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What’s Working: In Chicago, Smart Use of Data Works to Get More Young People ‘To&Through’ College

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

When Gregory Jones took over in 2012 as principal of Kenwood Academy, an 1800-student high school on Chicago’s south side, its students were completing high school at a higher rate than the citywide average—yet almost a third of them were failing to graduate.

Jones and his colleagues weren’t satisfied. They wanted to improve attendance, boost high school graduation rates, and increase the number of students going to and succeeding in college—with a little help from a network of education researchers at the University of Chicago.

The center of that effort, the To&Through Project, is a coalition of organizations dedicated to changing the unacceptable status quo reflected by this statistic: In Chicago, 76 percent of high school freshmen would like to earn a college degree but only 18 percent are now projected to do so.

‘The Most Precarious Transition in a Student’s Life’

The To&Through Project has its roots in a critical insight that first emerged in the late 1990s. Researchers at the university’s Consortium on School Research discovered that the best predictor of whether 9th grade students would graduate from high school wasn’t their scores on standardized tests. Nor was it their race or socioeconomic status.

What mattered most, researchers found, was being “on track” at the end of freshman year—meaning students were passing their classes and had enough credits to be promoted.

Freshman data
Photo taken from To&Through website. Find more graphics like this one to share here.

“The transition from 8th grade to 9th is one of the most precarious transitions in a student’s life,” said Alex Seeskin, director of the To&Through Project and chief strategy officer of the university’s Urban Education Institute. As they go from small middle schools with lots of support to large high schools with few close adult relationships, “students’ identities can take a hit, their grades and attendance can drop,” he said.

The Consortium collaborated with school district administrators to provide data and analysis to school officials on the performance of their 9th graders. But no one really knew what to do with the data, and nothing much changed. That realization led to the creation of another group, the Network for College Success, in 2006, in an effort to apply the data within schools.

To Achieve Real Progress, ‘Focus on the Data that Matters Most’

The idea of the Network is that change and progress in schools requires more than reliable, relevant data; it also needs active participation from people putting the data to use. The Network brings principals, counselors, data strategists and teachers from 17 Chicago high schools together once a month for several hours to examine new research, dig into data, and trade ideas and suggestions.

“The Network,” says Co-Director Sarah Duncan, “is about practice. If one school is doing better, we ask: How are they achieving improved outcomes?”

What does it really take to get on the path to college success? Read 5 Myths about What it Takes to Make it To and Through College to find out.

The school professionals meet mostly in their own groups — principals with principals, counselors with counselors. Other groups focus on literacy programs for students learning English and strategies to improve equity and reduce racial disparities. It's a radical approach from traditional practice.

“Working in teams, looking at data, working collaboratively to improve—that’s not what educators are trained to do,” Duncan says. “Teaching was thought of as a clinical skill. You learned it and did it more or less on your own.”

Insights developed by these groups get fed back to researchers, enabling them to target their data-collection efforts. “Educators are flooded with data,” Duncan says. “The question is how to focus on the data that matters the most.”

Emerging Insights: The Importance of 9th Grade Success

One insight that emerged is that students’ performance in classes is more important than their scores on standardized tests in predicting future success. That means “teaching to the test” is a misplaced priority that diverts educators’ attention from more important work.

Another lesson was a deeper understanding about the importance of 9th-graders doing well — and the need to deploy every possible resource to help them succeed.

“The more classes a freshman fails, the less likely he is to graduate,” Duncan said. “It’s a myth that if a student fails a class, they’ll get the message and start working harder. Most 14-year-olds, when they get a failing grade, start to work less hard and withdraw. And that starts a downward spiral.”

Kenwood Academy
Kenwood Academy (pictured) has raised the graduation rate from 69 percent to 84.6 percent and the college-enrollment rate to 82 percent in the past five years. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

A focus on freshmen requires changing the way things are done. “When we started this work, a lot of the best teachers were teaching seniors,” Duncan says. “But research supports putting your most engaging teachers in freshmen classes. That’s where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck.”

Helping students avoid failure also emerged as a critical priority. That means that if a student turns in a poor paper, teachers should coach the student and let them revise it instead of insisting that they will get the grade they deserve, Duncan says. This may require teachers to work smarter, not just harder, by giving fewer writing assignments and spending more time helping students with each one.

Only Half the Battle

At Kenwood Academy, Jones and his team keep learning and adjusting. Over the past five years, they’ve pushed the graduation rate from 69 percent to 84.6 percent and the college-enrollment rate to 82 percent. But they also realize that getting students to college is only half the battle—they also need to make sure students are in the right college for them and are as prepared as possible.

Today, a school committee composed of counselors, teachers, and college coaches reviews the grades of every student entering senior year to figure out what support they need. Students with GPAs in the C range get extra attention and academic support if they need it. Parent involvement is enlisted, but if it’s not available, Jones and his staff work to fill the gap.

Coaches at Kenwood help students identify colleges that would be a good match academically, help fill in applications for loans and scholarships, and accompany students on college tours to local schools and those as far away as New York or California.

The To&Through Project acts as a clearinghouse, providing data on its website for all of Chicago’s public high schools on five key milestones: the rates of freshmen on-track, high school graduation, college enrollment, college persistence, and college graduation. Members of the To&Through network also work with community groups around the city.

UChiToThrough_Data-Insights
Photo taken from To&Through website. Find more graphics like this one to share here.

Jessica Cañas, a college pipeline specialist for Enlace, a community organization in the Little Village neighborhood, has become deeply familiar with the data provided by To&Through. The community of 80,000 residents on Chicago’s west side is home to one of the largest populations of Mexican immigrants in the Midwest. It’s also a place where only 24 percent of residents have high school diplomas and only 10 percent have been to college.

Since starting her job a year ago, Cañas has spent lots of time on the To&Through website, downloading data reports on the six high schools in Little Village. One thing she learned was that while the high school graduation rate for Little Village students has increased significantly in recent years and is now over 77 percent, college enrollment for these students hasn’t been rising in tandem.

Cañas uses this information as she works with parents, teachers, and community leaders to formulate a strategic plan aimed at helping more Little Village students go to college. One of her allies is Julia Vegas, a mother of three and emerging activist.

Vegas was disappointed when her 19-year-old son recently decided to drop out of community college to work and earn money, but says she’ll continue to encourage him. She’s also become more assertive in pushing other parents to encourage their kids to go to college and to find out about financial and other resources that might help them.

Vegas is president of the parents council at the Head Start program, where her daughter goes to pre-school and reminds parents every month to talk to their young children about going to college in the future.

“I tell them to start planting in their kid’s minds the idea that they are going to college,” she says.

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The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.