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Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as Chicago Centers Target 8th Graders in Transition

Chicago Centers Target 8th Graders in Transition

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Time passes slowly in Joan Escoto's language arts class, where eight teenagers quietly struggle to fill out applications for a public library card.

She moves about patiently, guiding her charges, line by line, through the simple form, hoping--perhaps in vain--that they might turn off the tube and read something on their spring break.

The blanks for name and address requests seem straightforward enough. But when asked to list their school, a few students are stumped. "Just skip over that part," their teacher says. "Leave it blank."

The school question is a complex one for these students. The third-floor classroom in a downtown building where they show up each day isn't a school in the usual sense. Rather, it's one of Chicago's nine Regional Transition Centers, where students too old for middle school but lacking the skills for high school receive intense instruction in reading and math.

Like mandatory summer school and regular rounds of standardized testing, the $13 million program is part of Chicago's widely praised and much-copied effort to end the social promotion of students who aren't ready for the next grade.

Administrators here say the transition centers represent the best compromise between retention and promotion. "Transition schools lessen the possibility of dropping out," said Joyce E. Bristow, who heads the program for the Chicago district. "We can't send kids to high school if they're reading at a 6th grade level. They need to be more prepared."

But outside the system, doubts linger about how successful the transition schools are at turning kids on to learning and preparing them for the rigors of high school and beyond.

Back to Basics

The first of the special centers opened in February 1997. Enrollment in them has grown to about 1,800 students this school year.

Eighth graders age 15 or older who fail to meet the district's promotion standards--scoring at least 7.2 (a score for an 8th grader working at grade level is 8.8) in reading and mathematics on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and earning passing grades in those subjects--and who don't successfully complete summer school are required in the fall to report to one of the transition schools. Most will remain until they master both portions of the Iowa Tests.

Ms. Bristow says the small class sizes, longer school day, and special services--psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses--help students focus on school and other long-range goals. Most students, she said, attend the centers for only half a school year before entering regular high schools.

In January, after successfully meeting the system's testing requirements, about 700 students moved on to join their peers in high school.

A tour of Joan Escoto's school--called simply "Transition A" and located within the American Islamic College on the city's North Side--soon makes it clear this is no traditional high school.

The barren hallways lack trophy cabinets and honor rolls. There are no yearbooks. No mascot. When the last bell rings, most of the students simply head home.

It is also obvious that the students here, whose math and reading skills may be stuck at the elementary school level, would stick out in a normal K-8 setting. The girls, many of them wearing tall platform shoes and lots of makeup, appear well beyond their 15 or 16 years. Put a jacket and tie on some of the boys, at least one of whom sports a full mustache, and they could pass for young teachers.

But whether the centers help spur a renewed interest in academics is not so clear. Their curriculum is almost entirely focused on the math and reading skills needed to meet the district requirements for the ITBS. Science and art classes are offered during the summer months.

And, as in most high schools, some students find the material less than compelling.

In Laura McLean's reading class at Transition A, most of the students who aren't mocking the dated depiction of teenage rebellion in S.E. Hinton's 1967 novel, The Outsiders, are either sleeping or staring off into space.

"There are 'greasers' and 'socs,' " Ms. McLean says, trying to explain the rival gangs portrayed in the book and its archaic slang. "'Tuff' is the same as 'cool.' "

Lack of Inspiration?

To critics of the district's war on social promotion, such scenes are all too familiar.

Research on retention shows that low-achieving students who are schooled in a separate setting are more likely to continue to fail and eventually drop out, said Suzanne Davenport, the acting executive director of Designs for Change, a school reform and advocacy group here.

Her group favors getting at-risk students the resources they need earlier in the school pipeline through a series of systemwide reform goals, including better early-childhood education, improved reading instruction in all grades, systematic staff development, and immediate and intensive help for students who fall behind.

"Getting students the help they need in reading in the primary grades" is especially critical, Ms. Davenport said, because it sets the course for future academic achievement.

Despite the hard work and good intentions of the teachers in them, the transition centers "relegate students to a basic-skills track," argues Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, another advocacy group here.

The students "aren't offered a complete curriculum," Ms. Woestehoff said. The centers "don't inspire kids," she added. "Somehow, the idea that a child should enjoy school was not on the radar screen."

'Stay With Me'

But G. Alfred Hess, the director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, Ill., says the teaching that takes place in the transition centers must be viewed in context. The fact that about two-thirds of the students at Transition A and the other centers were already on track to drop out must be considered in gauging their progress, he argues.

The question, he said, is "can these centers do better with these kids" than if they had advanced to high school? Meanwhile, he said, "the neighborhood high schools are benefiting by having a lower proportion of students at the bottom of the class."

At Transition G on the city's South Side, the 13 students in Catherine Carter's language arts class plod through a workbook exercise. A few are lost on the word "aristocrat." Several have closed up shop and laugh and talk. One student, eyes half shut, tells the teacher he feels faint.

"Come on babies, stay with me," Ms. Carter pleads. She walks among the students, lightly patting the heads of those who should heed her words. "We need to get through this."

Privately, Ms. Carter concedes that keeping their attention is her biggest challenge. Broken homes and learning and behavioral problems distract them, she said, and constant rounds of testing drain what little energy the students have left for school.

"We need to be compassionate" added Ms. Carter, a veteran educator with nearly 30 years' experience. "There are some big problems at home and some bad school habits that were never checked. ... Some kids never learned to read."

Ms. Bristow, who is a former Chicago principal, said the centers try to make the work enjoyable.

"It's not just bare, raw basics," she said. "We know we've got to turn kids on, that we've got to make it interesting."

She said reading material is chosen carefully, and she cited student mentors, tutors, chess clubs, and volleyball and basketball teams as some of the extras that draw students back to the centers each day.

John Potocki, the principal of the 86-student Transition G and a burly former football coach, agrees. "We know that most of these kids don't want to be here, and we try to give them incentives to work with us," he said. "But the bottom line is we want them to take responsibility for themselves, too."

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Pages 1,14-17

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