Building great schools: How to make it in America

Christian Fenger Academy High School in Chicago.

Chicago has the nation's third-largest public school system. And critics say that the country's largest public school systems are struggling to help their students 'make it.' The Chicago Public Schools system faces some daunting challenges. Eighty-seven percent of students in the system are from low-income families and only 50 percent of African American students in the system graduate from high school.

For many in Chicago, those numbers call into question our collective belief in schools: the deeply held belief that no matter your background or where you come from, in this country if you work hard enough, study hard enough -- you can end up whatever you want.

Elizabeth Dozier is the principal of Christian Fenger Academy High School on the South Side of Chicago. Since her tenure there, the school has made a turnaround. Four years ago, the freshman track for graduation was 40 percent, which means only four out of 10 freshmen graduated from high school. Now it's 80 percent. The college enrollment rate is improving and it's one of the top schools in the city as far as increases in college enrollment (14.8 percent in increase). Also under Dozier's leadership, violent misconduct in the school has dropped by 80 percent.

Dozier said that she never took into account things like home environment and poverty when determining how a student would do in school.

"I just didn't fully understand the complexity of work within schools," she said. "I always believed you can do whatever from a school building. I didn't take things like home situations into account."

Students at Fenger come from areas plagued by poverty, violence and gangs.

"We have students who don't eat, students living in abandoned buildings," she said. "You live in a house when there's no heat, nothing to eat, you're crossing places where you've seen people get killed...It's changed how I look at how to reframe a school. Obviously, we have to educate students and get them prepared for college but you also have to change their social standings."

Another big reason for the increase in college enrollment, graduation rates and reduced violence is a grant given to them by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The grant is called a School Improvement Grant, or SIG. It covers things like reading programs, social programs, school counselors, art teachers, peace education programs; it's also paid for smaller class sizes and additional teachers. They've used it to pay for student advocates (people go to student's homes, gives them things like bus cards, coats).

Now however, the money is set to run out next year. Dozier described losing the grant money as falling off of a cliff. She said they would need $900,000 a year to sustain the progress they've made.

"If your basic needs aren't being met, you're not really concerned about education," said Dozier.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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