College & Workforce Readiness

Chicago District Focusing On Pathways to College

By Christina A. Samuels — June 10, 2008 5 min read
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Many high school seniors have great plans to attend college after they graduate. All too often, those plans outstrip reality.

Some find out that they do not have the academic foundation to be candidates for college. Others are held back by complicated financial-aid applications, difficulties writing an entrance essay, or an overreliance on one college choice that may ultimately fall through.

The 409,000-student Chicago school district has taken a comprehensive approach to try to remove as many roadblocks as possible from the paths of high school students, through its 5-year-old department of postsecondary education and student development.

Where They Go

From 2004 to 2007, the percentage of Chicago graduates enrolling in these institutions has increased.


SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools

Though many states and districts are rallying around the idea of creating a seamless transition from high school to college, Chicago is considered at the forefront of such efforts.

“Nobody is doing the type of work that is going on in Chicago,” said Ann S. Coles, the senior adviser for college-access programs for the Education Resources Institute Inc., a nonprofit guarantor of student loans in Boston. Her organization is also the directing partner of the Pathways to College Network, a coalition of education groups working to improve college access and success for underrepresented students.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the district, also believes Chicago’s efforts are ambitious. “Just having students graduate from high school can’t be our goal,” he said. “We’re working to change the culture of expectations.”

Since the creation of the department, the Chicago system has seen its college-attendance rate edge up from 43.5 percent for the class of 2004 to 50 percent for the class of 2007.

Accurate Numbers

The College Pipeline

The Chicago school district’s department of postsecondary education and student development tracks college-enrollment rates among its high school graduates, including the types of institutions in which they enroll.


SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools

Using statistics culled from local sources and from national sources like the National Student Clearinghouse, the department seeks first to get a clear idea of where students are ending up. Before educators had such sources of hard information, said the department’s director, Gregory M. Darnieder, the estimates that school officials would give of college-attendance rates tended to be too rosy.

“Their estimates are typically 20 to 30 percentage points higher than the reality was,” he said.

The department has deployed “postsecondary coaches” in high schools to work with students and guidance counselors on students’ college readiness. Each coach reports to a postsecondary specialist, who works with many high schools.

To make sure that those who are college-ready don’t fall by the wayside because they lack the money, the postsecondary department worked with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to track students’ completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is the information that most colleges use to determine student need and to craft financial-aid packages. Failing to fill out the form, or filling it out incorrectly, can derail some students’ college-attendance plans.

The district has also promoted more-traditional college-readiness efforts. This school year, for the first time, it hosted a spring-break college tour that drew 500 students. And the postsecondary department has overseen the local rollout of a national college-readiness program for elementary, middle, and high school students called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which provides students academic support and teaches college-going strategies.

“This is all about creating a school culture where college is a possible goal,” Mr. Darnieder said.

Tracking Data

The district’s efforts are supported by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago. Jenny K. Nagaoka, the project director for the postsecondary-transition project at the consortium, said her group and the district are analyzing the same data. The consortium’s role, she said, is to give the district an idea of which statistics, out of the stacks of data available, make the most difference in getting students to enroll in college.

“Otherwise, it’s just random pieces of information,” Ms. Nagaoka said.

The focus on the FAFSA is one example. The consortium released a report in March called “From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Way to College.” Researchers, including Ms. Nagaoka, a report co-author, interviewed 105 Chicago high school students and discovered that although 72 percent aspired to enter a four-year college, financial-aid applications were a significant barrier for some, particularly Latino students.

Other barriers were applying to only one school. Now, the district encourages students to apply to a number of schools, Ms. Nagaoka said.

The findings were shared with the district in 2006, to give it time to work on the issues raised, she said.

Francisco J. Rios, a postsecondary coach based at the district’s 2,000-student Hubbard High School, said the school once appeared to devote most of its attention to a handful of top students who were considered college material. Many students outside the top tier felt that college wasn’t a realistic option, he noted.

“When I first started at Hubbard, not too many came to actually talk to me about college,” Mr. Rios said. “The other kids thought, ‘Well, I’m in the middle, why should I even try?’ ”

That mind-set has changed over time, he said. One important goal now is to work with parents, who sometimes don’t know what financial aid is available for their children. Once parents learn about scholarships and other aid, they see the opportunities available, Mr. Rios said.

Chicago’s efforts to use data to guide its work in high schools is notable, said Bruce Vandal, the director of the postsecondary education and workforce-development institute at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Aligning data systems so that districts can track students from preschool all the way through college is a “hot topic” at the moment, he said.

But such efforts have been complicated and time-consuming, and there’s also the question of what schools should do with the information once they have it. “That’s the huge part,” Mr. Vandal said. “How do they use that data to reform what they do at the high schools?”

One challenge has been incorporating the work of the coaches, based at each school, with guidance counselors, said Eric Z. Williams, a postsecondary specialist who oversees coaches at 22 schools. Some of the work done by coaches has traditionally been conducted by guidance counselors.

“We’re still sorting all of that out,” he said. “Certainly we see the coaches as complementary, equal co-workers in serving the students and serving the schools.”

The sense among officials is that the department is succeeding. Mayor Richard M. Daley earlier last month lauded the college-enrollment-rate numbers for the class of 2007. “The conversations in all of our high schools across the city are changing from ‘How do I get to graduation day?’ to ‘Where is the best place for me to continue my education?’” the mayor said.

Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Chicago District Focusing On Pathways to College


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