By Rob Schroeder
“I had no social capital telling me to go to college, and many of our parents haven’t gone to college, so this is a way of providing that social equity.”
When Kevin Gallick arrived at George Washington High School in spring 2012 as the school’s new principal, he wanted to build believers.
The school’s survey data on college admissions was troubling, to say the least. Students communicated they felt few people in their school or community believed they should attend college at all. Worse, some teachers and staff at George Washington reflected the same mindset.
Three years later, Gallick has created more than believers. He may have some college automatons on his hands.
“When our boys won the state title in soccer [in 2013], everything our boys said had to do with college,” Gallick said. “They weren’t prepped for it; this is who we have become now.”
Traveling to Chicago’s East Side neighborhood from the Chicago Loop is a journey through the city’s industrial past. On an early fall morning, the South Ewing St. drawbridge climbs to the low-hanging clouds as a 500-foot cargo ship trawls its way towards the open waters of Lake Michigan. From the bridge’s vantage point, hulking factories and expansive docks dot the landscape, backlit by oily flames dancing from the towers of Calumet, Indiana’s steel plants just a few miles away.
Located in a 30-block stretch between the Calumet River and Lake Michigan, sandwiched by an abandoned Baltimore & Ohio train yard to the west and the Indiana Toll Road to the east, economic opportunity in East Side has ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of industry on the river and the Port of Chicago. Calumet’s steel factories and other heavy industry served as hubs of employment, but the neighborhood was decimated by layoffs in the 1970s and 80s, punctuated by Republic Steel shutting its doors in 1986. Today, the neighborhood maintains its industrial roots, with Ford Motor Company serving as one of the largest local employers after moving into the shuttered Republic Steel factory in 2000.
Nearly 80 percent of East Side’s population is Latina/o, and many families moved to the neighborhood seeking blue collar employment. For families that established roots and built lives around the jobs local industry provided, George Washington’s shift towards a college focus was a major cultural change.
“It was uncomfortable initially saying, ‘Yes, we should be focused on college,’” Gallick said. “People resisted that. ‘What’s wrong with working at Ford?’ they would ask, like we’re some outsiders coming in here with some sort of agenda that doesn’t match the kids.”
Creating a college-going culture in an urban high school is a whole school process, and at George Washington, Gallick’s focus is twofold: building college-geared academic programming and constructing social and community supports. Beginning in 2012, the school’s most significant efforts centered on engaging with parents.
The pressing question, invariably, is how families will afford college. George Washington hosts three annual parent workshops to address these concerns: first in October to detail the process of coll3ege admissions; then in December to communicate the cost of college and the FAFSA process, and a third in the spring to aid parents in the final selection process.
The workshops build awareness for parents of first-generation college students. Parents of a student with a 2.0 grade point average may assume four-year college is not an option. Similarly, parents start thinking about choosing a school that is the right academic and social fit for their student, beyond the goal of simply earning admission to a college. The workshops are timed to ensure parents are not stymied by dealing with admissions deadlines for the first time; for example, a student may be set to attend a four-year college, but at the last moment a family decides a $40,000 loan is too much of a financial burden, but the student has missed the City Colleges of Chicago admissions deadline.
In the classroom, students are practically barraged with common language and messages about higher education. Teachers wear t-shirts representing their alma mater each Friday; college banners of alumni line the walls; teachers bring in friends and family representing careers for student discussions; teachers even share data from standardized tests with students to help students understand connections between their GPA and college access and to build academic language skill.
Gallick’s post-secondary team, consisting of 15 teachers, counselors and coaches, seeks to encapsulate college promotion efforts through a series of ritual across each grade level. Freshman students participate in a mock admissions process, examining admissions criteria and play-acting as colleges to determine if they would admit fictional candidates.
Recognizing the ACT as a barrier to college access, the school creates significant academic focus for juniors on the exam. Teachers plan 4-5 weeks of in-class assessments that serve as practice for the ACT. Juniors attend practice ACT sessions on Saturdays and are singled out for a large-scale college advising forum, a day in which juniors are out of uniform and recognized across the school for the steps they are taking towards college admission.
Seniors take a dedicated seminar class to guide them through all steps of the admissions process and prepare them for academic life on campus. The seminar includes a series of workshops throughout the year, such as a fall college advising forum, in which George Washington teachers share their collegiate experiences and students begin considering career options and how college creates a path to those careers. Seniors are honored during a much-ballyhooed Decision Day event, in which seniors publicly declare their intent to enroll. Those seniors who are accepted and enrolled wear a college t-shirt each Friday.
The school’s data is indicating these efforts are translating into successful student outcomes. For the Class of 2014, college enrollment reached 60 percent, up from 42 percent in 2012. Total scholarship offers for the Class of 2015 are on pace to exceed $10 million, up from $2.5 million in 2012, including major scholarships for students to Pomona College, St. Olaf University and University of Chicago.
“We’re behind the 8-ball on a lot of this work,” Gallick said. “We’re trying to get kids the exposure and understanding they need in a pretty dramatic way.”
“When you work on total body fitness, you won’t work on every part of the body in one day—you’ll be exhausted,” says Tony Malcolm, assistant principal at George Washington. “Maybe you focus on your arms, or your back and core. Creating a college-going culture has to be a school-wide approach.”
Malcolm heads the post-secondary team at George Washington, a group he says is posting successes while still adjusting on the fly. He characterizes the team’s goal as framing George Washington as the school of choice in the neighborhood while creating a deeper significance of what a George Washington education means throughout a student’s life post high school.
Following the workout analogy, Malcolm’s team focuses on a short list of challenges to address based on the time of the school year. Each month, the team produces a post-secondary report charting data on applications submitted, students accepted and FAFSA application rate. As the head of the post-secondary team, Malcolm uses this data to guide the team’s strategy. For example, in October 2014, data from the monthly report indicated applications were lower than usual, and not many students had heard back from the schools they had applied to. Malcolm and the team sought to address two problems: how to boost applications and how to track students who may have applied and been accepted but have not communicated that information to the school.
Outside the meeting room, Malcolm focuses on creating a sense of urgency throughout the school, ensuring that the team’s post-secondary plan becomes a living, breathing document. His aims are twofold: creating a shared language and opening opportunities for staff school-wide to participate and build on the team’s efforts.
For example, the post-secondary team organized a phone-a-thon night to remind parents to attend a senior college night event, at which George Washington staff would collaborate with parents through the process of interpreting award letters. Opening the phone-a-thon to all staff, beyond just the post-secondary team and the school’s counselors, is a single step of many in creating this college-going culture.
Similarly, Malcolm sees commonality of language as a key to extending college-going culture into the community.
“You have parents that will say ‘That’s not really our job’ and “College isn’t for everyone,’” Malcolm said. “This is about illuminating the reality: the more you learn, the more you earn.”
In describing post-secondary supports, whole social capital, the value of college and investing in students, Malcolm and the post-secondary team are using language that dispels myths about college: misconceptions that college is only for “rich folks,” that college is financially out of reach, or on the flip side, that every college is appropriate for every student.
“Some of this is being a campaign manager, some of this is being the gardener of ideas,” Malcolm said. “You’re trying to get people into a room together to develop and trouble shoot ideas that will be effective in getting results.”
The American Counseling Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. In Chicago Public Schools, the ratio has expanded from 1:350 to 1:400 since 2009. The net result is overloaded counselors who struggle to connect with all of their charges across the spectrum of the college admissions process.
George Washington has attempted to address this imbalance by creating senior seminar classes focused completely on the college admissions process. With nine sections offered during the ’14-’15 school year, seniors are guided through the admissions cycle in small groups.
John Walton is a former CPS school counselor who now teaches senior college seminars at George Washington. His class explores colleges and universities based on students’ GPAs and ACT scores; students study the ins and outs of colleges to learn what to look for on a tour and in searching for a fit school; students study admissions processes; the class discusses pros and cons of school distance from Chicago and charts accessibility via public transportation; dorms and off-campus living are analyzed; and students work with Walton and their peers to craft personal statements and brag sheets for recommendation letters. The seminar also creates dedicated time during the school day for students in small groups to work with the school’s post-secondary coaches.
“We’re basically having students manage their own role; we’re just there to escort them towards that final goal,” Walton said. “I had no social capital telling me to go to college, and many of our parents haven’t gone to college, so this class is a way of providing [that social equity].”
Walton and the post-secondary support team use Naviance software to chart each student’s process through the admissions cycle. The program tracks colleges students have searched for and applied to. Students or counselors upload confirmations of submission and requests for transcripts to smooth the counseling process; the program creates a queue that allows counselors to streamline each student’s needs despite the imbalance of students to counselors.
Seminar teachers interface with parents at the school’s parent workshops. The staff provides the nuts-and-bolts for parents on financial aid, the application process and choosing a fit school. When students make their choice, seminar teachers provide follow-up to ensure parents are comfortable completing the final stages of the student loan process.
“A lot of times when people are overwhelmed they push things to the side, ‘We’ll get to this when we come to it,’” Walton said. “This is a key driver of the low post-secondary rate in the city.”
