Transition centers aim to catch kids up

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Dominique Batiste’s dream had been to attend the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science or Jones Commercial High School in order to follow her father, a ceramic-tile designer, into business. But her scores on the Iowa tests were dismal, and, almost 15, she was viewed as too old for elementary school, so she was sent to Transition High School I, a 104-student facility located on the grounds of the old Mendel Catholic High School at 250 E. 111th St.

“The stereotype of an alternative high school makes your stomach turn, and so I was disappointed,” recounts Dominique, a slim girl with wire-rimmed glasses. “So was my mom, and though she said it was OK, I could see the hurt in her eyes.”

But Dominique’s mind-set changed after several weeks. “I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “Everything at this school is focused on you, and I began to believe in myself.” She rejoiced when High School I’s nondescript name was changed to Wmanzo Academy, Swahili for “school of new beginnings,” and she started to do well. In January, Dominique posted Iowa scores high enough to qualify for an 8th-grade diploma, and in ceremonies on Feb. 13 she got it. Now her sites are set on entering a regular high school next fall.

Chicago’s nine transition high schools—an obscure piece of the Reform Board’s retention effort—are all small. With only 100 to 150 students each, most are tucked into former or underutilized Catholic schools. They opened last year for 8th-graders who would be 15 years old by December but had scored poorly on the Iowas—two years below the national norms in reading or math.

In some ways, the transition schools are like other city high schools, with lockers, blue-jeaned adolescents wearing IDs—and metal detectors. On paper, the pupil population, bused in from one or more of the board’s six regions, displays a more troubled profile. “We have kids with probation officers and three girls who’ve had babies,” relates Marilyn Strojny, director of Transition High School B, located in the old St. John Bosco School at 2245 N. McVicker. “Some kids live with someone other than mom or dad—grandma is one thing, but we’re talking extended extended. But while our children have social ills and academic difficulties, they are no less intelligent than other kids.”

Small classes

Students take double blocks of reading and math every day, plus World Studies, computers and physical education. Class sizes are small (20 or so students), the school day is seven hours instead of the standard six, and administrators try to keep the atmosphere uplifting. “You never know what you can do until you try,” reads a banner in the entryway to High School B. Similar messages appear throughout School B. “No negative attitude is allowed in this building,” says Strojny, a former assistant principal at Kelvyn Park High School.

The schools’ administrators, called directors, report not to a local school council but to central office.

They keep close tabs on their charges. “I don’t have a desk,” says Anthony Finger, director of High School F, which occupies the third floor of Our Lady of Angels School at 3814 W. Iowa. “I sit in the hallway all the time. All the kids know me.” The intimacy tends to crimp. “In some high schools, there’s brawling going on every day,” says Ken Couch, a history instructor at Wmanzo, “but here it doesn’t take a second for security to break up a tussle.”

The schools are equipped with computers and have sufficient textbooks, yet in substantial ways the facilities are bare bones. “We don’t have the social services we should have,” remarks School B’s Strojny. School F has no library, and a spare classroom doubles as a gym. There are no clubs or drama productions—”and not enough girls!” complains Tawaf Hashim, 15, who also got his diploma in February at Wmanzo Academy.

Yet Wmanzo gave Tawaf the opportunity to play point guard on a basketball team, which competes in a league established among the transition schools; volleyball and softball leagues are anticipated. Some schools are launching student councils, and a social life has developed. “You do have your friends and associates,” says Tawaf. Dominique convinced Robert Lewis, the Wmanzo Academy director, to host a rare party after the February graduation, a fest of music and fried chicken in an empty third-floor classroom.

Overcoming shame

Administrators stress the personal attention their students get. “These kids have been cast off, probably since 3rd grade,” says Lewis. “They need to be recognized, to feel that somebody cares, and when they do that, they will walk through fire for you.” Mentioning Tawaf in particular, Couch says, “Some kids are ashamed when they first come here, but they get past that and learn to deal with the reality.”

A history teacher at Phillips High School, Couch signed on at Wmanzo for the chance to work with marginal students in closer quarters. In general, transition high school directors say they hired their staff with an eye toward innovation. “We wanted people with new ideas who weren’t afraid to be brave,” says Anthony Finger of High School F, which ended up with veterans as well as first-year instructors. “We run the gamut.”

In January, when transition students citywide had another crack at the 8th-grade Iowas, 34 per cent did well enough in reading and math to earn their diplomas. Another 34 per cent passed the math exam only, while 14 per cent succeeded in reading only. Those who cleared both hurdles signed up for freshman English and algebra. The next Iowas are slated for June. Transition students are scheduled to continue in school through the summer, taking earth science and art. Next fall, those with enough credits will rejoin their former classmates as sophomores.

Some will stay

“But some of them will still be here in the fall, welcoming the new troops,” guesses Couch. Director Finger estimates 20 percent of students will remain in School F next fall. Blondean Davis, the board’s chief of schools and regions, says three more transition centers are scheduled to open in August. For students with low scores and continuing academic problems, says Davis, the transition schools will develop into four-year institutions with a “vocational-technological” focus.

The transition centers bear a surface resemblance to Chicago’s old educational and vocational guidance centers (EVGCs), facilities intended to boost struggling 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders. In reality the eight EVGCs turned into “special-education dead-ins, holding pens for kids who had stopped learning,” says Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. The EVGCs were closed around 1990, and Hess says that if the transition centers turn into four-year institutions, they’d have “troubling attributes of the EVGCs.”

“The transition centers represent a potentially good development for kids who would otherwise be lost and forgotten,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski, staff counsel at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and director of its Small Schools Project. But Nowaczewski, who’s observed at transition high schools, also suggests they’d be better if teachers taught more in teams and if a four-year design were adopted. So far, BPI has sponsored two reading institutes for transition teachers, both conducted by David and Meredith Liben, founders of the Family Academy, a small public school in New York City.