At Excel, a shorter path to a diploma

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Jason Yarbough dropped out and sat at home for two years. Now, at 20, he is graduating from Chicago Excel Academy, a school that uses an accelerated schedule to help dropouts get their diploma quickly.

Marc Monaghan

Jason Yarbough dropped out and sat at home for two years. Now, at 20, he is graduating from Chicago Excel Academy, a school that uses an accelerated schedule to help dropouts get their diploma quickly.

Jason Yarbough came late to graduation practice. But when the slim young man with thin dreadlocks walked in, he was met with a hug from his teacher, Jenne McCrimmon.

“When he came here, he was so quiet, he didn’t want anyone to touch him,” McCrimmon recalls.

Yarbough had plenty reason to be wary. “I have been shot before and am on probation,” he says openly. “I didn’t want to talk to a lot of people and put myself in positions [to get in further trouble]. I just figured I don’t know anyone here and no one knows me. We are not here to make friends. We are here to get it done.”

In Chicago, much of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education strategy has been focused on the concept of higher achievement through more time in school. But the high school that Yarbough enrolled in last September offers the promise of the opposite: earning a diploma quickly, through an accelerated model that has already shown promise elsewhere. Instead of a slow plod through high school, at Camelot School’s new Excel campus, Yarbough could hurry and finish up.

Tyree Booker, Excel’s principal, says that the idea behind the model is that students who haven’t succeeded in traditional high schools and are older either don’t want to, or can’t, spend a lot of time in school.

“If you are 20 years old and only a freshman and you are sitting in a class with 14-year-olds, you will feel degraded,” he says.

Also, logistically, students are only guaranteed a free, public education until they are 21. And, as students get older, they often have more responsibilities and pressures to distract them from school.

The fall 2009 issue of Catalyst In Depth reported on Chicago’s alternative schools and found that a growing number of students in these schools are older and have few, if any, credits—making it more challenging to get them to graduation.

Shorter time to diploma

Launched last fall, Chicago Excel Academy is the first CPS school to offer an accelerated model that aims to make better use of time for overage high school students and former dropouts like Yarbough, who is 20. Students can get a high school degree in two and a half years, even if they started with no credits. The time can be shorter for students who have a handful.

Chicago Excel opened in fall 2012 and plans to open a second school this coming fall. Should the board approve it at June’s board meeting, it will be located in the shuttered Guggenheim School in Englewood. (Camelot is operated as a contract school.)

Yarbough and 54 other students are the first class to graduate.

While it is too early to tell whether the model will be successful in Chicago, researchers have reported progress at Camelot Schools elsewhere. A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that Philadelphia’s Camelot Schools raised graduation rates and credits earned more than accelerated schools run by other operators.

Camelot Schools is a for-profit company that operates schools in the Chicago area (including several suburban locations), Pennsylvania and Florida. Along with accelerated schools, the company operates therapeutic day schools for children with special needs; transitional schools for students with behavioral problems; and has moved into the “turnaround” arena in Philadelphia, taking over failing traditional schools.

CPS paid Camelot $3.1 million this fiscal year, but Camelot also runs a therapeutic school and it is not clear how much goes to the alternative school and how much to the therapeutic school. Contract schools get $7,587 per student.

No dreams, but “honest conversations”

Camelot’s accelerated model is strict, but geared toward making sure students focus so they can buckle down and do the work needed to earn their diploma on a compressed schedule.

Students go to school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. When they walk in, they must hand over their coats and cell phones. No one carries a book bag because there’s no homework, and everything is provided–pens, notebook paper and textbooks.

There is also a tight discipline system. Students who show up at school regularly, behave and do well academically get to be part of a special group with privileges. The school has rolling admissions, but students must attend 10 weeks of class to receive any credits.

The school has small classes with two teachers each, a design meant to ensure that students understand lessons before moving to the next subject. Booker says this set up allows teachers to differentiate instruction. Teachers at the schools are certified, but not unionized.

Before they graduate, students must develop a post-secondary plan. Staff members take students on college trips, to trade schools, to military recruiters and potential employers.

“We look at the transcripts and help kids decide what is realistic for them,” says Booker. “We are not selling kids dreams. We are having honest conversations with them.”

To recruit students, Booker relies on grass-roots methods. Chicago Excel is on 111th Street, a major artery on the Far South Side in the Morgan Park neighborhood. Booker worked with the South Chicago Community Association, went on radio shows and even talked to parole officers to find students.

In September, the school had only 20 students. By mid-year it had 240.

Safety, a clean slate–and a family

Booker worked in Philadelphia before coming to Chicago, and says the struggles students face and the needs they have are similar.

“A lot of students come from broken homes,” he says. “They want to learn but they need to feel like they can succeed.”

One of the biggest challenges in Chicago—and different from Philadelphia–is that it can be hard to convince students to travel from their neighborhood to the school, Booker says.

But once at school, students say they do not worry so much about problems. To get in, they must go through metal detectors—an added safety measure that eases fears of potential violence. More than that, though, students say they want to be at Camelot.

Benny Smith was shot and seriously wounded in November because of an ongoing “situation” between him and his friends and another group of young men. Smith had taken the day off from Camelot to go to a job interview at McDonald’s when the shooting happened.

Smith was seriously wounded, and for the weeks he was hospitalized, the staff at Camelot visited him daily. Smith was so impressed that he returned to school early, when he was only half-healed from the shooting.

Smith lives in Englewood, several neighborhoods to the north of Camelot, and previously attended Robeson High. He says he was kicked out of school after spending time in the juvenile detention center and “hustling.”

But Smith says he doesn’t think it matters what gangs the other students at Camelot Excel come from or what neighborhoods they live in.

“When you come to this school, it is for an education,” says Smith. “Everyone wants to be here and no one wants to be kicked out.”

Booker says it is this attitude on the part of students that keeps the school calm.

“What they are looking for is a clean slate,” he says. “They tried it their way before and it didn’t work. Now they want an opportunity to try it again.”

Many of this first group of Chicago Excel students didn’t need a lot of credits to graduate. But they did need a fresh start that their former schools couldn’t provide.

Paris Barlow attended a suburban high school and then transferred to Corliss High her senior year. Two weeks before she thought she was going to graduate, she was pulled into the counselor’s office and told she didn’t have enough of the right credits to get her diploma.

“I just cried. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Barlow says.

Last September, she heard about the school while she was waiting to register for classes at Corliss. She would have to spend a whole year at Corliss, but only a semester at Chicago Excel.

In January, she finished up classes and by the time she showed up at the graduation on June 14, she was just waiting to begin the next phase in life. In August, Barlow will start at Moraine Valley College as a nursing student.

But with some months on her own behind her, she admits she’s a bit scared.

“Camelot Excel is a family place,” she says. “It is like a second home. Everyone is loving and caring.”

This warmth is something that Yarbough found at Chicago Excel, despite his initial attempts to just come and get his work done without forming any attachments.

Yarbough says he was kicked out of Hirsch High for fighting and bad attendance. For two years, he sat at home and didn’t do much. He says he called some schools and asked about enrolling, but no one seemed to want him.

Walking across the stage, he says he cried. “All the time I have cried for pain, but this time I am crying for myself, for what I have accomplished.”

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.