50/50 Series: CPS Pilot Project Attacks Drop Out Problem

April 1, 2009

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Nearly a year ago the Chicago school district held a big summit on drop outs. It was a remarkable gathering because a lot of very unflattering data was shared publicly. At any given point during the school year nearly one-hundred thousand students are either at risk for dropping out or have already quit. The district decided to ramp up its efforts to prevent kids from quitting. And the woman in charge is Paige Ponder. The district is now expecting results. 

"I'm sleeping fitfully. I'm having a lot of anxiety dreams. Now I'm on the hook for these outcomes. I just tell myself one day at a time."--Paige Ponder

Ambi: Paige getting her kids off to school. "Okay come on team!"

Paige Ponder is getting her own kids off to preschool before heading into CPS headquarters.

PONDER: Bye Smashiony! C'mon Max let's go to your room.

Like any young mom with a career it's a juggling act.

PONDER: What did I do with my….? You guys have a great day.

And the stakes are high, because once she's at work she's also juggling the lives of thousands of public high school students who are at risk for dropping out.

PONDER: You should really have a plan in place before these students even walk in the door.

Ponder is trying to fix a problem so entrenched no urban district in the country has been able to solve it. Chicago's graduation rate has moved up over the last decade but still hovers just above fifty percent.

New York is at 62-percent. It focuses on re-enrolling drop outs.

But Chicago decided prevention is a better strategy and Ponder was hired to pilot a program the district hopes will lead the way.

She created her own CPS swat team: she hired 12 people and sent them into 6 very different high schools: Robeson, Kelvyn Park, School of the Arts, Michele Clark, Kenwood and Phillips.

PONDER: If we want teachers or anyone in the school to be proactive, to try to preempt something from happening. You have to have data. You have to have the information you need to understand what you need to do to be proactive. It's like schools aren't set up to do that, it's always reactive.

Ponder's lab teams are putting freshmen attendance figures and grades under the microscope. At Robeson High, for example, the team told principal Gerald Morrow that 80-percent of his freshmen were cutting 9th period.

The lab teams are then supposed to figure out how the school can solve the problem before those at-risk students give up.

That's the first step. Then…

PONDER: There's also this concept of response to intervention.

School districts across the country are talking about this. Let's say a school intervenes--it lines up tutoring, procures bus cards, or brings in mental health services for example--it then follows up to see if the intervention worked.

In a dysfunctional high school that's got a history of producing drop outs, this kind of coordination rarely happens.

PONDER: So it makes sense, it's just a totally different way of thinking about the education enterprise.

The lab teams' success, and Ponder's, will be measured in part by how many freshmen they managed to keep on track to graduation. It's a calculation based on how many core subjects a kid fails.

At Robeson last year only 40-percent were on track. The problem is when students fall behind in 9th grade their chances of graduating begin to plummet.

Ambi: Restaurant noise.

About a year into the pilot project the lab teams gather at the Wishbone restaurant to have their bi-weekly debrief with Ponder.

It turns out it's also a surprise celebration.

LAB TEAMS: For she's a jolly good fellow that nobody can deny!

Ponder's just been promoted to run the district's Graduation Pathways department, which oversees all efforts to improve graduation.

PONDER: For a rockin' first quarter report and changing the world!

She's now also in charge of a whole slew of programs CPS has rolled out to try and help 9th graders transition successfully.

PONDER: I'm in different meetings now, it's just a different sense of responsibility. Before I was the rogue leader of this little troupe here. And now I'm on the hook for these outcomes. So I have moments of sheer panic!
 
Ponder turns back to her team gathered around the table who are sharing their war stories. Early in the school year Camillia Stewart who works at Phillips High School worries freshmen haven't even been scheduled for the right courses—they are missing world studies, a requirement.

STEWART: So like right now we're kind of confused about what the best freshman schedule should be so they can stay on track …Just because I've seen seniors at our school running around trying to take freshman courses, taking courses they should have had but were never scheduled for because of maybe poor counseling or they just didn't know.

The lab teams report other problems: tutoring programs don't match the curriculum, teachers don't work as a team to help students—and there aren't enough truancy officers to find all the kids who aren't in school.

Paige Ponder listens and questions and then she says something kind of surprising.

PONDER: You guys are like the embedded journalists with the troops. Maybe that's not the right metaphor but that works for me because everything needs to be documented.

She tells them to keep journals. Nothing is too small to write down. Ponder says this is not to finger point. It's to help schools streamline operations to better meet kids' needs.

PONDER: The principal at Phillips in talking about the lab project and the staff he said it's been like a light shined on things that were murky before. It's been like a magnifying glass that has really enabled us to see things that impact freshmen. And I was just like, I'm going to make a banner out of that.

By mid year, the teams went on a retreat to synthesize their findings. Attendence is still a huge problem. 56-percent of all freshmen in their schools missed at least 3 days during the first quarter alone.

Getting more students to graduate isn't going to happen if the schools can't keep them in class.

But the lab schools are also making some positive changes. Robeson reports half the at risk freshmen got home visits. Phillips teachers began meeting to get a 360 view of kids with behavioral problems. Kelvyn Park created a data base to show whether these sorts of interventions are actually improving student performance. All this is good for principals, says Ponder.

PONDER: The medium is the message. So instead of getting a bunch of bar charts and pie charts, etc, they're getting reports with kids' names on them, with the relevant information so they can really begin to segment kids who need different services and act on that.

At the mid-year point, the district gets a rough tally showing 78-percent of freshmen are on track to graduate city wide. Not great news.

PONDER: We know where we are as a district is just slightly higher now than where we were last year at this same time. We were hoping to see a huge jump.

But Ponder says the pilot schools' mid-year rate looks different--up roughly 10 percentage points. Some schools like Kelvyn Park show significantly more freshmen on track others like Robeson are flat.

PONDER: You know I kind of give myself a pep talk and I gave everybody else a pep talk.

Paige Ponder is well aware that the lab schools with the worst drop out rates, such as Robeson, have still lost a lot of freshmen. Just half way through the year 143 freshmen have already stopped showing up for school.

They are well on their way to joining the twelve-thousand Chicago public school students expected to drop out of school this year.

Paige Ponder is now sifting through her data and mulling over her next move. 

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