On Saturday mornings, while most of their friends are still asleep, a group of Loyola students travels to Chicago’s South Side. They grab their cups of coffee and pack thick binders before climbing into buses and making their way to a part of the city few of their peers ever see.
This group of about 30 students spends each Saturday working in classrooms at struggling high schools as part of Target New Transitions (TNT), a high school intervention program for at-risk first-year students. The Loyola students are paid academic coaches who help the high school students with homework and offer emotional support to guide them through their transition from eighth to ninth grade.
“[TNT] has its roots in the research that the biggest rupture in the K-12 pipeline happens at grade nine,” said director of TNT Mary Charles. “Ninth grade is a time when their discernment skills are really lacking, so the fact that they’re in schools — often big schools or schools that are under-resourced — combined with the social and emotional deficit that every ninth grader has, is a pretty volatile combination.”
TNT works with students at three high schools: Bogan High School in Ashburn, Curie High School in Archer Heights and Hubbard High School in West Lawn. In those communities, more than 70 percent of students are classified as low-income, and budget cuts have forced administrators to scale back academic support programs and implement furlough days, or forced days off for teachers, to save costs.
While the graduation rate at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is nearly 75 percent — up more than 20 percent over the last 15 years — that still leaves about a quarter of students who don’t graduate, according to CPS. At Bogan, the graduation rate in 2016 was 67 percent; at Curie, it was 78 percent and at Hubbard, it was 79 percent, according to CPS.
The CPS students are also burdened by the constant threat of violence that plagues their communities. In the areas surrounding the schools, 58 people were shot last year, and the violence has even reached TNT’s own students. In late January, a 14-year-old boy from Hubbard High School who attends TNT was shot in the leg on his way home from school.
“It’s a shock,” said Loyola sophomore nursing major Shruti Patel, who works for TNT. “I was talking to [the student’s] friend and he was like, ‘[The student] used to be a star basketball player and he really enjoyed sports, but now he has a limp and still has a bullet in him. He has to go do the surgery in a month.’ I’m like, ‘This kid is 14.’ It opens your eyes to what’s out there, that’s for sure.”
The injured student, whom Charles requested be kept anonymous, is still recovering and recently returned to school, but the shooting had a profound impact on the academic coaches.
“I don’t really even know what to say about it,” said Loyola senior psychology major Zahra Naqi. “I didn’t have words at the time and I still don’t really have words now. It’s just heartbreaking because a lot of the time … this is more of the norm to them. They’re not as taken aback as [the academic coaches] are.”
Naqi said the violence is part of many students’ day-to-day lives.
“I remember last year, one of my students’ peers had gotten shot near his house,” Naqi said. “They were telling me about it as though they were just talking about normal high school gossip, but they were telling me about how a kid got shot.”
Poverty and violence both inside and outside of schools are another obstacle for these students, which puts them at an even greater disadvantage and can make it more difficult for them to keep pace with expected academic markers, according to Naqi.
“A lot of the kids we work with have very elementary-level math skills, so sometimes they won’t even know how to multiply a negative number or add a negative to a positive number,” said the 21-year-old. “We have to take into account that it’s not necessarily their fault for that happening.”
The academic coaches work step-by-step through students’ assigned homework. When they finish, students work through extra science activities, write short essays and complete math worksheets, all tailored to each student’s individual need.
“We keep track of every bit of data, every bit of homework we do with every single student in this program,” Charles said. “So we can tell you if [a student] worked on math in the third week and who he worked with and what he did. We are able to see the kind of marked improvement a student can make when they attend TNT.”
On top of this much-needed academic support, TNT teaches its students social and emotional skills through a series of “transition conversations” designed to match the developmental stages of the students. Academic coaches and CPS students discuss the various struggles students face as they move from eighth grade to high school; over time, students share their goals for the future, and eventually open up about their fears of violence and difficult family situations.
“This week’s transition is a really good one,” said Lucy Brian, the student services coordinator for TNT. “It’s called ‘my timeline,’ and I think it’s a really unique transition because … students look back and reflect on what they’ve accomplished and what their journey has been so far.”
Students are given a sheet of paper with a timeline from the day of their birth to their dreams for the future. They fill in important milestones in their lives, tracking their progress as they move through high school and thinking about how they can build on what they’ve already accomplished to move towards their goals, from attending college to becoming president of the United States.
As he filled out his own timeline, a 15-year-old student named Omar at Curie High School said he was told by his academic coach to think big, imagining a future in which he achieved his dream of becoming a photographer for National Geographic.
“Yeah, but that’s if I can even do it,” Omar said. “I couldn’t actually do that.”
After much encouragement from his academic coach, Omar eventually conceded it was in fact possible for him to fulfill his ambition. His trepidation is a characteristic many of these ninth graders share, according to Brian.
“There’s such a myriad of obstacles, but one that I hear about from coaches the most is self-doubt or self-deprecation,” Brian said. “I think that’s something the coaches are so incredibly powerful in helping students work through.”
That help pays off for the students at TNT: last year, 326 CPS students completed 2,053 assignments over the course of 4,488 hours. That kind of dedication translates into real results, according to Patel.
“It’s just so humbling and it makes me so proud of the work they’ve done and how much they’ve grown,” Patel said. “From not caring about grades and failing to students like Joel, who is moving into honors next semester.”
As they spend time with their students, helping them through homework and hardship, many of the academic coaches find they learn something as well, according to Charles.
“You have to learn to listen,” Patel said. “You have to put yourself in their shoes. I’ve been really lucky to have had a set of students who come every week and who I’ve built a really good relationship with. It’s important for me to be put into their situation and imagine what they’re going through.”
Sometimes, the academic coaches even learn something about themselves.
“I started out as a chemistry major and wanted to go to pharmacy school, but after I started working at TNT I realized I can have an impact on other people’s lives,” Naqi said. “I decided to change my major to psychology, and I learned that I like listening to people and I like learning from people. These kids are 14 years old, and they’ve been through so much they have so many different experiences. I’ve learned a lot.”