TOPICS > Education

To Lower Dropout Rates, Finding Potential Where Support Systems Are Lacking

February 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Nonprofit educational organization OneGoal has partnered with Chicago public schools to push kids at risk of dropping out of high school to persist and attend college. Ash-har Quraishi of WTTW Chicago reports for our American Graduate project on a special curriculum that hones leadership skills these kids often already have.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now: how one teacher-led program is making sure students at risk of dropping out of high school are not only getting their diploma, but going on to graduate from college as well.

Ash-har Quraishi of WTTW Chicago reports for our American Graduate project.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, WTTW Chicago: It’s just after 9:00 a.m. when Rachel Bennett greets her third period students. Bennett is a high school Spanish teacher here at Perspectives Leadership Academy. But this is the one class she teaches each day where nobody learns Spanish.

RACHEL BENNETT, Perspectives Leadership Academy: Mostly, what I do, I feel, is to harass my kids to be their best selves at all times.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Bennett teaches a daily 40-minute class designed by a nonprofit educational organization called OneGoal.

RACHEL BENNETT: And then your two next steps, what are the next two that you’re working on?

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: What’s interesting about OneGoal is that it pinpoints and targets low-income underperforming students in non-selective Chicago public schools, students who are least likely to graduate from high school, let alone college.

Jeff Nelson is the co-founder and CEO of OneGoal.

JEFF NELSON, OneGoal: We’re taking underperforming students that typically have a less than 10 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree and right now 85 percent of our alumni in college are persisting.

WOMAN: All right, so we have approximately 40 minutes to get this done.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: OneGoal focuses on these students because nationally only eight percent of ninth graders in low-income communities are expected to graduate from college by the age 25.

That’s in stark contrast to students from the highest-income families, where 32 percent will finish college in that same time. Nelson says the cornerstone of OneGoal’s methodology begins with recruiting and training exceptional teachers, who in turn identify underperforming students with the least opportunity and the most potential.

JEFF NELSON: We believe and have seen empirical evidence that teachers matter most in education reform. And when we got started building OneGoal, we realized that nationally and locally there were no college access or persistence providers that were using exceptional teachers as the focal point of their work.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: And so OneGoal has partnered with the Chicago Public Schools and is currently in 23 of the district’s high schools. The program hopes to be in half of all Chicago high schools by 2017 and is already expanding nationally.

Here’s how it works. A OneGoal teacher takes on a group of 25 students and sticks with them for three years, beginning in their junior year of high school. The teacher’s instruction focuses on three pillars: prepping students for ACT test, guiding them as they apply to college and helping them develop specific leadership skills.

JEFF NELSON: The five leadership principles that we spend time working on are professionalism, ambition, resilience, integrity, and resourcefulness. The reason those five skills are important to us is because those five working in concert are predictive of success in college.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Often, Nelson says, these character traits come easily for students who have grown up in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, where they have already developed an inner strength remarkable for their age.

JEFF NELSON: Oftentimes, though, those skill sets are not pinpointed as assets. Oftentimes, kids think that they walk into this environment with liabilities. We think it’s completely opposite.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Once the students move on to college, they stay in regular contact with their OneGoal teacher through their first year. The aim here is not just to get kids into college, but to equip them with the support system they need to finish.

JEFF NELSON: We have seen 20, 25 years of education reform in the United States. Almost all of it has been directed in pre-K through 12, which has — so we have seen the proliferation of charter schools. We have seen early childhood work, interventions work. We have seen human capital providers. We have seen big city mayors like Rahm take on education. Yet almost none of it has spilled over into higher education.

And so our country has begun to get college access right, but we see huge dropout rates in college.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Cynthia Barron is a coach with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s principle training program. She has over 40 years of experience in Chicago public schools.

CYNTHIA BARRON, University of Illinois at Chicago: There’s nothing better than preparing students for that next step after high school and then making them feel confident and comfortable in their academic skills, that they can do it.

But along with that is also this ability to, one, know what college life is about, know what career readiness is about, know what that life is going to be like when they graduate, but then also helping them to develop the network that is going to help them, but then also how to anticipate those obstacles, what do they have to put in place.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: OneGoal student Anthony Halmon knows something about obstacles. Last year, his South Side neighborhood ranked fourth among 77 communities for the number of violent crimes. According to the latest census numbers, nearly 26 percent of households here are below the poverty line and nearly one in five residents is unemployed.

By his sophomore year, Halmon was getting into trouble. With a C average, he was doing the bare minimum to get by and he was a new father.

ANTHONY HALMON, Perspectives Leadership Academy: Outside of school, I didn’t do nothing, sat on my butt, played games. I didn’t use computers. I didn’t use my time wisely. I just did ignorant things.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Rachel Bennett says through self-motivation and the support of OneGoal, Halmon turned everything around.

RACHEL BENNETT: Last quarter, he had a 4.1 GAP, yes, with the weight of his A.P. lit class. So he was doing that all as a young father. He still takes care of his 2-year-old, sees her every day, takes her to all her doctor appointments.

ANTHONY HALMON: My OneGoal teacher, she always encouraged me, like, if you don’t want to do nothing for yourself, then do something for your baby, make a life for her. You always want your child to have a better life than you already have, so it’s like she’s part of my motivation.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Today, Anthony is in the final running for a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University. It’s the kind of ambition OneGoal hopes to instill in all of its students.

ANTHONY HALMON:
If I don’t leave and I stay here, it’s still not going to do nothing for my family. So I would rather go get an education and go start on my career and bring that back towards them, so I can actually raise a family and take care of my daughter, take care of my mother also, because I’m doing it for myself, but I’m also doing it for the family and for people that I love.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our Web site, you can find more on enrichment programs that work to get students not only to, but through college.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.