One-on-one advice to get kids on track

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Achievement academy students

Photo by John Booz

Achievement academy students

On a morning in early May, students in Chicago Vocational’s achievement academy wait in a large brick-walled room. One by one, as names are called, each student receives his or her report card and then chooses an open seat at one of several tables for a 15-minute conference. The conferences, held with school staff members, are a centerpiece of the achievement academy approach.

Juanita Taylor, a social studies coach, extends her hand and introduces herself to a towering sophomore, Branden Robinson. Picking up on Taylor’s formality, he introduces himself in turn as “Mr. Robinson.”

Taylor’s goal is to get Branden to reflect on his work habits and take responsibility for improving them. Conferences like this one, which occur three times a year and are part of John Hopkins University’s Talent Development High School model, are also a chance to review graduation requirements and help kids make the connection between academic performance and job or college goals.

Grades are Taylor’s first order of business. She tears apart the two copies of his report card and hands one copy to Branden . “Look it over and tell me what you think,” she says.

Branden pauses, admits he “messed up a couple of times,” then, under additional questioning by Taylor, concedes he got D’s in all but one class.

Taylor later helps him calculate his grade-point average, which is 1.4, and quizzes him about the GPA he expects he will need to reach his goal of becoming a mechanic.

“If you want to go to school for mechanics, I’m pretty sure they’re going to look at your G.P.A. Are they going to say—this is someone we would want?” Taylor asks.

“Mmm, no,” he replies.

Branden says later to a reporter that, before Taylor talked with him, he didn’t know about G.P.A s and how they fit into his career goals. “I know how much harder I have to push myself to get higher grades,” Branden says. “I’m going to pay attention more.”

He also says he’s less nervous talking to Taylor than he would be facing some of his teachers, bolstering one idea behind the conference model—that kids will be more willing to reflect on their weaknesses with an adult who, unlike a teacher, is not formally evaluating them.

Other students also seem to have taken the conference to heart.

Freshman Stanley Robinson believed he failed World Studies mostly because his teacher didn’t like him. He says he “wasn’t thinking about doing anything different.” But a conference with a teacher’s assistant made him realize that he was talking a lot in class and needed to get more work done. “Stay on task. That’s what I have to do,” he decided.

Contract to follow up

Melissa Roderick, a director at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, says such conferences can help students fill an important knowledge gap. In follow-up research to her recent study on college graduation rates of CPS graduates, Roderick found that many young adults say they didn’t understand the importance of grades in high school and how they relate to success in college.

Greg Ekey, a consultant for the Talent Development model who works with the academies, points out that holding a conference is just a first step in helping low-achieving students improve their academic performance.

“It’s a one-day event,” says Ekey. “If it ended there, it would still have an impact, but it wouldn’t have a lasting impact.”

With that in mind, students like Branden who have received D’s or F’s are required to fill out a “recovery contract” acknowledging that they have not adopted all of the academic and behavioral practices that will make them successful in high school. “I also know that it is not too late,” the form reads. It also lists 10 reasons for low performance, starting with attendance.

As Taylor and Branden go over his contract, Taylor directs him to check off attendance right away because he is routinely more than 35 minutes late to school, despite living down the street. Taylor also guides him to check five additional reasons on the list, including not completing homework and needing additional help.

Taylor tells Branden to ask his teachers for strategies he can use to bring up his D’s. Although the Talent Development program aims to reward even minor accomplishments—the young man receives a certificate for passing his courses, albeit just barely—Taylor makes it clear he needs to do better.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Keep up the good work,’ because your potential is better,” she says. Pointing out his one good mark, a B in social studies, she adds, “That’s your potential.”

To give students an extra push to reach that potential, the conference is designed with a follow-up step: Teachers are supposed to review the contracts with students, confer with the student and possibly a parent and then follow up with the student during the rest of the marking period to ensure that he or she is sticking to the contract.

In Branden’s case, this step didn’t happen.

The following week, Branden arrives on time three days out of five, an unprecedented show of effort from him this school year, and reports doing more work in some subjects.

But his teachers say later that they are seeing no improvement, and that he has not approached them about his contract. Some teachers at the school report that they have not discussed the contracts at faculty meetings or followed up with students, and add that they already remind kids constantly to do their work and come to class on time.

Ekey notes, however, that there’s a difference between just reminding kids and taking a formal approach—as the recovery contracts do—that will make students take a larger role in changing their behavior.

“That’s probably why they’re not seeing a big difference,” he says. “They’re not doing the follow-up.”