Whatever social capital George Washington students lack, fear settles in to the vacuum. Fear of the unknown.
As a post-secondary coach at the school, Alexa Charsha-Hahn has seen the fear.
“There is hesitation, they aren’t sure what they are getting themselves into, they are just kind of scared by it,” Charsha-Hahn (below) said. “When we take them on campus visits and they start to get used to it, they get really excited about going to school.”
Charsha-Hahn and fellow coach Maritza Del Real are two of three coaches who are part of the 15-member post-secondary support team at George Washington, charged with coordinating college visits, searching for scholarship opportunities and guiding students through the nitty-gritty of applications and financial aid.
The coaches work to set up a timeline for the admissions cycle. Each senior receives a “passport to graduation,” with stops along the way for college applications, college fairs and visits, FAFSA workshops, scholarship workshops and high school graduation. The coaches bring in college representatives to meet with students, run the college fair at George Washington and accompany students to college fairs around the city. Each coach is responsible for managing applications for high-profile scholarships such as the Gates Millenium Scholarship.
Coaches are present at the parent workshops, and Del Real says the interactions she has with parents are some of the most challenging.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to a parent that doesn’t want a student to go away to college,” Del Real (below) said. “I’m Hispanic, these parents are Hispanic, most of the population is Hispanic, and there’s something culturally that students, parents and I face in that there is a comfort level with students being at home. I know where they’re coming from because I’ve had parents like that, too.”
Charsha-Hahn says coaches take an approach of finding an avenue for every student, regardless of parent concerns or low academic performance, be it Chicago City Colleges or a technical school. More importantly, Charsha-Hahn says the school has been successful in communicating to students that even if they do not enroll immediately after school, the option to still attend exists, and the know-how students learn in their senior year carries over.
An effective technique the coaches employ is bringing back alumni enrolled in college to talk with current students. Alumni help quell fears, describe the academic demands of college and offer personal examples of acquiring financial aid and scholarships. The coaches often relay their own experiences in college to reinforce that college itself is a life experience beyond an academic experience.
One of the key coaching success stories revolves around two fifth-year seniors who failed to graduate on time in 2014. Both students thought college was not an option for them because of their GPA, and both students lacked social capital that could influence them to seek college. Through intensive coaching, one student is now enrolled at Harold Washington College and the second is finishing up her high school degree in spring 2015 and heads to college in the fall.
“Once you have a school that is behind your message, the community will follow,” Del Real said. “It’s been really important to work with an administration and teachers and staff to expose the community to different options about college, to show this isn’t just about the school but about the community.”
Veronica Arias couldn’t have been happier when her son reported life at George Washington had become downright boring.
As a freshman in 2009, her son described school life as “very interesting.” While the school’s principal continued to make great strides in addressing behavioral issues, the school day was still marred by the occasional fights, and Arias said her son fretted about his safety from time to time.
As a parent representative of the George Washington Local School Council (LSC), Arias says those concerns were foremost on the minds of the council’s members, whose primary concerns were the school security, attendance and keeping kids on track towards graduation.
After Gallick’s arrival in spring 2012, the tedium took over.
The school’s climate continued transforming; she says students felt more acknowledged and respected and responded to changes in teaching strategies. When Gallick unveiled his college access plans as part of his first budget, Arias says the LSC was at first uncomfortable with the rapid change in focus but agreed the timing was aligned with the school’s environmental improvements.
Arias welcomed the boredom, not just to allay safety concerns. As a parent of a soon-to-be first generation college student, she stressed about navigating the relatively foreign world of higher education.
“When I was their age, there was no talk about college,” Arias said. “I didn’t know much about it, my family didn’t know much about it, and as a result the simplest things for them may be difficult for me to understand.”
In 2013, Arias’ son started his first year at Roosevelt University and transferred to Harold Washington College in 2014 because of cost concerns. Currently, Arias’ daughter is wrapping up her senior year at George Washington, having experienced the full gamut of college support services. Arias has immersed herself in the process as well, attending parent workshops focusing on resources to pay for college and the process of choosing a fit school. Arias says her daughter started her search with a huge list of schools but has narrowed her search down to a handful of schools, with Robert Morris University as her top choice.
As a parent and LSC representative, Arias says the school’s change in focus has permeated the neighborhood. She points out strong attendance at parent workshops and the changing priorities of the LSC, transitioning from primarily a security focus to an academic focus.
“It’s all a part of the everyday language,” Arias said. “My daughter has known from day one automatically she’s going to college; that’s just something that has been in their heads. That’s what they speak about, that’s what the language is. My daughter’s focus is not on if but where she’s going to college.”