Rising to meet the challenge

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Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

Five years ago, Catalyst Chicago published the last of a series of reports on the struggles and successes of nine African-American and Latino graduates working toward a college degree. This month, we revisit “The College Challenge” to find out what happened to those students.

Happily, six of the nine have graduated. (One did not finish school and two could not be located.) Their stories provide real food for thought as the district continues to roll out its High School Transformation Project.

While the former students stressed that they had to work hard and stay focused to reach their goal, another common theme emerged: Support made a critical difference.

Indeed, one young woman, a former valedictorian at Orr High who landed at the University of Southern California, now says her years at Orr were the best thing that happened to her. In one sense, that’s surprising, given the school’s not-so-stellar reputation and the young woman’s acknowledgment that Orr didn’t prepare her for college-level work. But, as Brooke Ray told writer Kristin Maun, at Orr “people believed in me and what I could accomplish.”

That’s an invaluable lesson for neighborhood high schools. Transforming these schools shouldn’t focus solely on bringing in stronger curricula and better teaching. It should also include efforts to ensure that teachers, counselors, coaches, aides and administrators give kids the same sense of self-empowerment that Orr’s staff gave Ray. Students, especially African-American and Latino kids from poorer communities, need to believe that they can make it in the larger world and succeed at prestigious institutions like USC.

With better academic preparation and more support and encouragement from adults, more high school graduates would end up as success stories like those we profile—and the district could catch up with the rest of the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn degrees, instead of lagging behind.

Learning two languages

Almost every year, the media reports statistics showing how U.S. students compare to those in other countries in reading and math. But one statistic that isn’t reported—one that would show a clear gap in favor of foreign students—is the number of children who are studying a second language.

In Europe and other foreign countries, learning English is either compulsory or widespread, often starting in elementary school. Consequently, it’s far more common to find foreigners who speak English than Americans who speak Chinese or French—and that puts American students at a disadvantage in a world in which business, and society, are becoming increasingly connected across national boundaries.

With that in mind, a new CPS-led commission is on the right track with its goal to shift bilingual education toward a dual-language approach (in which non-English-speaking students build literacy in their own language and also learn English) and have more English speakers learn a foreign language.

Having all kids achieve at least basic fluency in a foreign language might seem like a lofty goal in a district where many children are still reading below grade level in their own language. But too often, kids in CPS are stuck with just the bare skeleton of a real education, with little or no exposure to music, art and other so-called “extras” that are plentiful in wealthy districts and ought to be considered core subjects. One of those is foreign language instruction

Publisher’s Note: We are delighted to now bring you freelance writer Alexander Russo’s blog, “District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog.” Since its launch, the blog has become the talk of Chicago’s broad-based school community. Now you can read it online at www.catalyst-chicago.org.

District 299 brings you unfiltered news and views from people involved in public schools. The viewpoints are a mix, and no one minces words. Also, each weekday morning, Russo posts links to education stories in local, and sometimes national, media.

We encourage you to weigh in. And look for more upgrades to our Web site, which we will unveil in the coming months.