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Volume 19, Number 2
March/April 2003

Transition Programs for Retained Students

Segregation or Salvation?


Beyond the metal detector, it looks like hundreds of other schools you might find across the United States—a place where teachers, administrators, and staff have worked hard to create a welcoming learning environment. Brightly painted walls, cheerful bulletin boards that announce school events and programs, and room signs made lovingly by hand belie the building's environs in Back of the Yards, a tough neighborhood on Chicago's south side. The Samuel D. Proctor Academic Preparatory Center is in many ways a study in contrasts.

"In any large metropolitan environment like Chicago, there's so much going on every morning, every afternoon. First we've got to make sure the students get here," says Doris Brown, an administrative staff member in charge of student discipline and support. "Once we get them here, we give them their hug and send them off to class."

Morning hugs for students who are having a rough day are part of the culture at Proctor, but so are smaller classes, more individualized attention, and more counseling and support personnel per pupil than Chicago's regular public high schools. The reason for this disparity is the special population that Proctor serves: students who have not met the criteria for graduation to high school.

Proctor is one of seven Academic Preparatory Centers (APCs) operated by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for this subset of students. Four of the APCs are in stand-alone buildings and three are housed with in regular city high schools. The average APC serves somewhere between 150 and 200 students for one year, according to APC coordinator Elizabeth Ester.

Janell Taylor, director of the John H. Sengstacke APC, located south of the city's downtown "Loop," says that her school also provides a nurturing environment that her academically needy students would not receive in a mainstream secondary school. "Kids get a whole lot more here than they may get elsewhere," says Taylor. "Once they leave and go on to some of these larger high schools, they're pretty much just a number."

A Rocky History

Despite the strong sense of commitment that is apparent in the words of educators like Brown and Taylor, APCs have had a rocky and controversial history. Education advocacy groups in Chicago have criticized the APCs from the beginning as part of the city's controversial retention policy, which has dominated the local school reform debate over the past decade. Under the original form of the policy (which has been modified in recent years to include multiple criteria), 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders who did not achieve a certain score on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) were retained in grade if they could not raise their scores sufficiently by the end of a required summer school course (and if they did not receive a waiver). However, since another district policy bars students from attending elementary schools if they are or will turn 15 by December 1 of the academic year, Chicago needed to come up with a solution for its older students who couldn't be promoted under the first policy and couldn't be retained under the second. As a result, in 1997 city officials opened the first "transition centers," which were later renamed APCs.

Local advocacy groups accused the new centers of offering a watered-down curriculum designed almost exclusively to boost test scores. "The curriculum consisted of the morning reading drill and the afternoon math drill, and that was the program," says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a local advocacy group representing parents of CPS students. "It was like extended summer school."

Scrutiny of the entire retention and promotion program reached a peak when PURE filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in 1999. The organization charged that the district's use of the ITBS as a single measure had a disproportionately negative effect on African American, Latino, and male students. PURE won its case against the district, and since 1999 Chicago has followed a modified version of its original retention and promotion policy, including the ITBS as one of several measures used to make such decisions.

Bolstered by its victory, PURE next targeted the APCs directly. The group filed another civil rights complaint with the OCR in 2001, this time charging the city with discrimination "in the establishment, intent, and operation" of the preparatory centers. believes that the APCs are educationally segregated and provide a substandard curriculum and program," PURE stated in its second complaint to the federal agency. In addition, PURE officials noted that the student bodies of the APCs were nearly 98 percent African American and Latino, compared with 85 percent across the city. PURE alleged that this disparity has led to higher dropout rates among this population.

In this second case, however, the OCR did not find evidence to support most of PURE's charges, including that APC students were subject to a test-driven, substandard program that lacked rigor and sufficient curricular and extracurricular opportunities. Instead, the investigation—based on a review of school district documents, visits to three APCs, and interviews with APC students, teachers, and administrators—found that both students and educators in APCs were more satisfied with their schools than many of their counterparts elsewhere in the city. Both groups cited smaller classes and more opportunities for individualized attention among the reasons why they believed the APC model works in their schools.

"I've worked in high schools for all of my career and I'm seeing, if anything, more challenges [being offered to APC students]," Proctor's Brown says.

The encouraging findings of the OCR investigation begged a question that seemed inconceivable just a few years before: Were the APCs actually providing a better education than high schools in the Chicago system? Woestehoff herself concedes that the APCs of today are a big improvement over the transition centers of the 1990s: "The APCs have changed a lot. I think partly because of our complaints and partly because of other people's criticisms, they have more services. They have added high school programs and high school credit, and they've got a fairly significant investment in counseling and other social services." Also, since the district now uses multiple measures to make retention and promotion decisions, APC teachers are freer to focus less on test prep and more on high school readiness.

