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How one school is rising above gang activity to find college success

Dogged by decades of low performance and gang violence, a Chicago high school reinvents itself with skills-based learning – and a motivated principal. Part 2 of 3. 

Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
Benito Juarez Community Academy serves 1,800 students in Chicago's lower West Side neighborhood.

At Benito Juarez Community Academy, students begin each day by scanning their ID cards, sliding their backpacks through an X-ray machine, and walking through an airport-security-style metal detector.

In a city that recorded 762 murders in 2016, the most in the nation, security measures like these were authorized years ago for every public high school. At Juarez, they reinforce a long-held reputation for gang violence at the school and in its predominantly Latino, Lower West Side neighborhood.

Yet, inside the building, a new vision for the education of low-income students of color has taken root. It’s built around a skills-based model that prioritizes student mastery, extensive community outreach, and a culture that views college enrollment as an expectation. The results have been dramatic.

Since 2013, when the Chicago school switched to its skills-based curriculum, Juarez has seen gains in graduation rates and college acceptance that seemed unlikely for a school that had been on academic probation since 1996. Today, Juarez is ranked 49th out of 658 Illinois public high schools based on test scores and college readiness. And it’s made these gains without the wholesale turnover in staff that often characterizes school turnaround efforts.

“Juarez is now a destination school,” says principal Juan Ocón. Against citywide declines in public school enrollment, Mr. Ocón notes that Juarez has seen enrollment gains in each of the past four years and is now serving more than 1,800 students in a facility built for 1,500.

Still, reputations are hard to shake.

Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
At Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, 84 percent of students graduate on time and 52 percent of the graduates now go to college, an 11-point increase from 2012, according to data provided by Chicago Public Schools.

“A lot of people judged me,” says senior Lexus Resendiz, “because I chose to come here instead of a selective school. They said there’s a lot of gang activity, and the academic programs are not that strong.”

For fellow senior Raoul Sandoval, similar warnings came from family members who lived and worked in the school’s Lower West Side, Pilsen neighborhood. Knowing that he had always excelled academically, they urged him to apply for a scholarship to a private school instead.

Both students, on track to be the first in their households to attend college, insist that those stereotypes are outdated. “My freshman year was academically challenging,” says Mr. Sandoval. “That’s when I knew I had chosen the right school.”

A principal's vision

The impetus for the change at Juarez can be traced to Ocón’s appointment as principal in 2008, veteran school staffers say. At that time, more than 80 percent of students were failing to meet state proficiency standards, and the school was graduating fewer than half of its students. Ocón, who had been at the school since 2005 as the assistant principal, became convinced that the source of the dismal performance numbers was not the kids but a curriculum that was simply not working to their benefit.

Ocón describes lesson plans that were based around presenting content and then giving quizzes and tests at predetermined intervals. Ocón looked for an alternative approach.

“This is an issue of equity,” he says. “All the traditional method does is sort students. It does not work for black and brown students. Our students have immense talent but this system handicaps them.”

Instead, he proposed a radical change: moving the entire school to a standards-based grading model that emphasized skill acquisition over rote memorization tested at rigid intervals. At Juarez there are no Ds or Fs. And no deadlines. Students progress through a related series of tasks, each meant to develop a discrete skill. If a student fails to demonstrate mastery of a given skill, they are provided with additional resources and time.

Providing time to achieve

Juarez has extended its school calendar into August for students who require additional opportunities to prove their proficiency. The expectation is that every kid can master the skills — and when that mastery occurs is of much less importance. Advocates of this approach say it has the potential to redefine what education means. 

“Do you want grades to be about whether a kid turns in their homework?” asks Sarah Duncan, co-director of the Network for College Success, an education nonprofit based at the University of Chicago, “Or do you care about them mastering the skill?”

Critics of the traditional teaching model of presenting information and then giving a test point to the lack of actionable information offered by a single cumulative grade. In a history class, for example, imagine two students taking a test based on a chapter reading on the Vietnam War. Both get a D, implying a similar lack of understanding. Yet one student may have limited geography skills, and the other student may have limited literacy skills. In a standards-based grading curriculum, abilities in each subject would be assessed individually.

