Printer Friendly

Chicago Valedictorians Struggle to Stay Competitive.

Even though she worked hard and earned top grades in almost all her classes, Wendy Purham said her principal at Jean Baptiste Point DuSable High School gave up on her and made her feel her dream of becoming valedictorian was beyond reach. So did her guidance counselor, who didn't include her in trips to college campuses.

It would have been easy for Purham to give up on herself. When she looked out the windows of her classroom at DuSable, 4934S. Wabash Ave., she saw a foreboding line of beige public housing high rises--the Robert Taylor Homes. She watched other girls pulling their children along. And in her junior year, Purham could reach down and feel her own baby growing inside of her.

It all scared the girl who, in eighth grade, set her mind on being No. 1 in high school. She wanted an abortion, but an uncle showed her a passage in the Bible and told her it was a sin. So she stopped eating, praying the baby would disappear.

"I felt like if I had this child everything would be taken away from me," she recalled.

But Purham's baby persevered. So did she.

On July 19, 1999, she gave birth to her son, Roosevelt. And on June 9, 2000, graduation day, she read her valedictory poem to the DuSable graduates, congratulating them for making it through and not settling for minimum wage jobs.

The word "valedictorian" conjures up images of the best and the brightest, of high-achievers who are headed to highly competitive universities like Harvard, Stanford or Yale. But many of the best from Chicago's predominantly black and Latino public high schools can't meet the standards of the most competitive colleges and universities, shows an analysis of schools data by The Chicago Reporter. Forty-six of the 60 valedictorians in the Chicago Public Schools' Class of 2000 might not qualify for colleges that are "very difficult." They scored below 26 on the national American College Testing exam--the median score of students admitted to "very difficult" colleges as listed in Peterson's Guide to Four Year Colleges.

A perfect score on the ACT is 36; the Illinois average is 21.5. Peterson's, an annual, widely used publication that profiles 2,243 colleges and universities in North America, established its ratings by surveying colleges and interviewing education experts, said Mark Zidzik, director of research development for the Lawrenceville, N.J-based guide.

Eight Chicago valedictorians scored 18 or below on the ACT, and all of them came from high schools where 99 percent of the students were either black or Latino, the Reporter's analysis shows. Like Purham, at least 75 percent of the students admitted to moderately difficult colleges as listed by Peterson's, such as Chicago State University, scored higher than 18.

Thirteen Chicago valedictorians scored above 26, and all but three went to schools that were at least 15 percent white or Asian.

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, said "it is not acceptable" that so many valedictorians are going to less challenging schools. The center works with teachers and principals in the public schools to improve curriculum and instruction. "These are your top kids," she said. "They should have greater opportunities to learn more and to become better prepared."

"Who becomes a valedictorian is relative to the school," said Peter Martinez, the senior program officer overseeing education grants at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "With notable exceptions," predominantly black and Latino schools produce valedictorians who don't do well on standardized tests, he said, because these schools are more likely to have "low performing" teachers who do not challenge bright students and offer "less rigorous" curricula.

Paul Vallas, the schools' outgoing chief executive officer, was not surprised by the Reporter's analysis. "The level of expectation is lower at a lower-performing school," he said. "I would assume as much."

But since he took over the system in 1995, Vallas said, he has been encouraging "poor performing" schools to offer Advanced Placement courses, for which students can get college credit. He also boosted the number of schools that offer the high-performance International Baccalaureate Organization's Diploma Programme from one to 12.

Vallas said he is putting these "exemplary" programs in neighborhood schools, most of which are predominantly Latino and black. This article is the second of three focusing on education in Chicago. "Chicago Matters" is an annual public information series initiated and funded by The Chicago Community Trust, Chicago's community foundation, in collaboration with WTTW, Channel 11; WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio; the Chicago Public Library; and the Reporter. The Reporter's sister publication, CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, is a special participant this year. For more information on the series, visit

The public schools could not provide information on where its valedictorians went to college. But a survey of 60 valedictorians who graduated in 1990, 1995 and 2000 does reveal trends. The Public Policy Practicum at the University of Chicago conducted the survey for the Reporter, CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio.

