Turning around struggling high schools is the toughest work in education reform. Research found that a $3.5 billion federal program meant to fix the nation’s lowest-performing schools — which focused disproportionately on high schools — did little to improve student achievement. In this ongoing series, The Hechinger Report is visiting high schools that have beaten the long odds to learn what’s behind their success.
CHICAGO, IL — 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, Southwest 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 rather than a long shot. The results have been dramatic.
Since 2013, when the 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,” said principal Juan Ocon. Against citywide declines in public school enrollment, Ocon 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.
“A lot of people judged me,” said 17-year-old 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 Southwest 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,” said Sandoval. “That’s when I knew I had chosen the right school.”
The impetus for the change at Juarez can be traced to Ocon’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 less than half of its students. Ocon, who had been at the school since 2005, became convinced that the source of the dismal performance numbers was not the kids but a hidebound curriculum that was simply not working to their benefit.
Ocon describes lesson plans that were based around presenting content and then giving quizzes and tests at predetermined intervals. A student who got an A was assumed to have learned something. A student who failed came away with little understanding of how to improve. Ocon looked for an alternative approach. “This is an issue of equity,” he said. “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.”
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Ocon 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. 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?” asked Sarah Duncan, co-director of Network for College Success, a Chicago-based education nonprofit, “Or do you care about them mastering the skill?”
Critics of the traditional teaching model of presenting information and then giving a test to determine how much of it a student retains 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 is not making connections between events in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The other student may have limited literacy skills, allowing key elements of the text to slip by.
In a standards-based grading curriculum, geography and literacy — the two skills necessary to absorb the content — would be assessed individually, thus offering each student a clear understanding of what they need to improve while providing their teacher with the feedback needed to facilitate that improvement.
At Juarez, this skills-first approach is characterized by giving students greater flexibility. “We don’t have deadlines,” said Ocon. “What we do is give our students multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency of specific skills. We call them ‘benchmarks’.” To accomplish this, courses are year-long instead of being divided into semesters. 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 that mastery of a benchmark is achieved for every student.
Ocon is quick to point out that fundamental changes like this don’t happen overnight. “It took us two years,” he said, “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.”
Ocon stresses that the school did not sacrifice academic rigor. He and his department leaders analyzed state requirements and national standards like the Common Core to extract the underlying skills they required and then put together a roadmap for students to achieve mastery. The game-changer, Ocon said, 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,” said Mary Norris, a chemistry teacher who’s been at the school for 18 years.
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At Juarez, 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a common measure of poverty. Its achievement gap between affluent and low-income students on standardized tests is just 9 percent, compared with a citywide gap of 31 percent. Eighty-four percent of Juarez’s students graduate on time and 52 percent of them 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 17-year-old 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.
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.”
A lot of time and effort at Juarez goes into creating material that will engage students. On a recent fall afternoon, Norris sat among her department colleagues in an empty science classroom for a weekly strategy meeting to develop the new curriculum. “We have to think big picture,” Norris stressed to the group, “before we get down to details like how much lab time to offer. If we don’t find a way to make this relevant to students’ lives, we’ll lose them.”
Despite the school’s successes, Ocon knows there is much more work to be done if all of his students are to reach their potential. The school’s new-found desirability means stretching finite resources even further. “We are bursting at the seams,” Ocon acknowledged. “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 schoolwide 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.
A competency-based curriculum builds on what Juarez has already done, said Matt Townsley, director of Instruction and Technology in Iowa’s Solon school district. “In a standards-based curriculum we may know that five kids in the class already understand the causes and effects of the Vietnam War and they don’t need to spend more time on it. But they still have to sit through the next chapter along with everybody else.” A competency-based curriculum, he said, puts a system in place that allows those students to move on at their own pace — in this example, a faster one.
Part of what makes Juarez unique, Duncan said, is the holistic approach it has taken to elevating student achievement. Adopting standards-based grading was important, she acknowledged, 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.”
Juarez’s doors remain open until 8 p.m. every weekday. On weekends, residents can use its gym and computer labs. The school offers free ESL and GED classes. And while all Chicago high school students are required to complete service hours in their communities, Juarez has gone much further.
Resendiz spent two weeks of her freshman year in Burkina Faso, West Africa, helping to construct a village school through Juarez’s partnership with buildOn, an international nonprofit devoted to service and education. “It was an amazing experience,” said Resendiz, who returned home with a newfound perspective on basic amenities that she had taken for granted. As a member of student government she started an in-school food-share program to help fellow students who may lack healthy options at home.
Ocon says that the progress at Juarez is replicable at schools facing similar challenges. But he stresses that radical change requires a schoolwide commitment. “For 20 years we heard that this was a gang school, that it’s violent,” he said. “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.”
Duncan is optimistic about opportunities for successes like Juarez to be duplicated in other parts of Chicago. “They are part of something that is happening all over the city.” She notes that in contrast to the headlines generated by violent crime, graduation rates for all Chicago students have risen by 17 percent over the last six years, with the biggest improvements coming from African-American and Latino boys, a particularly vulnerable group. “High schools are redefining their jobs, from deciding whether kids are good enough, to making sure that everyone succeeds. Juarez reflects a vision of what poor kids of color can do and be.”