At Juarez, this skills-first approach is giving students greater flexibility. Courses are year-long and calendar-driven midterm and final exams are jettisoned in favor of ongoing assessments. These un-graded evaluations occur regularly so that students and teachers can make adjustments as necessary to ensure mastery.

Ocón is quick to point out that fundamental changes like this don’t happen overnight. “It took us two years,” he says, “before we could implement a single element of standards-based grading. As a staff we had to go through complicated, emotional conversations that drained us. But at the heart of it was an agreement that what we had been doing for the last 20 years was not working.”

The school did not sacrifice academic rigor, Ocón explains. He and his department leaders analyzed state requirements and national standards, such as the Common Core, to extract the underlying skills they required and then put together a roadmap for mastery. The game-changer, Ocón says, was “We first defined the skills and then wrapped the content around them.”

Buy-in among teachers was crucial because they were being asked to leave behind techniques honed through years of practice for something completely new. It was a trade-off that veteran Juarez teachers say was worth it. “The difference in the school between 2008 and now is night and day,” says Mary Norris, a chemistry teacher who’s been at the school for 18 years.

Closing the gap

At Juarez, 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a common measure of poverty. Eighty-four percent of Juarez’s students graduate on time and 52 percent of the graduates now go to college, an 11-point increase from 2012, according to data provided by Chicago Public Schools. 

As a neighborhood school, Juarez enrolls any student living within its zoned boundary. Students can choose among 16 Advanced Placement classes and opt for a dual-enrollment program in which juniors and seniors earn high school and college credits simultaneously. The school also offers a four-year International Baccalaureate program for qualified students ready to tackle a more ambitious workload. That was the appeal for senior Elizabeth Lopez, who grew up in Pilsen and was accepted to a selective high school but chose to stay in the community that raised her.

Ms. Lopez said she has benefitted not only from the academic rigor at Juarez but also its embrace of her Mexican-American culture and its strong ties to the community. “I’ve seen the impact Juarez has on Pilsen,” she said, noting the school’s partnerships with local arts organizations offering free classes to residents. “Juarez has shaped me. I want to go to law school so I can advocate for immigration rights, and if I had gone to another school I might not be saying that.”

Part of what makes Juarez unique is its holistic approach, says Ms. Duncan. Adopting standards-based grading was important, she acknowledges, but so is the school’s strong commitment to the community. “There’s parents all over that building all of the time. Juarez treats them as assets, not liabilities, working against the narrative we have in this country that poor people don’t care about their kids’ education.”

More work to be done  

Despite the school’s successes, Ocón knows there is much more work to be done. The school’s newfound desirability means stretching finite resources even further. “We are bursting at the seams,” Ocón acknowledges. “It’s a complication that pushes us to think differently about how we do school. Rather than crying foul, I want to use it as an opportunity to bring about systemic change.” 

More of that change is underway. Juarez is one of six Chicago high schools selected to develop a school-wide competency-based learning curriculum as part of an Illinois pilot program. The goal is to establish a new set of graduation requirements for students based on academic mastery rather than credit hours.

Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
Chemistry teacher Mary Norris has seen a dramatic turnaround in academics and culture at the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago over the last nine years.

A competency-based curriculum builds on what Juarez has already done, says Matt Townsley, director of Instruction and Technology in Iowa’s Solon school district. It allows students who have already mastered skills to move on at a faster pace, rather than trudge through content at the same rate as the rest of the class, he says. 

Ocón says that the progress at Juarez is replicable at schools facing similar challenges. But he stresses that radical change requires a school-wide commitment. “For 20 years we heard that this was a gang school, that it’s violent,” he says. “The only way to rewrite that narrative is with a grass-roots approach that has buy-in from the teachers. And you have to make the change, not with one or two departments, but with the entire school.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

Part 1: Rural schools unite to make college the rule, rather than the exception

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