BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK, Education Reporter
April 23, 2014 10:02PM
Less than half of students at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School graduated in 2008 when Juan Carlos Ocon took over as principal, but by 2013, he said, the rate rose to about 69 percent.
The secret of Juarez’s success — and the success of 19 other neighborhood high schools in Chicago in getting more students to graduation day — started with the school’s ninth-graders and keeping them “on track,” according to new research to be released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School research.
Shepherding ninth-graders through their first year of high school — focusing on helping them to show up to class and complete their work so they pass their courses — leads to jumps in graduation rates, even at high schools once thought of as “dropout factories,” according to the study.
“Attention to those very small things has a big payoff,” said Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium, adding that schools need to intervene as soon as freshmen show a dip in attendance or decline in effort.
The interventions that have worked so far are less expensive and dramatic than a schoolwide turnaround or conversion to a charter school, she said. The gains spanned gender and race but were highest for African-American males.
And outside factors beyond a school’s control — gangs, family, academic weakness of incoming freshmen — affect graduation in a common way by preventing students from showing up and doing their work, she said.
“Schools don’t have to change everything in kids lives — what they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t interfere with kids coming to class and getting their work done,” Allensworth said.
The authors tracked efforts across 20 Chicago Public Schools that boosted “on-track” rates for ninth-graders over three years by poring over real-time data on a regular basis and then looked at who graduated. According to their findings, those “on track” increases — to 82 percent in 2013 from 57 percent in 2007 — translated into big jumps in graduation rates, up to 20 percentage points.
“On track” means a student has enough credits at the end of the year to go on to the next grade and has earned no more than one semester F in a core class.
The 20 schools adopted a variety of practices, including block scheduling to minimize the effects of tardiness; hiring an “on-track coordinator” to reach out with solutions when students started to fall off; and running a summer program for incoming freshmen.
How the schools specifically chose to keep tabs on their ninth-graders mattered less than how well they kept them on track, said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a Consortium author.
Juarez, with 96 percent low-income students, leaned on its lead teachers and changed its curriculum to one that focuses on standards instead of specific content.
“It automatically made what was being taught in the classroom more relevant to the students,” Ocon said. That pushed attendance up, too, he said.
“What’s in the classroom now is much more relevant and that’s bringing them back every day,” he said. “Because the curriculum has shifted, it’s not what teachers are interested in, it’s what students need.”
Juarez also opened a “benchmark achievement center” in the library, where students can bolster skills after school, Ocon said.
Juarez still has work to do, with ACT scores barely above a 16 average — below the CPS average of 17.6 and far below 21, considered to be “college ready.” The school also is in its last year of a $6 million state improvement grant that Ocon said bolstered its efforts.