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At small neighborhood high schools like Bowen, course offerings are meager compared with the bounty of classes offered at selective schools.
From the Winter 2013 issue of Catalyst-Chicago The Achievement Gap

The sign taped on the door says “No Boys Allowed.” Inside the room, donuts and small, white Styrofoam cups of orange juice and water sit on a desk.

Several young women slowly walk in with a look of consternation on their faces. “It is critical down there,” says one.

“That is crazy,” says another.

Teacher Magen Kilcoyne, whose curly, sandy-colored hair is pulled back and who is dressed in black cargo pants and a black “Bowen Class of 2012” T-shirt, shakes her head as she plops down copies of author Nathan McCall’s book “Makes Me Wanna Holler” on everyone’s desk.

“The boys were at it again,” she says, with a quick roll of the eyes.

Earlier, during lunch, a massive food fight in the cafeteria turned into a brawl. Police were called in, and some students were carted off in two paddy wagons. Principal Jennifer Kirmes says it was Bowen’s worst day so far this year in terms of school climate.

Jasmine Bennett, one of the girls in Mrs. K’s girls-only book club, says she stood against the wall, terrified, as students climbed up on tables and jumped off onto other students’ heads.

Though a fight is disturbing any day, it is especially disappointing that it happened on a Wednesday, a day that Kirmes is trying to make special. On that day, students take a break from their regular classes and pick from special classes that include options like robotics, journalism, chorus, recycling and the book club run by Kilcoyne.

The new initiative gives students at Bowen at least some exposure to the kind of electives that more elite schools routinely offer. Wednesday is also a day during which students can make up credits or attend group therapy to help them cope with problems such as managing anger or trauma.

“Intervention and extension,” says Kirmes, describing the initiative. Though it’s new, students have responded, coming to school more regularly not only on Wednesdays but Thursdays as well.

Without the initiative, Bowen’s course offerings are bare-bones. Every class is one that will count toward graduation requirements.

Within Chicago Public Schools, high school course offerings vary drastically—from paltry, as at Bowen, to robust, as at Walter Payton on the Near North Side. The type and size of the school and the skill level of incoming students are factors that drive the disparity. Bowen is a neighborhood high school with just 522 students, most of them with lower-level skills.

The most drastic dissimilarities are between high schools in impoverished neighborhoods with dwindling populations and selective enrollment high schools in more middle-class communities.

Payton, a selective enrollment school, has a 27-page, full-color catalog of course offerings. In it, students can read descriptions of courses ranging from 20th Century Global Conflicts to Advanced Jazz Band to a physics class focused on electricity and magnetism.

Payton also offers an all- honors curriculum for freshmen and sophomores; in junior and senior year, students can move into Advanced Placement classes.

“The complexity of the texts is pretty significant,” says Principal Ted Devine. “They are college-level.”

Meanwhile, at Bowen, the course offerings are summed up on one page. Other than the special Wednesday classes, the electives are sparse, mostly reserved for seniors and straightforward, like creative writing.

Kirmes says the staff is “toying” with the idea of an honors program, but some teachers do not believe in tracking students. Until two years ago, Bowen was split into small schools, some offering honors tracks.

Most of Bowen’s incoming freshmen score a 12 (out of a possible 25) on the Explore, the standardized test that is the precursor to the ACT. The score puts Bowen among the bottom 10 in the district on this measure, with only eight other high schools posting worse scores.

“There are very few exceptions,” Kirmes says. “There will be maybe one 16.”

Bowen does offer several Advanced Placement classes, but teachers lament that students are not prepared for them.

During her regular history classes, Kilcoyne covers the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson and the fallacy of separate but equal schooling. She points out that so much of what she teaches is still relevant today.

Kilcoyne once brought a group of young women from Bowen to Payton for a tour. Not only did students seem to be learning entirely different, more rigorous content, but the school environment was the polar opposite of Bowen’s.

Payton was built in 2000 and has state-of-the-art equipment, while Bowen was built in 1910 and needs $38 million in repairs. Bowen’s disrepair is obvious, with broken ceiling tiles, old peeling paint and classrooms that are either too warm or too cold.

For the first time, Kilcoyne says, the young women realized how different one school can be from another. They were stunned.

“The conditions here are subpar,” Kilcoyne says. “This wouldn’t fly at Jones or Payton. It breaks my heart. It makes me want to cry.”

At smaller neighborhood schools like Bowen, programmers have an increasingly hard time offering a variety of classes. If students need remedial coursework, such as a double period of reading or math, it often fills the time they would otherwise spend on art, music or other electives. Many students don’t start working on their required language and art classes until junior year—too late for them to dive into these subjects if they discover a propensity for them.

CPS does not keep or review high school course catalogs on a centralized basis. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials have seemingly realized how inconsistent course offerings are and how neighborhood schools fall short. A push is on to level the playing field.

They designated five schools as STEM Early College schools, giving students an opportunity to go to accelerated math and science classes and eventually take community college classes. Also, Emanuel announced that he was expanding IB offerings. Five schools will become “wall-to-wall” IB schools, while five more will add separate IB programs.

The ultimate goal of the IB program is for students to earn a full-fledged IB diploma. CPS does not currently track how many students in existing IB programs earn the diplomas, according to a response from a Freedom of Information request.

Jasmine Bennett did not expect to attend Bowen. She planned to go to a private Catholic school. Then, her mother lost her job and couldn’t afford it. But like many students at even the worst schools, Jasmine tries hard and has carved out a niche for herself.

This school year, she started an initiative with her friends to encourage students to say five positive things to five teachers. The only rule is that the compliments must be truthful. “So you can’t tell them they look nice, if they don’t,” Jasmine says. “They react with a huge smile.”

Jasmine says she started the project because she imagines it is difficult to work at Bowen.

Now a junior, Jasmine has gotten serious about her studies. She spends about an hour every day doing homework, usually staying after school because once at home, she forgets what work she needs to do.

She and her two friends are clearly treated specially in the school. One Friday, two days after the big food fight, they bypass the cafeteria and instead head to the counselors’ offices to see if they can share the counselors’ stash of food.

No one has anything for them this day, so the young women are forced to go to the cafeteria. Because of the food fight, no hot food is being served. Instead, they get trays with apples, milk and packaged graham cracker-and-peanut butter sandwiches.

After the quick lunch, the girls escape the noisy cafeteria to go to the college coach’s office, where they hang out until their next class. Jasmine talks about college trips she made. Only seniors are supposed to be college ambassadors, but she is an honorary one.

Jasmine says she doesn’t think that she is missing anything academically by attending Bowen. Her teachers know better.

Thinking of one bright young man, Kilcoyne says she worries that he is not being challenged because of the lack of experience writing essays. Instead of a lot of writing, Kilcoyne focuses on discussions in her classes. “Everyone can express their opinion,” she explains.

Tonda Tyre, who teaches Bowen’s AP literature and language classes, also says she is constantly modifying her lessons to make them doable for students, even though AP wants teachers to stick to standard curricula.

By the time students take her AP classes, few are working at an advanced level. This school year, she says, teachers got together for the first time to talk about tackling the problem by aligning content from one grade to the next.

Kirmes told Tyre she could weed out some of the students who signed up for AP, but she didn’t want to do it. She asked the students if anyone wanted to leave and avoid the harder work. “None of them wanted to go,” Tyre says.

Still, not all of the students have stepped up to the challenge. Tyre says she constantly weighs expectations against reality. She models how assignments should be done and makes a big deal out of it whenever a student does something right.

One day, she asks students to turn in their vocabulary notebook, where they are expected to list new words they have come across and the definitions. Not one student takes a notebook out. After a quiz, several students start going through dictionaries, feverishly writing down words they don’t know.

Seeing this, Tyre sighs. She gives them until Monday to turn in the notebooks.


Jasmine B wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

Sarah, I like this!

Sarah, I like this!

Deanna Bennett wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

This artical

This artical is wonderful, I am really proud that it featured my daughter, Jasmine Bennett! As stated, it was a reality that we did not plan on, Jasmine attending Bowen, although it is a highschool that I attended.
She did want to go to other schools, but money problems and me being a single parent had played a huge part in this placement. I feel that Jasmine has not been as challenged as she should be, the school has wonderful teachers, who are tired of children who are against everything that would make and shape them for the real world.
But despite this I am proud of the wonderful person who despite her basic surroundings Jasmine will become. We as a team, her as the somewhat dutiful daughter and me as the challenging parent, will succeed in her growth and future.

Thank you for highlighting my daughter!!!
Deanna Bennett

Jasmine Bennett wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago


aweeee! STOP IT!!!!

Mike Klonsky wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

Bowen's problem isn't its size or the number of course offerings

This article is misleading. Bowen's dwindling population and lack of course offerings, isn't the cause, but rather the result of the vast inequities that have long existed between neighborhood high schools and selective enrollment schools like Payton and Jones.

Under the Daley administration when Paul Vallas was the CEO, Bowen was declared to be too large and was pushed, as part of the system's top-down reform, to restructure into smaller learning communities. Initially, as Catalyst itself has documented, Bowen began to make progress, only to fall victim to a new brand of "reform" -- this one aimed at testing, firing teachers and principals, and being surrounded with competing privately-run charter schools.

The result is exactly as you portray it -- dumbing down of curriculum, increased violence and chaos in the lives of the students.

