Students who failed get make-up classes

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First semester, Lorenzo Morales, a Wicker Park resident who is a freshman at Jones Academic Magnet High School in the South Loop, had to get up at 5 a.m. to get to his first-period class. He rarely managed to do that and, as a result, failed the class, World Studies. “I just had trouble getting to school,” says the 15-year-old, who takes a train and a bus to school each day.

Second semester, Lorenzo got a chance to recover the lost credit through a $3 million School Board program that helps schools offer makeup courses before or after regular hours, including on Saturdays, and provides failure-prevention tutoring. Participating schools received up to $67,000 from the board, depending on enrollment, attendance rate and number of student failures, and were required to chip in matching funds. Each school could decide how to divvy up the money between makeup classes and tutoring.

In calls to 43 high schools, Catalyst identified 28 that are offering credit recovery for the first time this year, as well as seven that previously started credit recovery on their own. (The School Board reported that 25 were offering the special classes.) Most schools have offered tutoring since 1996, using a portion of separate high school reorganization grants.

Viewed as a dropout prevention program, credit recovery is targeted at freshmen and sophomores, though schools may open it to other students.

“The potential of a drop-out is in the freshman or sophomore year,” notes Maria Santiago, a resource teacher at Washington High, which like many schools, also expanded tutoring. “What we’re trying to do is prevent them from dropping out.”

Course failures by freshmen are enormous. In 1992, half of CPS freshmen failed at least one course, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Twenty percent failed more than half of their classes. Asked for updated data, the board’s communications department said the central office doesn’t tabulate citywide totals.

School administrators and teachers contacted by Catalyst gave credit recovery generally high marks, attributing success to small class sizes, variable class format and strong communication between students, parents and teachers. However, as Bernadell Cyrus, a resource teacher at Dunbar, notes, it’s barely putting “a dent in the number of failures.”

Dunbar offered credit retrieval classes last year through high school reorganization money, and 90 percent of 100 participants passed their courses, she reports. “Every little bit helps,” she says.

Beverly Bruesch, an academy resource teacher at Carver, says credit recovery has been “far more effective than our tutoring program this year simply because [students] were getting [credit] out of it.”

Washington’s Santiago likes the approach because it provides “immediate reinforcement” because the material is “fresh enough for them to grasp what they did not understand.”

Laima Panek, who teaches credit recovery literature classes at Hirsch, says the program also boosts self-esteem. “They’re able to see, ‘Yes, I can make it,'” she explains. “I think it’s giving them incentive and hope.”

Steinmetz couldn’t accommodate all the students who wanted to participate, reports resource teacher Eunice Madon.

Similarly, Carver wasn’t able to spend all the money the board allotted because it couldn’t recruit enough teachers to work an extended day.

Only one school contacted by Catalyst, Lincoln Park, was discontinuing the program. The reason is that students prefer summer school because they can make up several credits at once, says Assistant Principal Phyllis Wright.

However, LaTongela Nash, a junior at Simeon, says credit recovery is a welcome alternative to summer school. “I took [the class] because I needed the half credit to graduate, and I needed my summers free to help support my family,” she explains.

To obtain credit, students must complete 60 hours of classroom study, the same as in regular classes. Beyond that, schools are free to adapt the program to their needs and philosophies.

For example, Kennedy charges $20 per course. “We found that if they’re putting up money, they actually go to classes and do the work,” explains Assistant Principal John Begy.

Carver reserves its slots for students with good attendance. “It didn’t make sense to put a student who failed for absences into the program,” says Bruesch. “We took those who would be our best bet.”

‘A great impact’

At Wells, Saturday credit recovery classes have been offered to all students for 10 years as part of a specially funded Hispanic dropout prevention program. With the new board funding, enrollment doubled from about 60 students to 120, according to resource teacher Ted Wiecek. The combined program, he says, has had “a great impact on the failure rate.”

Despite credit recovery’s apparent success, Powhatan Collins, director of High School Reorganization, says the prevention and recovery money “may dip a little” as the board struggles to maintain other programs.

As his academic year closes, Lorenzo, the Jones freshman, reports, “This semester is going a lot better because I know what the teachers expect.”

In addition to retaking World Studies, Lorenzo also is repeating Spanish in the hopes of boosting the “C” he received first semester.

“It’s a good program,” he says. “It gives you a real opportunity to get your credit and get your GPA up.”

And it’s saving Lorenzo the $145 fee that Jones charges for summer school.