All Chicago public school valedictorians surveyed in the Chicago Valedictorian Project said they went to college. Thirty-one of the 69 Class of 2000 valedictorians responded to the survey, and 58 percent said they went to "moderately difficult" or "minimally difficult" colleges, or two-year institutions that were not rated in Peterson's.

Peterson's asks colleges to provide their own self-assessments, which measure factors like the percentage of applicants accepted into the college and students' ACT scores, Zidzik said.

Blondean Davis, the system's chief of schools and regions, noted that students often choose colleges for cultural reasons. Many valedictorians are the first members of their families to go to college, she said, and the families are uneasy about sending them out of state.

Still, the schools have a responsibility to help students break out of their "comfort zones," Davis added.

Eram Adam, the 2001 valedictorian at Von Steuben Metro High School, 5039 N. Kimball Ave., can verify firsthand that some schools do a better job than others of preparing smart, motivated students.

She applied to Von Steuben, a magnet school, because she and her parents feared her neighborhood high school, Carl Schurz, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave, would not prepare her for college.

In 2000, 47 percent of the seniors at Schurz took the ACT, averaging 15.8, while at Von Steuben 91 percent of the students took the exam and scored an average of 20.4, schools data show.

Adam said she was accepted by Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and was put on Harvard University's waiting list. She decided to go to Northwestern.

"My parents don't want me to go so far away," said Eram, 17, whose mother and father emigrated to Chicago from India in the 1970s. "And to tell you the truth, I really don't want to go."

Falling Behind

"I was bitter about my high school," said 19-year-old Carlos Gomez.

With a 4.65 grade point average, Gomez sailed through James H. Bowen High School, at 2710 E. 89th St. on the Southeast Side. He enjoyed the school's drafting program, he said, but got As with little homework or studying.

He was bored in his classes, where teachers repeated lessons for the slower students. He was not offered Advanced Placement courses, he said. At Bowen, 13.5 percent of the students read at or above their current grade level last year, schools data show.

In August 2000 he enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's highly rated engineering program. Gomez expected to do well. But he was stumped in the first week, he recalled. He couldn't keep up with the complex concepts.

"My classmates seemed to have had this stuff in high school," he said. "I did not."

One overwhelming and bewildering week turned into two. The university offered tutoring and other support services, but Gomez said he did not feel comfortable asking for help.

He slipped further and further under.

"By the end of the semester, I was really doing poorly," said Gomez. His grade point average fell below 2.0. "It was a domino effect."

Laura Jancaric, who was Gomez's guidance counselor at Bowen, sighed when she heard his story. She has heard similar complaints from other students, she said.

But she said part of the problem is that smart students, such as Gomez, often slack off in high school. "They don't prepare as well as they should have," Jancaric said. "Then they get to college and they are like, 'Oh. I should have worked harder."'

Of the Class of 2000 valedictorians surveyed, 21 went to high schools where more than half of all students read below grade level. And the valedictorians who went to these poorer performing schools said they faced "few challenges," ranking their schools an average of 2.9 on a scale of one to five, with one meaning "not challenged at all."

Valedictorians from schools where at least 50 percent scored at or above grade level in reading tests rated their schools an average of 3.6, the survey showed.

Vallas said that when he came on as schools chief in 1995, Chicago's public high schools could be broken down into three categories: magnet, remedial and neighborhood schools.

All schools where 20 percent of students were reading below grade level were put on "probation," and alternative schools were created for students with discipline problems, he said.

And by 1997, every high school student was required to complete a "college-preparatory" curriculum. "I hate saying 'college preparatory' like it is some new thing," Vallas said. "Every high school by definition should be college preparatory."

Students can no longer graduate with only one year of science, two years of math and an array of English classes that might include journalism and creative writing. Now, they must take four years of English courses such as world literature, three years of math classes, three years of a lab science such as chemistry and two years of a foreign language.

Vallas also hopes to bring advanced placement classes to all 69 high schools. He notes that two schools have accredited baccalaureate programs, 10 are developing them and three others have applied for accreditation.

"By only helping under-achieving students, you are not going to get to the next level," he said. "To get to the next level you need to seed neighborhood schools with exemplary programs."

The baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School, which began in 1980, attracted 130 freshmen this year, all of whom scored between the 88th and 99th percentiles on reading and math tests they took in seventh grade, said Dean Strass-burger, senior counselor at Lincoln Park, 2001 N. Orchard St.

In 1995, one-third of all high schools offered Advanced Placement classes, Vallas said. In 1996, 5.9 percent of magnet school students took the courses, compared with IA percent in neighborhood schools. Black and Latino students comprised 52 percent of those taking AP classes in 1996, while they represented 85J percent of public high school students.

There has been some improvement since then, schools data show. By the 1999-2000 school year, 3.3 percent of the students in neighborhood high schools took AP courses, and 59 percent of all AP students were either black or Latino.

Vallas hopes that baccalaureate programs will eventually be operating in racially isolated schools such as Austin Community Academy High School, at 231 N. Pine Ave. on the West Side, where 99 percent of the students are black. Last year, 50 of 1,069 students took the ACT; their average score was 14.8.

"These were remedial schools," Vallas said. "We are trying to break that mold."

Northwestern University education professor and longtime researcher G. Alfred Hess Jr. said the AP classes, regional magnet schools and baccalaureate programs are good first steps toward keeping the best students in their neighborhood schools.

But engaging the brightest students will be a challenge unto itself, he added, because it is tougher to reform high schools than elementary schools. "High schools are big bureaucracies that are hard to move," Hess said.

On Target

One morning in late March, Alam, a thin, unassuming young woman in khaki pants and a zip-up gray sweatshirt, recalled how she got on the path to becoming a valedictorian.

In eighth grade, she enrolled in a special accelerated science program, she said. That qualified her to take an advanced biology class in her freshman year that most students typically take in their junior year, if at all. An "A" put her in the running to be valedictorian because it was weighted more heavily toward her grade point average. "The teacher of the biology class told me I could become valedictorian," Alam said. "She gave me confidence."

Alam's experience is no surprise to Tammy Johnson, program director of the Oakland, Calif.-based ERASE Initiative, a national public policy program that works on issues of race and public education.

Often, the road to valedictorian for white and Asian students begins in middle school, where they are challenged by harder courses, Johnson said. And in high school they get more opportunities to take "weighted" honors classes.

"Students are still tracked based on color," she added. "They are often put in low level classes based on the whims of an administrator."

A March 2000 ERASE Initiative report, "Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in U.S. Public Schools," compared the number of black and Latino students enrolled in AP courses with their numbers in nine school districts. The report does not include Chicago, but in the cities studied, "Black[s] or Latinos or both were underrepresented in these gateway classes, [and] whites were overrepresented," the report's authors wrote. For example, 55 percent of Boston students are black, while African Americans make up 27 percent of the students in AP classes.

DePaul's Radner said that historically the Chicago Public Schools' magnet programs have been used to attract white students, leaving others to languish in poorly funded neighborhood schools.

But the system's move to bring exemplary programs to neighborhood schools "gives me some hope," she said.

In cities like Chicago, students are also tracked by the school they attend, said Gary Orfield, a former education and political science professor at the University of Chicago who studied the city's schools in the 1980s. He is now a professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Magnet schools are often on the upper-level track and neighborhood schools on the lower-level track, he said. "So a trigonometry class at one school is nothing like a trigonometry class at another."

Orfield, who once served on a panel that reviewed admissions policies for the University of Chicago, said admissions officers look for evidence that demonstrates minority Chicago Public School students from low-income areas can handle a demanding curriculum.

"But we knew a lot of them couldn't last a quarter at U of C," he said. "They didn't have the preparation. There were no classes that would prepare them."

Ruth Vedvik, director of admissions and records for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said her staff knows the public schools well and can put a student's application in the right context.

Half of the students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scored between 25 and 29 on the ACT. But Vedvik notes that another 25 percent scored above 29, and another quarter scored below 25. She said standardized test scores are only one factor in admissions decisions.

"The students who we admit in the lower quartile often have strong personal statements that show they have overcome much to get where they are," she said.

The counselors also look at a student's class rank and the types of classes the student took, Vedvik added.

While Northwestern is listed as "most difficult" in Peterson's, the university does not treat Chicago Public School students differently from others, said Carol Lunken-heimer, Northwestern's director of admissions. But her counselors pay close attention to applications from blacks and Latinos, who are underrepresented at the university, she added. Student essays, which are part of the applications, also play a big role.

"These essays reveal some amazing stories," she said.

Radner believes the challenge starts in elementary schools, where some students don't get the foundation they need. And guidance counselors don't challenge students to set their sights high, she added.

It reminds her of the 1950s, when top-achieving black students were routinely sent to secretarial school, she said.

"Going to a high-level college would allow the valedictorians to be with their peers. The quality of learning at high-level colleges is better, and so is the intellectual atmosphere."

Making It

For Patrick Jones, becoming valedictorian meant more than just getting good grades. It was a symbol of the obstacles he had overcome.

The 1990 valedictorian went to Calumet Academy High School, at 8131 S. May St. on Chicago's South Side, where 56 percent of the students who entered in 1986 as freshmen did not graduate. When he entered Calumet, he was assigned to a homeroom for learning-disabled students, he said. But he worked hard, got good grades and earned a spot on the honor roll. He was soon moved to honors classes, he said.

In his valedictory speech, "The Dilemma of the Black Man in America," he talked about how gangs, drugs and violence often claim the attention of young black men.

"It really is a perplexing situation," Jones remembers. "Not everyone makes it, but we are the ones who did."

Jones went on to Tuskegee University, an historically black college in Tuskegee, Ala., that a teacher had recommended. He said Calumet prepared him for Tuskegee, which was listed in Peterson's College Guide as "moderately difficult."

He was active in the drama club at Calumet, which kept him busy and gave him essential speaking skills. And he credits his pastor, mother and extended family for sheltering him from gangs and trouble.

"Everyone surrounded me and kept me focused," Jones said.

Like Jones, many of the 60 Valedictorians who responded to the Chicago Valedictorian Survey have confronted socioeconomic barriers. Two-thirds reported having at least one parent with no more than a high school diploma; 70 percent came from low-income families.

And these high-achievers are not immune to the problems that face many teenagers.

Charles Mingo, who served as principal of DuSable until 1999, said he felt bad when he learned Wendy Purham--who he recalls as a bright self-starter--got pregnant He saw other pregnant girls at the school, and he believes it prevented them from achieving their potential.

"That was not something we were proud of," said Mingo, who is now principal of Beckman Middle School in Gary, Ind. "The valedictorian and pregnancy thing don't mix."

Still, Lucia Podraza, who once taught journalism to Purham and now teaches commercial art at DuSable, said the teachers looked out for Purham.

Bright students like Purham would be swallowed up in super-competitive magnet schools like Whitney Young Magnet and Lane Technical, she said.

"Here, Wendy was a star," she said.

And while valedictorians like Purham, Jones and Gomez might struggle at times, the perseverance that pushed them to the top of the class will serve them well, said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago-based parent advocacy group.

"These are kids who are on the ball," she said.

Now, Gomez spends three or four hours on homework every night, he said. He studies for tests early on, instead of cramming at the last minute. He seeks help from classmates and tutors. "I am doing better."

So is Purham. She wishes Chicago State was more challenging, but what it lacks in academics, it makes up for in convenience, she said. It's close to her job and to Roosevelt, who is now nearly 2 years old.

She hopes to become a doctor and see her son grow up and go to college. And now she is thankful that Mingo told her the baby would keep her from achieving her goals, she said.

"I used to say it was my son who made me continue on to become valedictorian. But now I say it was my principal, who told me I could not do it. My principal made me push myself forward."

Contributing: Maureen Kelleher, an associate editor for CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and Edie Rubinowtiz, who produced an reported a related documentary for WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio, Reporter interns Anita Bryant, Danielle Duncan, Micah Holmquist, Eric Luchman, Elizabeth Raap and Eric Satre, and CATALYST resercher Irasema Salinas helped research this article.

Advancing Students

Efforts by the Chicago Public Schools to increase the availability of Advanced Placement classes--in which high school students can earn college credit--has benefited this year's vatedictorians. But race still plays a role: On average, valedictorians at predominantly black high schools took less than half the number of AP classes as their counterparts at racially diverse schools.

