Students try to catch up in transition centers

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Eighth grade was not a good year for Joi Jones, Le’Paris Bell and Miguel Lopez. Joi got into trouble and missed a lot of classes. Although Le’Paris had his sites set on Lindblom High, he didn’t take his last year of elementary school seriously. And Miguel’s difficulties with reading persisted.

All three failed to hit the minimum reading score required for promotion to high school—6.8, or the eighth month of 6th grade. And they failed again at the end of mandatory summer school. But by January, after another semester in 8th grade, all three hit the mark and quickly found themselves in one of five new transition centers aimed at catching them up to their peers. With extra work this semester and another round of summer school, they, along with some 630 other transition students, could earn up to 5.25 credits and enter high school in August as sophomores.

“I think I realized the streets is not what I need,” says Joi, who scored 10.9 in January (equivalent to the ninth month of sophomore year). “Education is what I need to get along.”

Joi has missed only one day of school since arriving at the transition center in Parker Community Academy on the South Side.

Looking back at his return to 8th grade, Le’Paris says: “The second time, I realized it wasn’t a joke and took it serious.” He adds, “I try not to miss one assignment.”

Miguel has become more assertive about asking for help when he doesn’t understand something. “I got to pay attention in class, not fool around and ask teachers about the work I don’t understand,” he says. “And I just hope that leads me to high school.”

Le’Paris is enrolled at the transition center at Parker, while Miguel attends the center at Crane High School on the West Side.

Next school year, the number of transition centers will increase to 12 to serve all 15-year-olds who fail to hit the new 8th-grade promotion requirement, a score of 7.0 in reading and math.

“We’re not going to send young people to high school who are not academically prepared for high school,” asserts Adrian D. Beverly, director of the transition centers.

Transition centers teach the same courses as regular high school do, with math, English, art, computer education and physical education covered during the school year and science and social studies covered during the summer. Math and English come in double doses, made possible in part by a longer school day. In addition, classes have no more than 20 students, compared to an average 28 in regular high schools.

Truancy prevention officers visit each center one day a week to talk with students and their parents and to conduct home visits, reports Ronald Beavers, truancy prevention director.

Enrollment, divided about equally between boys and girls, ranges from 120 students at Tilden High to 137 at Steinmetz High. The fifth pilot center is in King High. Next school year, enrollment will be capped at about 200 students per center.

While the board has not set a required test score for exiting a transition center, Region 3 Education Officer Hazel B. Steward is pressing to bring Region 3 transition students to 9.8 by the end of August.

Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a non-profit bi-partisan education group based in Denver, says Chicago’s program is unusual. “If they really are making an effort to accelerate students and push them, I would give them kudos,” she says. “The real issue is, are they going to get them where they need to be.”

Hearing that students could become sophomores with a reading score of 7.0, she notes, “Seventh grade isn’t all that high. That’s a little disappointing.”

Beverly concedes that “7.0 is still low” but adds, “Of course, we are going to continue to raise the bar.” He said he wasn’t sure what the new benchmark would be in 1998.

While Chicago’s transition program is unusual, it is not unique. The school district in Montgomery, Ala., sends 7th- and 8th-graders who are one or more years behind their peers to a separate school called New Challenge, where they receive instruction during longer class periods, must adhere to a strict dress code and are required to attend a five-week summer program. More than 75 percent of the 375 students enrolled during the program’s first year have returned to their home schools, reports Shirley Garrett, a guidance counselor at New Challenge.

Creative teaching

Accelerating learning among students who historically have scored low on reading tests and posted poor grades isn’t easy. “For the most part, when kids get behind, they stay behind,” says Christie. Chicago Public Schools must tap their best teachers, teach the students how to use computers and “use every other pedagogy,” she says.

At the Chicago centers, teachers say they use a variety of teaching methods to reach students.

For example, math teacher Jean Holland, a 30-year veteran, uses bags of yellow and blue blocks to give her students the “feel” of algebra. “Instead of just using X’s and Y’s on paper, they actually get to touch the X’s and Y’s.”

“Many of the students have been talked at for eight or nine years, and there are some obvious deficiencies,” says Beverly.

At the Crane center, director Patricia Johnson says, “I’ve found that our children have done well with a fresh start.”

However, Dia Winters, an English teacher at the Parker transition center, says many of her students do not read as well as their test scores suggest; some, she says, probably are at the 5th-grade level—they can read the words, but they don’t comprehend their meaning.

Lee Butler, a math teacher at the Crane center, can’t say whether his students are learning faster. He believes that sometimes they would benefit from a regular 50-minute class instead of the 100-minute session. On a recent day, he was teaching students how to graph linear equations and slopes, concepts he would usually teach in two 50-minute periods so students could digest the material one day and review it the next.

As in regular high schools, there is disagreement over double-period classes. On the plus side, they allow teachers to have fewer students per day. Winters, a brand-new teacher, teaches three 100-minute classes at Parker and has 62 students, compared with the 130 students she would have at a regular high school.

She notes, though, that students “have a lot to make up, and 100 minutes is not enough time to cover everything they need to make up. … I would rather them leave my class doing a few things well.”

However, Steward of Region 3 says 100 minutes “is too much on the teacher, and it’s too much on the kids.” At the Crane center, three English teachers split the 100-minute period to teach literature, grammar and writing.

Transition students give high marks to their teachers. “They’re the kind of teacher who listens to us, solves our problems,” says Miguel.

“We attempted to get the best teachers we could get at the time,” says Steward, who recruited Johnson from the Teachers for Chicago program.

Andrew Robinson, the transition director at Parker, came from central office. The first thing he did with teachers who expressed interest in the program was to send them home with two videos: “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poets Society.” Both movies document strong-willed teachers who inspire their students.

“That gave people a feel of what we need,” he explains. “And after that I said, ‘Let’s talk.'”

As administrators seek out another 70 teachers, they also are re-evaluating those in the pilot centers. “We will be, very bluntly, looking at the staff we have on board. And, yes, possibly some of them will be removed,” says Beverly.

Beverly wants creative teachers with “infectious enthusiasm,” and contends center should have a mix of elementary and high school teachers.

Centers in transition

When the transition program resumes next fall, the centers will reflect Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ high school restructuring plan; they will have a core curriculum and 25-minute advisory periods. “They’re some situations at home that impacted on and continue to impact on students’ performance in school,” says Beverly. “So we’re looking at how we can weave these kind of services, if required, into the school day.”

Classes could be longer, too, with as many as 150 minutes devoted to the team teaching of math and science or English and social studies.

Even as he plans for the expansion, Beverly looks forward to the program’s eventual demise. “I tell people my long-term goal is for transition centers to go out of business because we won’t need them.”