High school is a pivotal moment in young people’s lives. It’s a time of exploration and self-discovery, when students make life-changing decisions about their futures.
The pandemic has made it harder than ever to connect students in Chicago to opportunities to learn more about what they can do after graduation.
At a recent event, The Fund partnered with Forefront to host a panel of local high school leaders. The educators discussed the innovative ways they’re helping students to prepare for postsecondary success—and the challenges that lie ahead as we move toward recovery.
- Shannae Jackson, Principal, Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep
- Emily Lockhart, Principal, Muchin College Prep
- Raul Magdaleno, Principal, Thomas Kelly College Prep
- Erick Pruitt, Deputy Chief, High School Networks, Chicago Public Schools
- Dawn Ramos, Principal, Tilden Career Community Academy
Read on for school leaders’ thoughts; quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
On what philanthropy can do to support high schools this summer …
Emily Lockhart: So much of it is about money. Our kids get into really great schools, but a lot of parents can’t actually afford to send their kids there. Philanthropy that is directly addressed to scholarship money can help students pay outstanding bills, or pay for a failed credit and allow them to persist at schools even given academic difficulties.
How can we get creative about our college counseling structure? We’ve thought about additional personnel, and even volunteers to provide more one-on-one support. Someone that could help them match with appropriate scholarships, and then follow up on the applications would be phenomenal.
On what principals plan to improve on in the fall …
Dawn Ramos: Virtual platforms offer flexibility. We’ve been able to do so many things, from recordings to hosting parent sessions in the evening. We want to continue the flexibility we gained, and it allowed us to share what we’re doing in a different format. Usually, you have to come into the building to see what is happening in the school. This gave us an opportunity to share the good work we’re doing with a wider audience.
We were also able to partner with other schools to offer dual enrollment classes. Because we weren’t restricted to this one time, we were able to partner with other schools and enroll more students. We’re a small school, so we can’t always fill all the seats, but we can partner with other schools so that students aren’t traveling from one place to another. All of our students should be taking advanced courses senior year.
On other supports we can provide juniors and seniors …
Shannae Jackson: It would be super helpful to have resources around college visits. We believe in getting kids on campus at a very young age.
Another thing that would be really critical is a college enrichment. We held a college bootcamp where students could work on resume writing and college essays. Thinking about starting those postsecondary supports during the summer and going into the senior year did a lot for helping our students think about and achieve their goals.
We’d also love support for our signing days. Quite a few of our schools in our district do signing days where students announce the institution they’re attending next year. It’s a great opportunity for students to share that information with the school community at large and celebrate their successes. We invite the entire school so it gets younger students excited and thinking about what they want to do after high school too.
On tools and other innovations to use going forward …
Raul Magdaleno: We started “Kelly Pride” days on Wednesdays for a couple of reasons: 1) They give students an opportunity to redo or retake assignments; 2) It’s a mental health day; being in front of a screen is draining for students; and 3) We used to offer tutoring after school. Many of our students can’t attend in-person because they work or tutor.
When we start in-person in the fall, we are going to keep Kelly Pride days for Wednesday, and shift the execution of our block schedule. For a 170-minute block, we’ll give students an opportunity to select any classes they want. We want to bring in mentors, tutors and interventionists. This is when postsecondary teams can pull out kids to best support them. We’ve been thinking a lot about learning loss and helping our students.
On mental health and wellness supports in response to the pandemic and social unrest …
Erick Pruitt: Early in the pandemic we all recognized how important mental health services would be for our students and staff. We have started the healing-centered program. We really want to support our schools to help staff identify any signs a student may be in distress and connect them to services in and outside of schools.
Dawn Ramos: To be fully transparent: We don’t know the extent of the need for mental support. There are so many students we still need to see and talk to. We’ll know more when we come back in the fall. I have many students who deal with trauma and stress. More would always be welcome when it comes to mental health. As a nation, we’re finally talking about it, so we need to continue supporting families and students with mental health supports.
On supporting families with first-generation college students …
Emily Lockhart: This has been a positive during the pandemic: We have been able to be more flexible about how we deliver support. It used to be “come in”; there was an assumption that it needed to be in-person. That was not inclusive of parents’ needs. Now, we can meet remotely over Zoom and allow parents to use Calendly to pick a time that works for them.
On making sure students are aware of the options that are available to them …
Erick Pruitt: From a district perspective, the primary goal of Learn. Plan. Succeed. is to ensure that all students have a concrete postsecondary plan, one that may include trade school or college or military. It is designed to meet the needs of all of our students. From a school perspective, how do you ensure that all students have that plan?
Raul Magdaleno: We start that process in ninth-grade and have in-depth conversations with our students. We’ve started to offer seminar classes on postsecondary opportunities for students. This is the first year Kelly offered a senior seminar. Next year, we’ll offer it to ninth grade to start those conversations even earlier.
Many students don’t feel they’re college material. They feel pushed to pursue trade school, and college conversations turn them off. We need to include junior college in the discussion so they know they can take some classes that will open up a path—and that includes trade school too. It’s important to say, “Let’s look at junior college where you can earn certificates. You will change your family’s wealth for generations to come.” That is our goal around Learn. Plan. Succeed.