More arrows aimed at high dropout rate

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A year ago, the district launched a broad new anti-dropout initiative aimed at keeping freshmen on track to graduate. Now CPS is adding more weapons to its arsenal: after-school classes, online learning and timely data reporting to schools.

The initiative launched last February featured Freshman On-Track Labs, which provided each of six schools with two staff members who devise strategies to keep students from failing or being chronically absent. It also created Freshman Connection, a program for every graduating 8th-grader to attend a six-week class before they entered 9th grade. There was also an initiative to support freshmen who are most at-risk for failure and students who were transitioning out of Cook County Juvenile Detention Center back to a regular high school.

Previously missing was an option for 9th graders to immediately make up credits in classes they had failed.

A year ago, the district launched a broad new anti-dropout initiative aimed at keeping freshmen on track to graduate. Now CPS is adding more weapons to its arsenal: after-school classes, online learning and timely data reporting to schools.

The initiative launched last February featured Freshman On-Track Labs, which provided each of six schools with two staff members who devise strategies to keep students from failing or being chronically absent. It also created Freshman Connection, a program for every graduating 8th-grader to attend a six-week class before they entered 9th grade. There was also an initiative to support freshmen who are most at-risk for failure and students who were transitioning out of Cook County Juvenile Detention Center back to a regular high school.

Previously missing was an option for 9th graders to immediately make up credits in classes they had failed.

Freshmen On-Pace was crafted because school officials realized that freshmen who fail a class often wait until junior or senior year to try to make up the credit in evening school, says Paige Ponder, who oversees CPS dropout prevention efforts. That’s because make- up courses are now offered in evening school, which is considered to be an option for older students, and parents were concerned about the safety of their 14- and 15-year-old teenagers.

Yet Ponder explains that it is important that these freshmen make up the credits quickly. “When students fall farther and farther behind, it is more difficult for them to catch up,” she says.

Make-up courses in core subjects will now be offered in the late afternoon, immediately following the regular school day. Some courses will be accessible online, paving the way for students to log in from remote locations and view lectures or presentations when classes they need to make up are not offered at their school.

About 60 schools that submitted credit-recovery plans will soon participate in the new program. Ponder says make-up classes will be limited to freshmen with fewer than 10 absences. Students who are chronically absent need to correct that problem before trying to take a class again, she says.

CPS will also add a distance learning option for students who are seeking to re-enroll in school after leaving the juvenile detention center. Instead of going to a regular school, these returning students will be enrolled in a transition school where they will take classes online and receive counseling. District staff found schools were having a difficult time accommodating these students, who are often released mid-semester, and students themselves had a tough time fitting in. OK?

The new transition schools will be hosted by Banner Alternative Schools at two locations: 2330 E. 99th St. and 5035 W. North Ave.

To keep high schools informed about student progress, Ponder’s office is now sending out regular reports to keep them abreast of which freshmen are struggling. The first report, called a watch list, debuted over the summer and used color-coding to identify incoming freshmen who had attendance, behavior and academic problems in elementary school.

Since then, at regular intervals of five weeks, the schools are getting success reports to tell them which freshmen are doing well in high school and who needs extra support.

“We have challenged ourselves to keep it simple and straightforward so that schools can use it to make decisions,” Ponder says. She says the report has gotten rave reviews from principals who call “constantly” to find out when their next report will be issued.

While schools are getting extra help to tackle the dropout problem, there’s one caveat: the programs are funded for just one year. Ponder says she is looking for additional money to keep the programs running.

The graduation rate in CPS is about 55 percent.

Posted by Sarah Karp.