To even compare Bowen with schools like Payton and Jones, which exclude all but the top-scoring students, is grossly unfair.

Sarah Karp should know better.

Don wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

Dumbing down the curriculum?

Capable students with a 12 EPAS aren't any more ready for high school than they will be ready for college in four years, considering the limited instructional hours offered by the CTU.
Too bad these students who want to be college ready didn't opt for Noble or Urban prep.
In addition, plenty of great students at top universities come out of small high school programs with limited class choice. Perhaps that's not the ideal situation, but lack of variety is hardly a primary educational problem facing the typical CPS high school student.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 47 weeks ago

Bowen is a victim to Brooks College Prep

Skim from the top and then not support the students you leave and the teachers you leave them with.

northside wrote 1 year 47 weeks ago


I am a ctu cps teacher..our kids are in school 8 to 9 hrs day. Exactly how long do you think any child can be in school and productive.

Don wrote 1 year 47 weeks ago


I think many older CPS student need a couple hundred more hours each year (total) in core academics. That would prepare more graduates for a post secondary education that doesn't begin with remedial courses.

Schools like Noble and Urban Prep work because everyone in those buildings does more work. Significant improvement is unlikely to come from anyplace other than more instruction in a school structure that supports that goal.

The CTU is very fortunate that many tier 1 and 2 parents simply don't understand how lack of adequate instructional hours limits their children's future.

lforte wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

Missing the point of our story

We appreciate the feedback on our stories--the point of which is not to "compare" Bowen to Jones and Payton in terms of outcomes, but in terms of resources. Part of the disparity is, in fact, due to size--bigger neighborhood schools do get more resources and course offerings. And yes, part of it is due to other factors as Mike Klonsky pointed out.

lforte wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

Missing the point...

We appreciate the feedback on our stories--the point of which is not to "compare" Bowen to Jones and Payton but to point out the disparity in opportunities offered by neighborhood vs selective schools. Part of the disparity is, in fact, due to size--bigger neighborhood schools do get more resources and course offerings. And yes, part of it is due to other factors as Mike Klonsky pointed out.

Mary wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

Charter Schools

Tell the truth -schools like Noble and Urban Prep are successful because they are able to select their students. They are not forced to take everyone who applies for enrollment or lives in their attendance area. And what happens when a student is not successful at a charter school? Well then, they are sent back to their neighborhood schools. It's easy to be successful when you can get rid of anyone who doesn't want to comply with your rules and expectations. Neighborhood schools accept and educate all students.

Don wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

No, it's not easy

What's easy about teaching four double sessions four days a week? What's easy about being a student with suddenly greatly increased workload and behavioral expectations?

Noble and Urban Prep students get about twice the growth because they do about twice the work. There's no equivalent to that pace in regular CTU HS, including honors track. Many students in Noble and Urban Prep would not have been placed in an honors track if they had attended their neighborhood school.

The CTU has decided it doesn't want to do college prep for most HS students unless they were previously fixed by an army of social workers. They shouldn't choose to minimize instructional hours and then complain when others step in to fill the void.

Manny Rooks wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

In my opinion we need more

In my opinion we need more teachers like Ms. Kilcoyne! Teachers that stand up in the face of adversity to show the students that teachers aren't just there for extrinsic influences and genuinely want the kids to learn and become better citizens in a society already impacted by drugs and violence. Ms. K I applaud your efforts thanks for being a hero and role model for the younger generation of women to look up to and see that there is a silver lining that if you want to learn more just pick up a book!!!!!!!

Jasmine Bennett wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

True to Above.

That's true...Teachers should be more like ms K!! I love ms K! :] I look up to her, and she IS an excellant role model. Shes funny, nice, and CRAZY!!

Anonymous wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

Don, did you miss the memo?

Not sure where Don is getting his information, but CPS high schools do have a longer day. The Urban Prep bell schedule for classes runs seven and a half hours which is same amout of time as the new CPS high school longer day. In addition, it has been well-documented that even with the large percentage of students culled out between freshman and senior years, Urban Prep (Englewood) still has only an average ACT score of 15 and has never come off level 3 probationary status. I am a fan of all-boys, all-girls school choices, but exaggerating the facts isn't all that helpful.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

I like to make up stuff too.

Did you know that Urban Prep has magical unicorns teach extra after school sessions and there is absolutely no bullying at the school. It's true because it's true. Unicorns!!

