required reading

How Harper High School figured out how to keep ninth-graders on track — and how Chicago followed

PHOTO: Nancy Stone-Pool/Getty Images
First Lady Michelle Obama visits Harper High School in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood Wednesday April 10, 2013 to talk with students about the plague of violence in their area.

In “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time,” Emily Krone Phillips describes how Chicago’s high schools reoriented themselves around research finding that ninth-grade performance predicts whether students graduate better than any other available information. You can learn more about the “Freshmen On-Track” metric in our interview with Krone Phillips and Maurice Swinney, a former Chicago principal who now leads the district’s equity office. This excerpt focuses on one school’s early efforts to keep ninth-graders on track and suggests that, as research has found, involvement by educators is essential for new initiatives to stick. Freshmen On-Track is outliving Harper High, which is scheduled to close.

Before Elizabeth Dozier became something of a celebrity principal in Chicago and a leading character in both Paul Tough’s bestselling “How Children Succeed” and CNN’s docudrama “Chicagoland,” Dozier was a first-year assistant principal at Harper High School in Englewood, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. At Harper, her primary charge was to keep all 217 of Harper High’s freshmen on track to graduate from high school.

During the 2007–08 school year, the year before Dozier arrived at Harper, 57 percent of Harper’s freshmen — 142 of them — failed two or more core courses. And just like that, before they were even old enough to drive, they were virtually out of the running for a high school diploma and a spot in the American middle class.

Dozier wanted to draw a bright line for her staff between these dismal freshman outcomes and her students’ futures. At the beginning of the year, she engaged all the freshman teachers in a visioning exercise. Where would the 142 off-track freshmen from the previous year be in three years? In 10 years? Would they be in college? Working? Or standing on a street corner in Englewood? She reminded them that black male dropouts — and all of the 142 off-track freshmen were black — have a 70 percent chance of being incarcerated by their mid-thirties. “It was meant to tug at their emotional heartstrings,” Dozier says. “If we’re not careful, we can get desensitized to what this really means. These aren’t just data points. This isn’t just about Harper. It’s about lives. It’s about communities.”

Without a specific plan or policy from the district, Dozier’s initial approach to improving Harper’s on-track rates was mostly trial and error. She created a community of freshman teachers who met weekly to review data on each student’s grades, attendance, and discipline patterns. The group strategized about ways to support and motivate students academically and to provide additional help for those whose struggles had nothing to do with academics. To make the work feel more tangible, she created a board with every student’s name on it and moved the student on- or off-track throughout the year. The team celebrated every small victory — a kid who went from failing to passing math; a chronic truant who started showing up regularly.

One challenge the group struggled with was how to help students take responsibility for their own learning and achievement. Many students interpreted failing grades as something that was done to them by teachers, not as something they had earned. The group needed a way to help students keep track of where they stood academically. Harper had an online student portal that included grades and assignments, but students rarely checked it. The group decided they needed something more public and easily accessible. Dozier made a giant color-coded board with every freshman’s name on it and hung it in the main hallway for the entire school to see. She placed the students’ names under one of three headers: green for on track, red for off track, yellow for “almost there.” Making the names public went against Chicago Public Schools board policy, but she did it anyway. Brain research may suggest that most 14-year-olds will not be swayed by the potential long-term consequences of missing school or failing to turn in an assignment, “but what they do understand is social pressure,” Dozier said. “One name would be the size of two napkins. You could read it from down the hallway. It became this thing. No one wanted to be at the end part. They’d say, ‘Ms. Dozier, why am I off-track?’ The older you get, it doesn’t matter so much, but with these little ones, this public thing was very big for them.”

Students began making connections for themselves between learning, the grades they were getting in the class, and their status on the “big board,” which was a major breakthrough as far as Dozier was concerned. Dozier added, with a large smile, “I remember one time someone from [the district] came and said, ‘Take it down’ and we said, ‘Okay, sure. And, oh, when are you coming back?’”

One freshman student in particular stood out for Dozier that first year. He was a nice kid, she recalled, but something seemed off. One day he got into a verbal argument with a teacher, and she told him, “Okay, we’re going to your house.” The principal advised Dozier to take Harper’s football coach, who was born in Englewood, along with her. “It just completely put some stuff in perspective. We talked to his grandmother. She was completely cracked out. And that was the moment I realized how complex the work really is, and there’s not a formulaic response for every kid. Maybe for a good portion you can use the public stuff, and incentives, and teachers meetings, but it totally changed our approach to the kids who are the most difficult to serve.”

She described going to the next on-track meeting and telling everyone that the kid they had been struggling to reach lived in that house. “Everyone knew that house. It was where all the gangbangers hung out, where all the drugs were sold. Families and gangs used to fight right outside. I remember seeing a mob fight one day. Someone picked up one of those police horses and just threw it into the fight. And so when I said, ‘This is where the kid lives,’ there was a whole new perspective.”

Dozier and her team started conducting regular home visits whenever a student was failing. She would gather a group of teachers, take along the football coach for security, and engage parents in conversations about their child. “Lots of these people had bad experiences with their high school, so they’re not coming to the building,” Dozier said. “So we said, Okay, we will bring school to you. It was really impactful for parents. They saw that the school really cares, and that is not typical. And it was also impactful for teachers because now you’re not just driving down 63rd and going to the parking lot and going home. Now you’re driving through the community. And it made a difference for the kids, because what they want to know is, ‘Do you care about me? Do you have my best interests at heart?’”

At the end of the school year, Harper’s Freshman OnTrack rate had risen 18 percentage points, from 43 percent the previous year, to 61 percent — roughly equivalent to 40 additional students being on track to graduate. One of those on-track students was the kid from “the house,” almost certainly a student who would have fallen off-track in the past. Mayor Daley held a press conference at Harper to highlight the improvement there and the modest uptick in districtwide on-track rates (up 4.5 percentage points from the previous year). Dozier remembered a phalanx of city workers descending on the area before Daley arrived, cleaning streets and filling potholes. “It was really big for Harper. We had made this huge jump.”

The press conference was sparsely attended, mostly by the small cadre of City Hall reporters who follow the mayor from one public event to another, asking off-topic questions only relevant to the major stories they are covering that day. A few local outlets briefly noted the Freshman OnTrack story and mentioned that Chicago schools were focusing on freshmen in order to improve graduation rates. And that was all. Just 4.5 percentage points district-wide hardly seemed like something to celebrate, and the on-track metric itself was still obscure.

It looked like any other press conference in which data were marshaled to declare some minor victory in the ongoing political war over school reform. Instead, it was a precursor to one of the largest system shifts in Chicago Public Schools’ history, a shift that came not from a high-level policy, trendy national program, or any of the big ideas that typically get discussed during debates around school reform, but from efforts that got teachers working together in new ways to solve problems that most of them had previously assumed they were powerless to affect.

Copyright © 2019 by Emily Krone Phillips. This excerpt originally appeared in The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”