Notes: Thirty-one schools were defined as predominantly black, where at least 60 percent of the student population was African American in both the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years; 10 Latino schools were defined as at least 60 percent Latino. In another 22 mixed schools, no racial group accounted for more than 60 percent of the enrollment. Data were not available for four schools and do not-include charter and alternative high schools.

Sources: Chicago Public Schools High School Development Office, Illinois State Board of Education; analyzed by The Chicago Reporter.

[Graph omitted]

Passing the Test

Valedictorians from the Class of 2000 who went to racially mixed high schools performed better, on average, on the American College Test, a standardized exam widely used by colleges in their admissions decisions, than their counterparts at predominantly black or Latino schools. A perfect score on the ACT is 36; the state average is 21.

Notes: Thirty-one schools were predominantly black, where at least 60 percent of the student population was African American in the 1999-2000 school year; 10 schools were at least 60 percent Latino. In another 22 mixed schools, no racial group accounted for more than 60 of the enrollment. Data were not available for six schools and do not include charter and alternative high schools.

Sources: Chicago Public School Development Office, Illinois State Board of Education; analyzed by The Chicago Reporter.

[Graph omitted]
Moderate Success
Most of the 31 Class of 2000 valedictorians interviewed for the
Chicago Valedictorian survey went to colleges that were listed as
"moderately difficult". But African American valedictorians were
most likely to attend those schools.
 White Black Latino Asian
Minimally difficult 0 1 1 0
Moderately difficult 2 7 3 1
Most and very difficult 3 3 3 4
Not rated 3 2 1
Notes: Two of the valedictorians are counted twice because they attended
two different colleges. Peterson's does not list ratings for two-year
Source: Chicago Valedictorian Survey, Peterson's Guide to Four Year
Colleges; analyzed by The Chicago Reporter.


Callie Toneal Pittman (seated)

Shallie Pittman 1995 co-valedictorians at George Washington Carver Military Academy High School, 13100 S. Doty West Ave.

Age: 23 (twins)

Race/Ethnicity: Black

College Both went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Callie is pursuing a master's in clinical psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. Shallie is training to become a doctor at Rush Medical College.

Callie: "Many people associated Carver with the projects because it was in a bad area. But I thought the teachers and resources were as good as I ever had."

Shallie: "Some of the teachers were challenging and some were not. It depended more on the teacher than the class or the school."


Darius Taylor

Age: 22

Race/Ethnicity: Black

1995 valedictorian at Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland Ave.

College: University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

Completing a yearlong internship for minorities interested in sports management at the Big 10 Athletic Conference in northwest suburban Park Ridge.

"Going to college was a big transition. Other valedictorians were better prepared. City kids have a big problem."

Chicago Valedictorians

This article includes data from the Chicago Valedictorian Survey, collected by the Public Policy Practicum at the University of Chicago in conjunction with The Chicago Reporter, CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio.

The media partners tracked down the names and contact information for 200 valedictorians from the classes of 1990, 1995 and 2000. The practicum, a class of 37 undergraduate students, helped the media team design the questionnaire. The students also conducted a telephone survey of 60 valedictorians.

Most of the data analyzed for the article was gleaned from the surveys and interviews with 31 of the 69 valedictorians in the Class of 2000. The survey did not include students who attended charter and alternative schools.

A. Rupa Datta, who directed the practicum and is also a senior survey director at the university's National Opinion Research Center, said the survey can provide insight into the valedictorians' experiences. The analysis also included the 2000 valedictorians' scores on the American College Test, a standardized exam for high school students. The scores were provided by the Chicago Public Schools.


Marissa Sandoval

Age: 25

Race/Ethnicity: Latina 1994 valedictorian at John F. Kennedy High School, 6325 W. 56th St.

COLLEGE: Loyola University Chicago

Bachelor's degree in nursing, will take her exam to become a licensed registered nurse in August.

"I always had this impression that North Side schools got more money than South Side schools. But Advanced Placement English was one exception. It was great. We got a lot of opportunities to be exposed to culture, such as plays."
COPYRIGHT 2001 Community Renewal Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Karp, Sarah
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:The New Great White Hope.
Next Article:Cook County Offenders Lose Out in Drug Treatment Revival.

Related Articles
Karp becomes reporter. (Reporter News).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters