Sneak peek at high school offers some freshmen a leg up

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Steven Beaudion

photo by John Booz

Steven Beaudion

At a press conference last May, Mayor Richard M. Daley and schools CEO Arne Duncan unveiled a new voluntary summer school program designed to help some incoming high school freshmen stay on track.

“Step Up to High School,” as it was called, would be aimed at 4,000 8th graders who had scored below average on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, but above the cutoff for promotion to high school. The idea was to get students into the high schools they plan to attend before classes begin in the fall so they could get acclimated to their new surroundings, take math and reading classes to reinforce these skills, and meet and make connections with teachers and classmates.

CPS officials could not provide a figure for the number of students who participated in the program. During the four-week program, students spent three hours a day on math and reading instruction, and another 45 minutes learning high school “survivor” skills, such as team building, time management, and study and organizational methods.

The survivor component provided an important introduction to the high school experience and helped “students with the transition from 8th grade to high school,” says Rosemarie Nichols, who oversees Step Up at Robeson High.

Step Up’s ultimate goal is to reduce the dropout rate. Local researchers have found that CPS freshmen who fall behind earning credits are five times more likely to drop out than students who advance to the sophomore level and fail no more than one core course. (See Catalyst, June 2003)

“The actual goal was to try to keep kids in high school,” says Rickey Murff, a facilitator in the CPS Office of Math and Science. “When they come to school [in September], they’ll know some of their teachers, a counselor or two and some peers.”

Murff says Step Up students’ progress will be tracked throughout high school. “We’re hoping for lower dropout rates, and we’re hoping students will see improvement in math and reading.”

The new program was not without glitches. For example, pass or fail grades were to be assigned, but officials later switched to letter grades so that students could earn credit toward high school graduation. Some teachers thought this grading was not representative of what is expected in high school.

Catalyst interviewed six incoming freshmen who attended Step Up at Robeson and Clemente high schools, where drop out rates are higher than the district’s 2002 average of 14.4 percent.

“It’s a very good step forward [in] helping the numbers at our school,” Robeson Principal James Breashears says. “Certainly just becoming acquainted with the high school culture will be beneficial.” Approximately 26 students of 103 who were eligible enrolled in Step Up at his school. Last year, Robeson’s drop out rate was 23.5 percent.

At Clemente, 66 attended out of 152 incoming freshmen who were eligible for Step Up; the school’s drop out rate was 17.5 percent last year.

Catalyst will track the first semester progress of the six students, and will publish an update in February.

Profiles:

Steven Beaudion Clemente High

At Darwin Elementary, Steven Beaudion earned Cs and Ds and had to repeat 8th grade. Still, he had his doubts about participating in Step Up. “At first, I didn’t want to come,” he says. “I was planning on spending my time with friends, hanging out all day. I thought it would ruin my summer.”

But he felt the program might be useful preparation for high school, and he decided to enroll after all. After the first day, he was sold.

“The teachers are real cool. The things we did on the computers were fun,” says Steven, who adds that he spent most of his math period in the computer lab and learned how to write essays in reading class.

Steven knows he’ll have to buckle down if he wants to make progress in high school, but expects the extra work this summer in math and reading will improve his grades. “At first, math was real hard, so I could imagine that the next four years were going to be even harder,” he says. “I know what it’s going to be like now.” He got a C in math and says he thinks he got the same in reading. (In late August, he hadn’t received a reading grade.)

Steven says he also learned teamwork by working with other students. One day in survivor skills class, the students broke up into small groups and made a pact to stay in school and graduate. “Since we made it, we should really follow up on it,” he says.

As the four weeks slipped by, Steven felt more comfortable in his new environment—meeting new students and teachers and learning what will be expected of him. Step Up provided “a taste of what high school is going to be like,” he says. “I think I can handle it.”

Theresa Velazquez Clemente High

Theresa Velazquez’s mother, Connie, thought the summer Step Up program would be helpful for her daughter. “I figured it would give her some kind of advantage in the fall,” Velazquez says.

Theresa, who got As and Bs at Telpochcalli Elementary in Little Village, thought Step Up would be easy, but soon learned that the high school experience would be different. “It’s more work and, to have good grades, you have to work harder. You have more classes.” She got a C in math, but hasn’t received a reading grade.

Theresa was surprised with the amount of independence she was given. In a reading project with other students, she had the opportunity to select the method of presentation—videotape, PowerPoint or poster boards. The exercise allowed her to make decisions.

Theresa says the early introduction to the high school environment made her realize that she will have to participate in classroom discussions because her teachers will not hold her hand through each assignment. “It’s more serious here. I do have to speak out more [in class]. You have to let people know that you’re there,” she notes.

As an 8th-grader, Theresa says she was shy and scared about going to high school, but the Step Up program gave her confidence. Since she has “switched classes, met some teachers, met some counselors,” she says she feels comfortable at Clemente. “I’m already used to coming in and going through the metal detectors,” she adds.

Lonnie Gray Robeson High

Lonnie Gray is a quiet student with grand goals. He wants to graduate from high school early, so he was eager to earn the half credit that Step Up offered. He hopes to pursue a career in environmental science or biology.

Lonnie was dealt a blow last year when he got an F in 8th-grade science at Deneen Elementary. He says that his science teacher didn’t have control of the classroom, which made it hard to learn. He could not concentrate on lessons because his teacher spent instructional time trying to discipline disruptive students. His grades in other subjects ranged from Bs to Ds.

But having completed Step Up at Robeson, Lonnie thinks he can turn things around in science. “I know I’m going to do better than in grammar school. I’m not going to have as much distraction,” he says. While he says he’s still a little worried about biology, he’s confident that he’ll perform better. Also, a brief visit to the environmental science lab reinforced his interest in science.

Lonnie says Step Up was no harder than grammar school, and now he feels better prepared for high school. “I thought high school was going to be real hard, but once you pay attention, it’s no problem,” he notes.

Earning As in math and science made Lonnie’s mother, Laverne Everhart, proud. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that,” she says. “He came home and did research on the computer instead of playing video games.”

He also improved his algebra and public speaking skills, areas he had trouble with in grammar school. “We learned how to stand in front of the class and how to speak, instead of stumbling on words and getting nervous,” he says.

Lonnie says his new excitement for school was prompted by watching bad examples of other students. “[I worked harder] so I wouldn’t have to be like some of my other friends,” he says.

While Lonnie says he is worried that high school will get tougher, he notes that he settled into Robeson’s environment with ease this summer, and felt like a pro in the hallways. “Once it becomes September, some kids might not even think I’m a freshman because I know my way around,” he boasts.

And Lonnie’s mother is especially pleased. “My boy hates to go to school,” Everhart says. But during the Step Up program, “he told me, ‘I want to attend summer school every year.'”

Marshaun White Robeson High

Before Marshaun White came to Robeson for Step Up, he admits that he was “a little shaky” about the social aspects of high school. He worried about what the teachers and students would be like; whether he would get to class on time and how to deal with bullies.

For all his worries about being on time for classes, Marshaun had a summer of time-management training. When Step Up classes ended at 12:30 p.m., football practice began at 1 p.m. and ended around five.

“When I get home, I’m tired already, and then I had to stay up to do a three-page report,” Marshaun says. “So I figured that if it was going to be that hard, I can imagine what it’s going to be like in high school.”

Marshaun said that this was not a new drill for him, just the same as starting any other new grade. “At first you’re not going to be too sure, then you’ll start fitting in, then you gain the trust of the teachers.”

At Parker Elementary, Marshaun never failed a class, but his grades were only so-so. He never took algebra. In his summer math class in Step Up, he became familiar with charts and graphs, which is a big part of beginner algebra, and thinks he has mastered them now. He received a B in math and an A in reading.

“He never used to talk about school,” says Marshaun’s mother, Geraldine White. But in Step Up, “all he talked about when he got home was his teachers. They were helping him understand.”

The instructional style of his classes made all the difference to Marshaun. “It taught me work could be kind of fun,” he says. Instead of classroom lectures in math class, students did jumping jacks to see how many they could do in a minute. In reading, students put on a play.

Marshaun expects high school to be manageable socially-he has made friends in Step Up and with football-and academically. “I believe it will be kind of hard,” he says of high school. “But if you stay in the books and focus on school, it’ll be kind of easy.”

Justin Merrick Clemente High

Justin Merrick saw Step Up as an insurance policy in case he fails a course. He says he might be able to use the half credit at a later date.

Justin says he never had trouble with math at Von Humboldt Elementary, reading was his worst subject.

“When I first came here, I didn’t like to write-or read,” Justin says of his summer at Clemente. “But then my teacher, Ms. Black, taught me the ways to open my mind and let out how I feel.” He started to enjoy reading more.

Justin has set high goals for himself, aiming to rank among the top 20 students by the time he graduates in 2007.

Because of Step Up, Justin says he is ready for high school, and can handle the problems every entering freshman faces, like making friends and avoiding bullies. But instead of worrying about that, he says he’ll focus on the basics. “If you can’t read, you can’t make it in life,” he remarks. “You need reading to do math, and you need math to make it in life.”

Araceli Galloway Robeson High

Araceli Galloway hopes she won’t be nearly as surprised on her first day at Robeson as she was when she entered Robeson’s Step Up program.

“I thought it was just going to be fun-just get to know people,” Araceli says. “I didn’t know we were going to have to do work!”

In 8th grade at Nicholson, a math and science magnet school, she took 9th- and 10th-grade math, and earned As, Bs and Cs. However, she says she doesn’t take tests well, so her low standardized test scores in reading and math-which made her eligible for the Step Up program-don’t reflect her knowledge of the subjects.

She got an A in reading and a B in math this summer at Robeson. “The reading, I already knew,” Araceli says. “I knew some of the math, but now I know more.”

Araceli saw Step Up as a head start on the freshman year. “It was an orientation to meet friends. You get to sample work, sample friends. You learn how to act more mature in that habitat,” she says.

Araceli thinks high school will be fun, but also hard. “My dad said they look at your freshman scores for college, so you have to work extra hard to get into the college you want.”

While she’s taking a full load of classes this fall-physical education, a reading workshop, environmental science, algebra, literature and world studies-she’s not worried about high school overwhelming. “Since Step Up, I know the building better and I met my teachers at orientation,” she says.