A brass ring for motivated kids

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Come second semester of her freshman year at Marshall High School, Crystal Durham was getting bored with whipping through her lessons and earning good grades without much studying.

Then, to her delight, she learned that she had earned a spot in the school’s brand-new freshman honors track, where all of the students will be like her—diligent and able to move at a fast pace.

“More challenge makes you think,” Durham says. “It makes you use your brain. I like that.”

As far as most school staff can remember, there has never been a freshman honors’ track at Marshall, a chronically low-performing high school, says Keith Foley, a former long-time principal at Lane Tech High School on the North Side who was brought to Marshall to mentor new Principal Juan Gardner.

One of the goals of High School Transformation is to make schools like Marshall, now considered schools of last resort, into schools of choice.

“We want to get the students who just missed getting into Whitney Young,” Foley says.

But without accelerating the curriculum for those students who are doing well, school officials are dubious that high-performers will decide to attend the school. To that end, about 40 students were chosen for the honors track, based on teacher recommendations. Foley says school administrators didn’t want to base the selection solely on test scores, because they wanted to get a sense of which students are motivated yet not necessarily top-scoring.

To create the track, administrators shifted classes around so it did not cost any additional money. Durham will still have classes with most of the same teachers.

Another goal of the track, says Foley, is to get these freshmen ready for Advanced Placement classes their senior year. Since 1996, the district has made a push to create more AP classes in all high schools. Marshall was no exception, and has offered one or two AP classes each year. But few students in low-performing schools earn a high enough score to get college credit: Of the 56 Marshall students who took AP classes in 2007, none did.

In addition to an accelerated curriculum, Foley says honors students will get treated to some extras. For example, he took students on a field trip to Lane, a selective enrollment school, to show them the structure and academic rigor that is needed to really compete with the district’s top students. Foley hopes seeing these classes in action will inspire Marshall’s honors students to work hard.

The other hope is that the honors track becomes a haven for keeping students focused. By the end of freshmen year, nearly 65 percent of Marshall freshmen are off-track to graduate.

Scholar-athletes?

Marlon Sykes says he can see how the environment at Marshall can be distracting. In regular classes, he says, too many of his peers spend their time “playing around rather than doing their work.”

“They tell jokes and get in and out of their chairs,” says Sykes, who, like his dad and half-brothers, came to Marshall to play basketball. Sykes says he has found the schoolwork somewhat easy, but is hoping the new lineup of classes will be more strenuous and do a better job of preparing him for college. He dreams of playing pro basketball, but if that doesn’t work out, he’d like to become a lawyer.

Like Sykes, several of the freshmen chosen to be in the honors classes are athletes, underscoring the fact that Marshall’s top-notch basketball and football teams are a draw. But a few of the students are like Jasmin Clay or Durham, two young women who are glad to be singled out for their smarts.

Both say they wanted to go to other high schools. But Clay’s mother didn’t want her to travel to Lindblom or King, two selective schools on the South Side. Durham’s mother couldn’t afford the tuition at her first choice, Providence St. Mel, a well-known Catholic school that boasts a high college-going rate.

Both young women say that when they showed up at Marshall they were a little hesitant, but that it hasn’t been that bad.

Clay says she sympathizes with some of her peers, who seem to bring their problems from home to school. But she’s glad to be separated from them in the classroom.

“They are a little goofy,” she says. “But as long as I can set my priorities straight and do my work, I’ll be okay.”

Durham agrees. She says getting placed in the honors classes gives her a boost of confidence.

“It is just like my mother says—no matter what school I am at, I will do good,” she says.