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Op-Ed: "Close the Belief Gap." How one Chicago charter school gets all its students into college.

April 2, 2015

Op-Ed by Shayne Evans, originally published in U.S. News and World Report.

Last month, for the fourth year in a row, 100 percent of the seniors in our high school, which educates more than 400 African-American students on the South Side of Chicago, received a college acceptance letter. Many will be the first in their families to graduate college. Yet our students, against formidable odds, succeed once there: Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune crunched college persistence data and found that our high school was number two in the city, behind only the city’s most highly selective magnet school. (We don’t have a selective enrollment process, and instead admit neighborhood students by lottery.)

Why are we so good at getting our kids to college?

Because we’re intentional about that goal. We communicate it to each and every stakeholder involved in our school over and over and over again, in banners and newsletters and recruitment materials. And – this is critically important – we attempt to point every arrow we have in our quiver at that target. After all, if college is your mission, but you’re not aligning all of your time, talent, and budget in pursuit of it, how much success can you really expect?

Take, for example, our College Week, which involves exposure to a range of college campus environments, student groups, academic disciplines and alumni networks. Most schools shuffle college visits to weekends. We choose to leverage school time. Spending precious instructional days in this way is of course not something we take lightly. Here’s the thing: College Week is instruction. Students are learning. They’re learning important, life-changing stuff, in an experiential way that resonates. They’re also receiving a subtle but powerful message that college is important, they belong there, and we as a school, in big ways and small, are deeply committed to getting them not only to it, but through it.

Our high school has six college counselors, one for every 70 students. The current national average is about 1 to every 450. If that one counselor did nothing except meet with those 450 students, all day, every day, do you think he could know them and know their academic profiles, career aspirations and family backgrounds? Would he have any credibility to say to a kid, “Hey, I know you think that mascot is cool and you look good in those colors and love that basketball team, but let’s talk about whether it’s a good fit for you and will get you the job you want someday”?

Those conversations, conversations that take time and are built on relationships that take even more time, are what keeps a kid from going to a college that graduates only 17 percent of its underrepresented minority students. They’re what instead steers that student to a school, at the exact same selectivity level, mind you, that graduates more than 50 percent. Our college counselors are over 10 percent of our high school’s operating budget, and our High School Director Assata Moore commits those dollars without hesitation and with every confidence in the positive return we get on that investment.

It’s easy to say you believe all children have the potential to succeed at college. True belief, though – the kind of belief that turns into dreams realized and goals achieved – has to be accompanied by consistent, intentional action.

We talk a lot about closing the belief gap, about instilling in our students not only the belief that they will succeed in college but also total confidence that our belief in them is so strong that we won’t let them fail. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t align each and every one of our school’s actions with that belief. It’s easy to say you believe all children have the potential to succeed at college. True belief, though – the kind of belief that turns into dreams realized and goals achieved – has to be accompanied by consistent, intentional action. I hope more schools serving our nation’s students of color put their efforts where their beliefs are.

10462601084_45e6160d47_q.jpgShayne Evans is CEO of the Urban Education Institute’s Pre K-12 charter school serving 1,900 children on Chicago’s South Side.