personal statements, college applications, scholarships and updating resumes. “I leave my door open all the time for students to ask questions,” McCaleb says.

Despite Best Practice’s efforts to champion higher education, college isn’t for everyone and some have made other plans. Eight students are joining the military. “I thought college really wasn’t for me,” says Josh Taylor, who has enlisted in the Army. He plans to pursue his interest in computer programming during his six-year tour of duty.

Other students are still considering their options. Keith Jones is deciding between the Air Force and trade school. A friend sparked his interest in the Air Force because “it sounds like something I could do because I’m tired of school,” Jones says. On the other hand, he is interested in going to school for drama or engineering.

Aaron Howard is leaning seriously toward construction trade schools. His uncle is a brick layer but Howard is also interested in carpentry. Best Practice has been helping him research schools. “They were looking for a place that would be suitable for me,” he says.

School counselors also provided support for students who were planning on going directly into the workforce. Speakers from major companies such as United Parcel Service visited the school to talk to students. McCaleb kept a list of job opportunities and workshops available for them to look at. “We’ve tried to give them a general education so they can use it even if they don’t go to college,”says Aiko Boyce, senior advisor and art teacher.

Despite the excitement of graduation, some students say graduating first has a downside.

“We don’t have as many activities as schools such as Lane or Whitney Young would have,” Prater says. “Trying to plan activities such as prom and graduation is really hard because we’re the first class. We’re trying to make a road for the juniors and the other classes behind them so it’ll be easier for them.”