As CPS prepares to close a record number of schools, the fate of students and communities is in question.
'Look, I'm in 10th grade' Two roads to sophomore standing
Loretta blossomed at Transition C
Loretta Smith, 16, arrived at Transition Center C as "a child who had been in school." Three semesters later, she left as a student.
Initially, "she had no idea how to sit down and do work. She'd walk in the door without a pencil and paper," says Zezella Edwards-Davis, Loretta's math teacher in Transition C.
Like many transition students, Loretta also was a bit hostile, says Davis. "They are angry they are here. They're all asking the same question, 'Why me?'"
It quickly became apparent, though, that Loretta wanted to work, she continues. "By the time she left, she was much more focused on her school work."
She also was editor of the school newspaper, and had won a trophy for her writing. In January, she entered Tilden High School with enough credits to bring her within a semester of her old elementary school classmates.
Loretta came to the transition center with deficiencies in both math and reading. She concedes she didn't always try hard at Alexander Graham Elementary School, but she says she's not entirely to blame for her lack of progress. "The teachers were part of that too," she says. "They didn't go over stuff."
Loretta credits transition teachers with much of her subsequent success. "They treated us like they really cared about us," she says.
They were happy when she raised her reading score at the end of the first year and distressed when she again fell short in math. "The teachers were mad," says Loretta. "They said, 'Loretta, you are so smart. What happened?'"
Part of what happened, says Davis, is that Loretta had to make up lost ground. Early on, Davis found that Loretta didn't know her multiplication tables, a shortcoming shared by many students at the center. Davis gave Loretta a practice chart to take home and included basic multiplication on practice tests that she made for Loretta's class.
Loretta is proud of her progress in math. She got an F at Graham, but a C the first quarter this year. By semester's end, she had raised the C to a B. "She was very happy," Davis says. "She said, 'I never thought I could get a B in math.'"
Loretta's other grades also were higher at the center: A's, B's, and C's instead of the D's and F's she got at Graham.
Another major accomplishment is that she shook her test jitters. Davis helped, giving Loretta and other students test-taking strategies and many timed practice tests. The teacher notes that many students don't have a good concept of time, but that that improves with practice.
When Loretta finally surpassed the School Board's math-score requirement in January, she did it with flying colors, getting an 8.6. At the beginning of the year, she scored at about 6.5.
Davis remembers the day Loretta received her high school transfer slip. "She came running upstairs. She said, 'Look, Mrs. Davis, look—I'm in 10th grade!'"
After a month at Tilden, Loretta is full of resolve. Transition teachers had warned her she wouldn't get as much individualized attention, and that she would have to work hard.
"They weren't telling stories," Loretta says, shaking her head solemnly. "But I'm going to do my best."
Ironically, she's getting a break from math because Tilden couldn't program her into first-semester algebra.
Jorge says he had to learn on his own
As Jorge Martinez, 16, begins to talk about high school, his face takes on a look of relief. "I made it here, and I'm happy now."
Jorge enrolled in Steinmetz High School last fall, following a year at Transition Center B.
Jorge has little good to say about his transition center experience. "It was crowded," he recalls, saying that his classes had as many as 35 students and sometimes met in cramped spaces. "One class, it was in a room like this." He is referring to an office that has space for no more than a table and fifteen chairs.
Further, he continues, "There was too much fighting." With nearly daily fights and insufficient security, teachers had to devote too much time to discipline, he says. "My mom was worried because she thought I was going to get in a fight soon," says Jorge. "I told her, 'I hardly hang around with them. I stay away from them.'"
Phillip Perry, the new director at Transition B, says he cannot comment on the frequency of fights before he arrived but that he has made discipline a top priority. For example, he hired a disciplinarian and requires parents to come for a conference if their child is suspended. He adds that he attends to student behavior himself. "I don't just hang around the office and let other people take care of those types of things. I'm out in the hall getting students to their classes."
As for overcrowding, Perry says the average number of students in each class last year was 20, and that classrooms were large enough for 20 students.
While Jorge finds fault with the center, he says the main problem was the students. "In transition, kids didn't even care about the materials," he says. "They take it as a joke, they don't care about teachers, they fight. It didn't matter to them."
"I hardly didn't learn anything there," he concludes. "I read newspapers and books in my home and asked myself questions. My sister helped me."
Jorge entered the Transition B with scores of 5.6 in reading and 6.4 in math. He says he didn't work fast enough on the tests. After a year at the center, he posted scores of 7.0 in reading and 8.4 in math.
By the end of his second semester there, he had earned 31/2 high school credits, one each in Algebra, English and World Studies, and a half credit in Gym. Then, in summer school last year, he earned 2 credits in Earth Science and Art. As a result, he entered regular high school with sophomore standing.
Victor Vant, assistant principal at Steinmetz, says transition center students have arrived with a variety of courses and credits and that the school can accommodate all of them. "If you look at students today, the majority of them have fragmented classes," he says. For example, a student who arrives in September with half a credit in Algebra can take an elective the first semester and then drop it midyear to pick up the other half credit in Algebra.
Jorge says he has adapted easily to high school. He passed all his courses last semester but got lower grades than he did in the transition center: B's, C's, and D's instead of A's, B's, and C's. He says Biology is harder than Earth Science was but U.S. History is easier than World Studies, which he says is the class where he learned the most in the transition center.
Tanna Mattingly, Jorge's English and advisory teacher, is pleased with his consistency. "Jorge is very serious about his work," she says. "He never misses an assignment, and he always comes to school." When she pulls out her grade book, it is clear that Jorge turns in his work regularly.
Jorge also has participated in the Recovery Program at Steinmetz, a board-funded tutoring program conducted before and after school. According to Vant, participation in the program has been strong at Steinmetz.
Jorge says that he's fared well socially, too, because he's in the company not only of students from Transition B but also of students from his old elementary school, Mary Lyon. Steinmetz did not put all its transition students into one advisory, which Jorge says has given him the opportunity to make new friends.
Vant says that not all transition students have adjusted as smoothly as Jorge has, but he points out that high school is an adjustment for everyone.
He adds that he and Principal Constantine Kiamos also speak of transition centers in a positive light. "We tell them, 'Even though you went to Transition B, you overcame that hurdle, and in many ways you are stronger than students who didn't go. If you see trouble again, you know you've overcome it before.'"
Indeed, while Jorge is glad the transition center is behind him, the experience left him with a sense of accomplishment. Now he's looking ahead. "This is my goal," he says. "I'll finish high school, and then I'll go to college."