Don wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

Thar be Unicorns

2009 EXPLORE to 2012 ACT (Growth)

1 NORTHSIDE PREP HS 7.2 (22.4 to 29.6)
2 NOBLE ST CHTR-PRITZKER 6.7 (14.7 to 21.4)
3 NOBLE ST CHTR-CHGO BULLS 6.4 (14.4 to 20.8)
3 NOBLE ST CHTR-UIC 6.4 (15.5 to 21.9)
3 PAYTON HS 6.4 (21.4 to 27.8)
6 NOBLE ST CHTR-RAUNER 6.3 (14.7 to 21.0)
7 YOUNG HS 5.9 (21.1 to 27.0)
8 NOBLE ST CHTR-ROWE CLARK 5.7 (14.0 to 19.7)
9 NOBLE ST CHTR-MUCHIN 5.6 (15.2 to 20.8)
9 NOBLE ST CHTR-GOLDER 5.6 (14.5 to 20.1)
11 JONES HS 5.4 (19.7 to 25.1)
12 NOBLE ST CHTR-COMER 5.2 (14.1 to 19.3)
12 NOBLE ST CHTR-NOBLE 5.2 (14.8 to 20.0)
14 URBAN PREP CHTR - WEST 5.0 (12.7 to 17.7)
15 CHGO ACAD HS 4.8 (14.5 to 19.3)
16 LANE HS 4.7 (19.2 to 23.9)
17 CHGO MATH & SCI ACAD CAMPUS HS 4.5 (13.7 to 18.2)
18 LINCOLN PARK HS 4.4 (17.9 to 22.3)
19 VON STEUBEN HS 4.2 (16.0 to 20.2)
20 LINDBLOM HS 4.1 (18.0 to 22.1)

and also the impressive #27 Simpson 3.7 (11.3 to 15.0)

Anonymous wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago


While growth scores are interesting, I'm not sure what those numbers have to do with Urban Prep and CPS high schools having the same number of instructional hours, or with Urban Prep (Englewood) having a 15 average ACT score.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago

when you slice it an dice it

all these high schools end and start at about the same place with the exception of the Young, Lane Tech, Northside.....I thought Noble was the Miracle network????

Don wrote 1 year 45 weeks ago


Urban Prep Englewood: I show an 2012 ACT of 16.4 with a growth of 4. Last I heard they had an 8.5 hour day. As comandante Lewis "kindly" pointed out, a 9th grade EPAS of 12 is not a great starting point for a future college student. But it is what it is. And Lewis probably momentarily forgot that those U.P. young men had been CTU students for the previous nine years.

Noble has 75 minute sessions in Math, English, and Science each day, with a half day on Friday. They also stay after school each day if their homework isn't marked as complete. Noble has 10%+ of CPS high school students. I think it is very cool that so many CPS students will tolerate the heavy workload and the high behavioral expectations.

The increased instructional hours plus a longer school year is apparently much of what it takes to bring many CPS HS students up to the national average. That change is not going to happen within the constraints of the CTU contract.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 44 weeks ago

Don, are you even a teacher?

Don, are you even a teacher? Based on your comments, I have strong reason to believe that you are not. Additionally, I am curious about your score comparisons. When provided with and Explore score, students are to add 6 points to predict their ACT. So, to compare an Explore score (without the adjustment) to an ACT is an unfair comparison.

Additionally, I can go to a gym for 2 hours, talk for an hour while I am there, run on the treadmill at a 3.5 for 30 minutes, and do 6 reps. I can also go to the gym for 45 minutes, run on the treadmill for the same amount of time at 6.5, do 30 reps, and get in sit-ups. My point is- more time doesn't mean more learning, it just means more time. Furthermore, Noble doesn't have the same rules and protocols as a CPS school. I know people in the recruitment office at Noble- and what they do to promote and push requires money, time, and other resources that aren't realistically possible for most CPS schools. Get your head out of the sand.

Don wrote 1 year 44 weeks ago

"Students are to add six points"

No idea what that means. We can look at the average growth per Chicago high school. It ain't six points, except at the highest growth schools. In Chicago that's the top SE schools and Noble.

Noble and all Chicago charters receive less per student funding than CPS schools. I'm sure that Nobles does spend more than CPS schools on both staff and student recruiting. In particular they seem to spend money traveling to recruit minority teachers. They also have to spend money recruiting new students, as all new charters would be empty without promoting their schools.

The whole idea behind charters as good public policy is to look for real improvement in student outcomes by doing things differently. There's enough experience now to have a pretty good idea of what works, and what charter efforts will ultimately end up not improving on the traditional neighborhood school (with it's school day and year based on the labor needs of the family farm).

Anonymous wrote 1 year 44 weeks ago

Six Points

Well, Don, adding six point to the Explore score means exactly that- adding six points. So, if a student gets a 12 on the Explore, their projected ACT is an 18 (12+6=18).

You're right, as well, that charter schools can do things differently, such as charging students monetary amounts for disciplinary infractions.

If you're not a teacher and not in the school system, don't comment. You have NO IDEA what you're talking about and what with what teachers are dealing.

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