This morning, academics and civic leaders gathered in Chicago to dig in on research that shows Chicago’s public schools have done a remarkable job of increasing student achievement over time. We know what has happened: test scores have improved, achievement gaps have narrowed and graduation and college entrance rates have risen. Though district enrollment has been declining, we know that these improvements did not just happen because struggling students left the system.
But we don’t yet know the exact reasons for these successes, nor do we know how to transfer them to other districts. Those are the kinds of questions local leaders will ponder at today’s event.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Banks, a first-generation college student and recent Chicago Public Schools (CPS) graduate, talked with me this week about how her experiences in Chicago’s public schools helped her reach places beyond her wildest dreams. Banks graduated first in her class from Crane Medical Prep last June, is now attending Dartmouth College, and plans a career in community and population health and wants to be a surgeon.
It’s possible Banks would have done fine in CPS at any point in the last 30 years. She is a bright, hardworking student who would catch the eye of teachers and administrators as a young woman of promise who would benefit from their support.
But Banks has also benefited in unique ways from district efforts to improve supports for students. And from the ground level, she knows the must-have ingredient to make such massive change: excellent, dedicated teachers.
As a 4-year-old living in South Chicago, Banks was tapped to enter kindergarten in the South Loop Elementary gifted program. [The program, begun years ago to draw children from across the city to the school when the South Loop neighborhood was largely industrial, was eliminated in 2011 to make space for the area’s growing local population of children.] That’s an option her family wouldn’t have had back in the 1980s or 90s.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor my whole life,” Banks says. And she also knew she didn’t want to go to a selective-enrollment high school.
So it was logical that her assistant principal at South Loop, Tim Butler, would encourage her to take a chance on the brand-new medical prep high school at Crane, especially since he knew Timothy Anderson, Crane Medical Prep’s assistant principal. In its previous life, Crane had a terrible track record and a tough reputation, but Butler and Anderson encouraged Banks and her family to “give trust and have faith,” Banks recalls.
A Leap of Faith Reaps Big Rewards
“My parents were nervous, but they let me make the decision,” Banks says. She was sold on the school’s partnerships with Rush University, including the opportunity for internships at Rush Medical Center. Banks took the risk of trying an untested school and won incredible rewards.
Her summers as a high school student included shadowing a geriatric oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, attending the Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program and a month-long cultural exchange trip to China. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities,” she acknowledges.
Banks credits Principal Fareeda Shabazz with creating a challenging yet supportive experience for students. “Everyone is in honors-level classes and everyone has to take two science courses a year. She brought in medical students from Rush to help anyone who wants or needs extra help.”
That preparation is paying off now at Dartmouth. So far, Banks is adjusting well to college life. “The pace is really fast, but it’s not bad. I mentally prepared myself for being the only Black girl in class. I’m connected to the Black community on campus.”
At Crane Medical Prep, Banks also bonded with Michael Bokar, who was both her student council advisor and math teacher for her entire high school career. The two still keep in touch. Banks also built a strong relationship with Kryzelda Mendoza, her physics teacher and debate coach.
“Debate is a really big part of my life,” she says. “It really helped me get comfortable with myself and expressing how I feel. I used to be really introverted and quiet but debate has really opened me up.”
Looking back on her CPS experiences, Banks says, “I really appreciate the teachers. Those were people I was really able to confide in. There’s something very different about CPS teachers in the best way possible. They understand our struggles and they’ve been through so much crap to make sure we have the best they could offer.”