Honors Students Also Struggle at Robeson High | WBEZ
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Honors Students Also Struggle at Robeson High

Most of the incoming freshman at Robeson High School in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood read below grade level. So resources are directed toward those struggling students, and less attention is given to the motivated ones like freshman Sarah Vance. These honors students get high grades but the curriculum doesn't adequately prepare them for college. Some do make it but others either get discouraged or are doomed for failure.

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MIAH: I had a young lady that went to Howard one summer. And she called me back boo-hooing and saying she was the dumbest thing up there. And she was number three in the class.

At the beginning of the school year, Sarah said she wanted to be a hairstylist. It made sense; she loves to do her hair. These days Sarah says she wants to be…

SARAH: A doctor.

Sarah talks about school with delight one day at home after school. Her biology class recently found the DNA of a strawberry.

SARAH: We smushed it up in the plastic bag and then we added hand sanitizer, alcohol and water to it. And we had to make the juice go into this test tube.

Then she stirred the mixture.

SARAH: You know how you make cotton candy, you put it on a stick. That's how we found the DNA.

Sarah has great school attendance and does her homework without carrot-like incentives from teachers or parents. Sarah's GPA is a 3.5 and she's ranked 13th in her class. She wants to go to college and would be the first in her family to do so. But Robeson isn't a college-prep school. The average ACT score is 14 out of 36 – a score too low for most colleges.

Robeson senior counselor Bonnie Miah admits the school's curriculum is not college ready.

MIAH: And they get to college and it's like a deer in a headlight. And I tell them all the time that Robeson has not prepared you for this step.

Take Sarah's English class for example.

Ms. Ring is talking through the book Hole in My Life.

This is honors English, a single period. Regular English is a double period. Robeson schedules that way because so many of the entering freshmen are below grade level and they need the extra time and support, whereas some other high school classes give advanced work in honors.

So in essence, Sarah's so-called honors English sounds like a regular class.

MOORE: But is that really honors?
SHERLEY: That's honors for here.

Pamela Sherley is an assistant principal at Robeson. She says students' eighth grade scores on the Explore standardized test are below district average. An Explore score of 17 means you're on the path to college readiness. Sarah received an 11. Based on that college predictor, she has less than a one percent chance of getting a 20 on the ACT – a score that gives CPS graduates a chance of getting into state universities.

SHERLEY: But again, you have to look at where the students come in. If you've students coming in on a 15 level, no our honors isn't going to look the same as the honors at another school. But however it's still rigorous for those students at the level they're at right now.

Chicago Public Schools nudged Robeson to adopt a curriculum known as IDS. Introduced to freshmen this year, IDS is supposed to help underperforming schools by giving teachers more coaching and professional development. IDS requires student assessments every few weeks with the goal of raising standardized test scores.

Research shows that teachers tend to like IDS after the first year of implementation. But the scripted curriculum is a cause for consternation among some Robeson teachers.

Ms. C uses IDS in Sarah's honors Algebra class, a single period.

Ms. C: I think it's backwards. It asks you to solve but it doesn't tell you how to solve. And it doesn't teach you how to solve. Asking you in chapter 9. But you don't learn to solve until chapter 14.

No one knows if IDS will be a success at Robeson yet. Sarah gets As and Bs in her honors classes but her low test scores are glaring.

Dave Johnson is a researcher with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. He doesn't know Sarah personally but has a theory.

JOHNSON: It sounds as though she has fairly high soft skills. So researchers often talk about soft skills as being things like motivation, stick to-itive-ness and determination about what you're setting out to accomplish and stick to the goals you're setting for yourself.

Sarah is very determined. She's getting an "A" in Spanish – a class most freshmen at Robeson don't even take.

Her teacher Ms. Arce says Sarah is always prepared when she comes to class.

ARCE: She's very critical on herself. When she gets something wrong that she's not happy with, she'll kind of stop smiling, put her head down a little bit. Or she'll have a frustrated look on her face.

It's Friday night at Sarah's house. Her aunt is frying chicken and peeling potatoes. A nephew is running from room to room. We talk about what her teacher said. Sarah bristles at the idea that she's hard on herself and competitive as Ms. Arce suggested.

MOORE: Do you try to do better than everybody else?
MOORE: Well, how do you see yourself?
SARAH: Normal
MOORE: Do you work harder than your other classmates?
SARAH: Nah. I work hard but I'm ain't competitive.

Sarah may work hard but like many smart Robeson students she could end up with a high grade point average and a low ACT score.

That's a common problem that ends up in the lap of senior counselor Bonnie Miah.

"Mama Miah" is her nickname around Robeson. She helps seniors pick the right colleges based on their skills.

MIAH: I don't pull any punches with them. I don't want to set them up for failure.

Miah says she's had luck with small historically black colleges, known for their nurturing. The principal says the number of students going to college is up. Last year about 40 students enrolled at Kennedy-King College, a city college in the Englewood neighborhood.

MIAH: And I tell them all the time that just because you got a 3.8 or 4 point-this one, when you get to college, that's a Robeson 4 point something. And I've had the honor of getting a lot kids into the summer quest bridge program their junior year. And they call back crying. I had a young lady that went to Howard one summer. And she called me back boo-hooing and saying she was the dumbest thing up there. And she was number three in the class.

Miah is keeping track of the class of 2004. Seventeen went to college. Only four have graduated.

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