Larger Questions

In a time of increased attention to accountability, educators may feel especially compelled to provide remedial instruction to students whom they expect to perform poorly on high-stakes tests. As a result, transition programs like the APCs are cropping up in school systems around the U.S. But as researchers and advocates have noted, several questions remain unresolved about these sorts of pull-out programs.
The first has to do with the stigma associated with requiring struggling students to attend school under separate circumstances, even if those circumstances are in some ways equal to or better than the "mainstream" alternative. The directors of both the Proctor and Sengstacke schools acknowledge that, at first, many students see their assignment to an APC as a defeat. "Most of the students who come to us are disappointed, as anyone would be if they haven't been able to go on and matriculate [in high school] as their peers did," says Proctor director Loretta Young-Wright. "Some of them are a little angry about it, some of them are sad and hurt, and we try to provide all kinds of supportive services to meet their needs." Both directors also say, however, that once enrolled in the APCs, most students appreciate the extra attention they receive and miss that attention once they move on to the relative anonymity of a large high school.

A second, related question has to do with possible connections between transition programs and dropping out. Here, the findings from Chicago are mixed. While the OCR investigation found that dropout rates among APC students were slightly lower than those for 9th graders in the city's high schools (10.8% vs. 12.2%), statistics from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a group based at the University of Chicago, found that APC students were more likely than their peers to drop out in later high school years. Of course, there is no way to determine how many of these students would have dropped out had they not attended APCs. In addition, it is impossible to calculate the number of students who drop out before they even begin a transition program because they are discouraged by the prospect of not being able to attend high school. The Chicago consortium found in a recent study that the number of 8th graders who have dropped out of the Chicago school system has risen by 38 percent since 1996, the year before the first APCs were opened.

A third concern about transition programs involves the racial segregation that often results from them. While many students and faculty in Chicago's APCs seem to believe that the benefits of the individualized attention outweigh the costs of being in a program that segregates youth racially and/or academically, this may not be the case everywhere. And, there may be other factors that complicate this issue in particular settings. In Chicago, many APC students travel on public transportation well beyond their neighborhoods to get to school, often, as Woestehoff puts it, through "hostile gang territory."

Fourth, the question of what happens to students after they leave the somewhat protected environment of an APC-like program concerns some researchers. A 2002 report by the Chicago consortium found that students who go from APCs to high school have "difficulty getting and staying on track." The researchers note that students from APCs tend to take full course loads once they arrive in high school, but have trouble passing classes and earning enough credits to stay on the same academic level as their peers.

A Model Program?

Perhaps the most important question about Chicago's APCs has to do not with what happens to students for the short amount of time they are there, but whether the benefits they seem to get from smaller classes and extra support could be multiplied if similar programs could reach more students for longer periods of time.

"It would be wonderful if some of these schools could evolve into four-year high schools, or even two-year schools," Sengstacke director Taylor says.

Woestehoff agrees, but she suggests that such extra support would ideally be offered in mainstream high schools where lower-performing students could receive the help they need while still participating along with other students in a "normal" high school experience. This approach is in line with the way some researchers have resolved the retention-versus-social-promotion dilemma. They recommend promoting students so that they do not fall behind their age cohorts and become vulnerable to dropping out, but providing them with the support they need to succeed. "It may be that neither social promotion nor grade retention alone adequately serves the needs of youths who are doing poorly in school," writes Melissa Roderick, a University of Chicago researcher. "Research on grade retention has found that promotion with remediation provides more short-term academic benefits to youths than either retention alone, retention with remediation, or promotion alone."

Providing the level of remediation, individualized attention, and counseling available in APCs to all the at-risk students in the Chicago Public Schools—or in any large school system—would obviously be a tall order, given the paucity of financial resources currently available to public education. But this may be the only alternative to social promotion that does not segregate students, stigmatize them, or leave a substantial number of them behind as failures and dropouts before they even reach high school.

"[If students are struggling] you simply need to stop somewhere and help those kids," says Proctor's Young-Wright. "You could call it anything you want. You don't have to call it transition, you don't have to call it academic prep, you don't have to call it special ed. Just give the kids what they need."

For Further Information

For Further Information

A.B. Cholo. "Dropping Out in Grade School: Tough Promotion Policy Linked to Earlier Quitting." Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2002: C1-2.

C. Gewertz. "More Chicago Pupils Flunk Grade." Education Week, October 9, 2002.

S.R. Miller, E.M. Allensworth, and J.R. Kochanek. Student Performance: Course Taking, Test Scores, and Outcomes (The State of Chicago Public High Schools: 1993 to 2000). Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2002.

D.R. Moore. New Data about Chicago's Grade Retention Program Provides Further Proof That Neither Retention nor Social Promotion Works. Chicago: Designs for Change, 2000.

M. Roderick, J. Nagaoka, J. Bacon, and J.Q. Easton. Update—Ending Social Promotion: Passing, Retention, and Achievement Trends among Promoted and Retained Students, 1995-1999. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Re search, 2000.

J. Temkin. "Transition Students: Most Go to High School, but Then Drop Out." Catalyst 12, no. 9 (June 2001).