Transforming Marshall High School

This year, some 300 freshmen enrolled at Marshall High in the rough East Garfield Park neighborhood. If current trends hold steady, 84 will be absent on a given day, just 18 of them will pass state tests as juniors, and only 120 will end up graduating within five years—even fewer in the traditional four, as the Class of 2011. But Marshall is aiming to beat those odds. The High School Transformation Project has brought new resources, teacher training—and a glimmer of hope—to the struggling school.

Big dreams, long odds

Lack of rigor at Marshall High School is just one barrier to a teen’s goal to reach the Ivy League. So far, it’s unclear whether the district’s high school reform strategy will address the academic needs of motivated or above-average students.

Getting into trouble

At schools participating in the transformation project, absenteeism is a significant problem caused by a mix of suspensions, unexcused absences and class cuts. CEO Arne Duncan says the transformation project’s focus on curriculum is part of the district’s bet that if classes are more engaging, students will show up and behave.

Lost and left out

The new curriculum introduced under High School Transformation does little to address the learning needs of special education students or students who are significantly below grade level. This poses a problem at schools like Marshal where special ed students make up 26 percent of the freshman class.

A brass ring for motivated kids

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.

Freshmen honors classes start at Marshall

As far as most school staff can remember, there has never been a freshman honors’ track at Marshall, a chronically low-performing high school. One of the goals of High School Transformation is to make schools such as Marshall, now considered schools of last resort, into schools of choice.

Enrollment X factor undermines efforts to improve high schools

Frankly, we were stunned when Associate Editor Sarah Karp first reported in the Catalyst Chicago newsroom that there were so many incoming 9th-graders registering late at Marshall High School that the freshman class nearly quadrupled within the first month. Only 85 were pre-registered when Marshall opened its doors on the first day of school Sept. 4. A month later, on the critical 20th day, when budgets are locked for Chicago public schools, the freshman class had mushroomed to some 322 students. Unfortunately, this is no isolated occurrence.

Pricing out Transformation

Chicago Public Schools has allotted nearly $47 million so far to plan and launch its transformation project in 25 schools. The district plans to spend another $35 million to expand the effort in 2008, adding as many as 20 schools to the mix and extending the effort into the upper grades in participating schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is footing much of the bill, giving CPS nearly $28 million to date. Next year’s investments will include: