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How One Chicago School Got Every Low-Income Student to College

100 percent of seniors at Chicago's Gary Comer College Prep have been accepted to four-year universities.

Getting 100 percent of a school's students into college is incredibly simple. I should rephrase that: The key strategies are simple, but the deeply emotional and personal work it requires is incredibly hard.

I know this first-hand because 100 percent of the first senior class at Gary Comer College Prep, a 600-student high school that I—and an amazing team of people—founded on the South Side of Chicago in 2008, was accepted to a four-year university this year.

The focus on college is part of GCCP’s DNA. We're part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, Chicago’s largest and highest-performing network of non-selective public charter high schools, which serves 6,500 students across the city. Since opening its first campus in 1999, Noble and its diverse group of students, teachers, administrators, and supporters have demonstrated a shared commitment to students' success in college and beyond—85 percent of graduates from Noble schools go to college each year.

But the majority of GCCP’s student population isn't on the college track when they come to us. In Chicago, a black female entering her freshman year of high school has a 7 percent chance of graduating from college by age 26. For black males, that number is 3 percent. At GCCP, our students are 95 percent black and 94 percent low-income, and on average, they start ninth grade between a fifth- and sixth-grade level in reading and math. Yet last year our students had the third-highest ACT score increase among 118 high schools in the city, and the average number of college acceptances for students in our senior class was 5.75. What are we doing to get kids who are so far behind to top schools like Boston College and Dartmouth?

We have not discovered cold-fusion at GCCP or at Noble. Our success is due to the same ingredients at the core of every successful organization or strong public school—charter or not—that gets great results in a similar context: an obsession with finding the right people, high expectations for ourselves and our students, a highly disciplined approach, and a laser-like focus on our vision and goals.

At GCCP, finding the right people means looking first at the values and achievements of candidates. It also means prioritizing recruitment and hiring. At Noble schools, principals are expected to spend 70 percent of their time on hiring in the winter and spring.

Constantly increasing expectations touches all aspects of our work. Any student who doesn’t finish her homework must stay an additional hour and a half after school. Every teacher stays at least 30 minutes every day after school for office hours and gives out their contact information for students to call or email anytime.

We also create robust data systems around a handful of critical statistics—especially around college, academics, discipline, and honor—that every team member and student looks at regularly, just as a company does with financial statements.

When you look at the problems affecting under-performing schools and districts across the country—which includes the vast majority of schools with similar demographics to ours—you will find opposite practices: anti-merit-based inflexible hiring and firing practices, lowered expectation of adults and students, and wavering, ever-evolving priorities.

America's educational system has inherent barriers that prevent most schools to focus as purposefully as they should on the key elements I've listed. At the root of the gridlock is the political and economic influence created by unions that stops the system from moving nimbly toward what we have seen work at any high-performing organization, including schools.

Although I am deeply saddened and angered that this gridlock prevents other schools from using these proven and obvious strategies, what I love about my work is that I am able to forget the politics and just run a great school. I love being able to prove what is possible through my students' accomplishments, and I hope others take notice and build their own high standards for schools and students.

For each of the next four weeks, a GCCP senior will write an article for GOOD about how he or she proved what is possible. These students, like most of the children we serve at GCCP and at Noble, have each overcome immense obstacles, but are on a path to success. Through their immensely emotional and personal hard work, they demonstrate what a simple combination of great people, high expectations, and a focus on goals can accomplish.

Photo courtesy of Gary Comer College Prep

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