When it’s time to change classes at George Washington High School on Chicago’s southeast side, students don’t just hear a bell. Bands like U2, Florence and the Machine, and Maná blare over the intercom.
“It’s really fun to have music in the background,” said senior Ariana Aguilera. “It just kind of pumps us up throughout the day.”
That’s the kind of energy principal Kevin Gallick and his team were looking to create when they arrived at the high school three years ago. Washington is a predominantly Hispanic school in a working-class neighborhood. When Gallick started, just 65 percent of students graduated on time, and only 35 percent of those students went to college.
“We knew that this 35 percent alone made us even abnormal in Chicago,” Gallick said. “It was something we wanted to focus on right away.”
But creating a college-going culture at Washington would take some doing. Many of the students came from families with no college tradition. Less than 10 percent of people over age 25 in the area have a four-year degree.
History explains some of that. For decades this part of the city had been a manufacturing hub. Students could walk across the street after graduation and get a good job at a steel mill. By the 1990s, most of those jobs were gone, but the school hadn’t adapted, Gallick said.
“We were talking about redefining what a high school is supposed to be about, and the bottom line is Washington was a little bit behind the times,” he said.
To catch up, Gallick started making college part of the conversation at Washington. The school staged a phonathon, reaching out to parents to answer their questions about applications and financial aid. On ACT testing day, the “Rocky” theme accompanied students down the hall. Assistant principal Anthony Malcolm even passed out T-shirts like the one John Belushi wore in the movie “Animal House,” with the word “college” printed on the front.
“I'm telling you, we would come out of here on Fridays and be driving home, and you'd see a kid wearing their college T-shirt, and we were like, ‘Yes!’” Malcolm said.
Gallick also ramped up the academics, bringing in more literacy and AP classes. The school used data to keep a closer watch on students’ grades and attendance, and enlisted virtually every adult in the building — from security guards, to coaches, to teachers — to mentor students individually.
At first, Gallick said, the changes were hard for some teachers to swallow. They were busy enough just trying to keep the students in their classes from falling behind.
“Teachers weren't saying, ‘Yes, I think this is my job, to support kids to go to college,’” Gallick said. “It wasn't really the role at the time.”
Gradually, he said, they got on board. History teacher George Fotopoulos said he starts talking with his students about college at the very beginning of ninth grade.
“I let the kids know we're here in school to support them,” he said. “We all want so see them to graduate in four years, we all want them to succeed and move on, and do something in higher education.”
The extra help — and some new college coaches — have taken some of the pressure off Washington’s counselors. One of them is Gabriel Fuentes, a Washington graduate who returned to work at the school.
“Now we felt that we had a lot more ammunition,” said Fuentes. College was no longer talked about only in counseling sessions. “It was being talked about in a classroom, or with a coach,” he said. “Everyone was speaking the same language here.”
Gabriel Fuentes meets with senior Ariana Aguilera about her college plans.
Counselors can now work more closely with students. They received additional training on how to help students choose the right college and keep track of whether they’ve completed their financial aid forms. They meet monthly at the University of Chicago to learn about the latest research on adolescent development and collaborate with counselors from other schools.
At a recent meeting with senior Ariana Aguilera, Fuentes asked her about college visits she’d made over the summer and how a scholarship interview had gone. Even straight-A students like Ariana need a lot of guidance. Her parents didn’t go to college, and she’s going to need financial aid.
“The school has a lot of support,” she said. “You don’t feel like you’re left all alone.”
Remember, three years ago, only 35 percent of Washington graduates went to college. The numbers for last year’s seniors aren’t in yet, but principal Gallick estimated close to 70 percent of those students are now in college.
Similar strategies have paid off across the district, despite severe budget cuts in recent years. In 2013, about 61 percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates enrolled in college, up from 49 percent about a decade ago, according to Eliza Moeller, an analyst with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
“I think this is pretty remarkable change,” she said. “We've essentially caught up to the U.S. average for students enrolling in college, and we're far poorer than the U.S. on average.”
Now the big challenge, Moeller said, is to make sure more of those students actually finish college. The consortium estimates that just 14 percent of ninth graders in Chicago Public Schools will earn a four-year degree by the time they’re 25.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Ariana Aguilera's name. The text has been corrected.