In Chicago -- a city far removed from the flash point of border immigration -- Hispanic children have flooded the schools.
Now, educators here are wrestling with how to prevent those Hispanic students -- who account for 41 percent of students in the Chicago Public Schools -- from becoming casualties of the nationwide dropout epidemic.
It’s an acute problem: The city's Hispanic dropout rate hovers around 40 percent, according to 2009 data from Chicago Public Schools. Hispanic dropouts are having a drastic economic impact on the city. In 2008, 9,250 Latinos dropped out of school. If that number were cut in half, the city would benefit from $57.5 million in increased earnings and $40.1 million in increased spending, according to a July 2010 report issued by the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Individual schools in Chicago are taking different -- sometimes conflicting -- approaches to reducing the number of Hispanic dropouts.
Two charter schools in particular, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park and Pritzker College Prep in the Hermosa neighborhood have organized themselves to address the needs of Latino students in Chicago. Pedro Albizu Campos is using a Latino-focused culture to retain at-risk students, while Pritzker College Prep is working to improve the Latino college enrollment and completion rates through what amounts to a college boot camp.
Pedro Albizu Campos: Giving dropouts a reason to re-enroll
It’s a measure of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School’s commitment to Puerto Rican culture that the school is named after a Puerto Rican freedom fighter once convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. Government.
The emphasis on Puerto Rican identity has been a driving force of the charter school’s curriculum since its start in 1972. Administrators say connecting education with students’ Latino culture gives dropouts and at-risk students a reason to buy into school.
“If a student can’t connect what they’re doing in a class with who they are, then there’s no reason to open to page 547,” says principal Matt Rodriguez, whose office is a few feet away from the Puerto Rican, Mexican and International African flags. Murals of Latino political leaders line the schools halls, and graduating seniors wear sashes emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag.
Campos is a three-year high school that caters to dropouts and at-risk students who are 18 to 21 and read at a middle school level upon enrollment. The school has the seventh highest graduation rate among the 22 schools operating under the Youth Connection charter. Of last year’s graduating class, 81 percent are set to pursue post-secondary education.
Alicia Plaza, who will be a senior in the fall at Campos, moved in April to Chicago from Elkhart, Ind., where she says she was falling through the cracks. Now, she is excited about the Campos curriculum, which connects science to an urgent health problem in her heavily Puerto Rican Humboldt Park community.
Plaza is spending her summer working with the school’s Urban Agriculture Program. She and other students use hydroponics to grow organic food, which they will sell at local farmer’s markets.
The program gives her a concrete way to address the high rate of Type 2 diabetes -- 21 percent, three times the national average -- in Humboldt Park.
“I want to try to help lower the 21 percent and make it zero percent because it’s uncalled for, it’s not necessary,” says Plaza, whose uncle died of complications from diabetes.
The school also caters to students’ backgrounds by replacing Shakespeare with Latino and black authors, celebrating Mexican and black pride days, and teaching a course on Puerto Rican history.
For Plaza, a gregarious, lip-ringed 18-year-old, these types of activities and courses mean she doesn’t have to work to fit in.
“I no longer just hear [the Puerto Rican history] from my grandma; I see it in the books and actually from someone else talking about it,” she says.
Rodriguez says that students like Plaza -- who was uninterested in school and felt disconnected from her culture -- are the reason schools like Campos need to exist.
“The alternative school was created to provide a space that was different and relevant and engaging ... to populations of students who were disillusioned and angry and pissed off by their experience in schools,” Rodriguez says.
“I wish schools like ours didn’t have to exist.”
Pritzker College Prep: Where ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent’
When Abigail Puentes was a freshman at Pritzker College Prep, she was the only student on campus given permission to leave her shirt untucked.
At a school where students get fined $5 for chewing gum, pregnancy is the only circumstance that softens the school’s uniform policy. A sign in a hallway reads “excuses are tools of the incompetent” -- and even being pregnant is no excuse for losing focus at a school where nearly every lesson is directed toward getting into college.
“I have a lot of friends who got pregnant their freshman year, and they ended up transferring, and when we talk and I tell them I graduated from Pritzker, they’re shocked,” says Puentes, who gave birth just one week after completing her freshman year.
Pritzker opened its doors in August 2006 as one of 10 schools in the Noble Street Charter School network. Based on 2009 ACT scores, it is the highest performing non-selective school in the city. In its first graduating class, all of the 109 graduates were accepted into four-year colleges. Principal Pablo Sierra attributes the school’s success to the “consistency and the structure of discipline.”
The school, which is about 95 percent Latino, doesn’t tailor its curriculum to Latinos. Instead of having an English-as-a-second-language program, its goal is to teach “the language of power and social ascension,” Sierra says.
“Obviously our kids are Latino, but we don’t have any specific curriculum or celebrations that revolve around Latino culture,” he says. “Part of it is because it’s not what we’re here for -- we’re here to get kids to succeed in college.”
The school’s discipline has students turning in homework at a 95 percent rate from a cohort whose first language is Spanish, and whose parents almost uniformly did not attend college. The students take seven ACT-prep tests before the actual exam, and are given quarterly interim assessments throughout the school year.
”We’re college prep schools, not just in name, but in practice as well,” says Dianna Ristoff, assistant principal at Pritzker. “And it’s very important for kids, and for our families, to understand that.”
The Pritzker halls are filled with colorful college pennants, posters and inspiring quotes. Lining the hallway to the gym are pictures of students who have been accepted to selective colleges, such as Williams and the U.S. Naval Academy. On another wall, a poster tracks the students’ ACT scores, which this year averaged 20.1, slightly behind the Illinois state mean of 20.8.
“To brag about being almost average is nothing to brag about. So, we’re not there,” says Sierra. “Our kids are truly not completely college ready. While we’re doing well and every year we’re incrementally doing better, we’re not college ready.”
What Pritzker has accomplished, it seems, is changing the academic trajectory of Latino students who were unlikely to even consider college.
“Sometimes we catch each other saying big words that we never knew the meaning of,” says Puentes. “The way we dress, the guys, everything, we’re really respectful; it’s a whole different environment here.”
Puentes plans to begin her studies this fall at North Park University in Chicago. One day, she would like to send her daughter to Pritzker.Marla Friedman wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Northwestern