‘Freshmen on-Track’: The data point that reshaped Chicago’s high schools

Until last year, when he became Chicago Public Schools’ chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney was a high school principal pulling out all the stops to keep ninth-graders from failing their classes.

At Tilden Career Community Academy, Swinney made it a priority to connect incoming students to the school community and to have a single person responsible for coordinating efforts to help ninth-graders. He was driven by “Freshmen On-Track,” a data point that Chicago researchers developed after realizing that how students fared in their first year of high school reliably predicted whether they would ultimately graduate — better than their race, gender, family background, and middle school grades and test scores combined.

A new book, “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time,” chronicles the history of Freshmen On-Track, from its serendipitous origins at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, to its rollout as a citywide measure of success, to its unusually successful adoption by educators eager to help their students but weary of being told what to do. You can read an excerpt here.

Author Emily Krone Phillips first learned about the metric while working at the research consortium, where she was communications director at the time. (She now directs communications at the Spencer Foundation, which supports Chalkbeat.) She spent more than a year reporting from Tilden, a high school in Canaryville; John Hancock High School in Gage Park; and across the district to understand Freshmen On-Track’s influence in Chicago.

We asked Krone Phillips and Swinney about how the metric is used, their advice for educators looking to keep ninth-graders on track, and their memories of the transition to high school. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Freshmen On-Track is not a policy or a proposal or a set of steps. How would you describe it?

Krone Phillips: It was a movement that started with a research-based problem. Then you had leadership that was really focusing on it, and then you had practitioners who were empowered to start sort of working on this problem, and then you had networks of people who were able to share within schools and across schools how they did the work. That combination was so powerful.

Swinney: I think of Freshmen On-Track as an opportunity to look at how we support kids coming into high school. We recognized we were missing something, and Freshmen On-Track was a way to figure that out. What are the skills they need to be successful? That created an opportunity for us.

Mr. Swinney, what failed and what worked for you when implementing Freshmen On-Track as a principal at Tilden?

Swinney: What I was running into was that I wasn’t sure what was happening in the lives of all of my students. I knew that there was some sort of trauma. I knew kids were also bringing their best selves and wanted to be successful but they were also in the middle of this adolescent struggle: brain development is happening, their bodies are changing, some of them have complex family relationships. I knew there would be no gains in Freshmen On-Track if I didn’t respond to that first need — to ensure that they had a sense of belonging.

We had to create systems where we assigned each child to an adult in the building and say, “Hey, we are paying attention to different students and I take the personal and professional responsibility to support them along the way,” as opposed to, “Hey, let’s just give kids opportunities to make up or catch up on assignments.” We developed a strong behavioral health team we called the support team. Something is happening in the lives of our kids. We can’t just say they’ll get better soon, but we have to build it into the way we did school.

How does Chicago’s school choice model affect efforts to help freshmen?

Krone Phillips: One of the things that struck me when I was interviewing kids was the extent to which they had internalized that they were going to not a first-choice school compared with the other kids. They had this perception of Tilden as being a school of last resort, their peers as maybe not being smart, or themselves as not being smart. That added a whole other layer of complexity because when they got there even if the school had lots of things that were working they already had this perception that they were somehow lesser than other schools in the city, so convincing students that they could do hard academic work, that they belonged in school, just became that much harder.

Swinney: We really worked hard to unravel whatever those perceptions were. When I moved to Chicago in 2012 and I was wearing Tilden gear or telling people I was the principal of Tilden, there were so many facial expressions and ways of understanding the school that dated back to the 1990s. The students were internalizing someone else’s thoughts and ideas about them, and we had to work to say, “You are just as smart as anyone else,” and really push ourselves to maintain a strong ideology about the kids in front of us, because kids rise to the occasion when the adults believe in them.

Krone Phillips: At Tilden there was a community and students feeling like they had an adult or two adults they connected with and who made them feel like they were known and valued in that school.

If every school could do one thing tomorrow, what should that be?

Krone Phillips: I would say create strong relationships between teachers and students, between administrators and teachers. I just think after working on this book that relationships are just so paramount.

Swinney: Look at your data, see who your most vulnerable populations are, have conversations with that group or those particular groups, and work to build strong systems and care for what their needs are.

Who do you hope will read this book?

Krone Phillips: When I was shopping this around to different publishers, I had some people say that I was trying to appeal to too many different audiences because there is this perception that you are either writing for a lay audience or you are writing for a very inside-baseball educator audience. I was hoping that I could bridge those two audiences because I think there are a lot of people who have influence over what happens in schools, over the way our societies are set up, and aren’t necessarily educators. This work should not all rest on the shoulders of educators, so I am hopeful that it will appeal to anybody who cares about larger issues of equity.

Swinney: For so long, school systems have taken the brunt of responsibility for the children in our country and in our city. I hope that multiple agencies, advocacy groups, politicians, and others are reading this book to really fully understand the needs of who these young people are and practice strategies and investments into the lives of young people. You have to have a sense of responsibility and accountability for what happens to our children. It can’t just be on the school system’s radar, it has to have the social, political, historical, and educational context to really solve these complex issues.

What do you remember of yourself in ninth grade?

Swinney: I was a very mouthy ninth-grader. I was often in trouble, but my mouth also helped me to become a great poet and a great writer. I had great teachers that really helped me to develop my skills and talents, and that same kind of lens is what I use now. I talked to the teacher who I cursed out, Ms. Strickland, she’s in the book. I remember her saying: I don’t remember what got into you back then. I also remember me returning to school and having to sit next to her at her desk because I had a lot of work to make up. She spent the time with me to get back on track and that will always stick in my brain as the power of a ninth-grade teacher.

Krone Phillips: What I remember of myself in ninth grade and through a lot of high school but especially early on was searching for signs whether I was good enough everywhere. Interviewing 14-year-olds and watching their faces light up when they get compliments or be told they could do something, it really brought me back to this time when I was looking for that kind of positive reinforcement.