Opinion

Book Excerpt: ‘The Make-or-Break Year’ Chronicles How a Simple Research Finding About High School Freshmen Altered the Trajectory of Thousands of Chicago Students

By Emily Krone Phillips | January 8, 2019

Copyright © 2019 by Emily Krone Phillips. This excerpt originally appeared in The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time, published by The New Press, and reprinted here with permission.

INTRODUCTION

Average. That was how Eric thought of himself as he began his freshman year at John Hancock College Prep High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side in the fall of 2014. Average student. Average athlete. Depressingly average build, despite an early growth spurt that had given him false hope that he might harbor some recessive height genes.

(Read Conor Williams’s review of The Make-or-Break Year)

He hadn’t always thought of himself in those terms. In eighth grade he had nursed the dream of attending one of the city’s selective enrollment high schools, those educational crown jewels reserved for Chicago’s academic elite who earned top grades and test scores in elementary school. Like many of his friends from elementary school did, Eric applied and was rejected. The rejection stung more than he let on, reinforcing his fears that he was not particularly smart or talented. And so he recalibrated his expectations and went looking for a high school that was thoroughly average. “I just wanted the most mundane school I could find,” Eric said later. “I wanted an ‘I-can-get-by-without-any-trouble’-type school.”

He believed that Hancock, a small neighborhood high school near his home, fit the bill. Established to relieve overcrowding at nearby schools, Hancock was never meant to inspire — as the newly constructed selective-enrollment schools, with their glass, light, and sparkle were meant to do — instead, it was meant to accommodate.

It was housed in an aging building that had once held an all-girls Catholic school. Eric’s older brother, a senior at Hancock, encouraged him to enroll. And so he did. He planned to keep his head down, work just hard enough to get by, and, upon graduation, leave school behind for good.

From the outset, though, Hancock ’s teachers and students seemed determined to upend his plan. He attended the freshman orientation before the start of the school year and was bombarded with overtures from upperclassmen who invited him to join their after-school clubs and activities. Teachers, too, seemed friendly and approachable. They quizzed him about his interests, his family, his goals, his learning style. On the first day of school, his math teacher, Mr. Castillo, screened Stand and Deliver, the classic film based on the story of Jaime Escalante, an East Los Angeles public school teacher who took a ragtag group of underachieving, working-class Latino students and in a year taught them enough advanced math to enable them to pass the rigorous AP Calculus exam. After the movie wrapped, Raul Castillo addressed his own class full of low-income Latino students, vowing to help them reach new academic heights if they exhibited the same type of ganas, or drive, as the students in the film had.

Eric did not know what to make of it all. “I thought everyone was really friendly, but some people were kind of too friendly,” he recalled. “Me and my older brother, we don’t really trust people who are too friendly.” He ticked off a list of traumatic events that had contributed to his trust issues: His half-brother’s father’s deportation. The Christmas Day when a family member attempted to kidnap his half-brother and reunite him with his father in Mexico, stabbing his mother and stepfather in the process (both survived). His own father’s inconsistent presence in his life.

But Eric pinned most of the problems he experienced when he first arrived at Hancock on his own “laziness.” “I was expecting to coast and that just didn’t happen,” he said. By the start of the fourth quarter of his freshman year, Eric was on the verge of failing three classes. He had D’s in Environmental Science and French, plus an F in Mr. Castillo’s Honors Algebra class.

This did not bode well for his academic future. Researchers have shown that freshman year is the “make-or-break” year for high school graduation. Students who receive more than one F in a semester during their freshman year are very unlikely to graduate, even if, like Eric, they posted solid academic records before high school. And if ninth grade is the make-or-break year for high school graduation, then it is also the pivotal year for a shot at the middle class. High school graduates earn roughly $670,000 more over the course of a lifetime than high school dropouts do. They are more likely to vote, volunteer, and participate in other aspects of civil society. They are less likely to live in poverty or be institutionalized in a prison or mental hospital. They are healthier. They live longer. In short, a high school diploma is the first line of defense against the corrosive effects of poverty. For Eric and the students whose lives are chronicled in this book, it is no exaggeration to say that ninth grade is a life-or-death proposition.

But Eric was lucky. Lucky to go to school when he did and lucky to attend Hancock, which by the time he entered high school had become one of the best schools in the city at supporting freshmen. It wasn’t always this way. If he had attended Hancock — or any number of Chicago’s public high schools — just a decade earlier, chances are good that he would have dropped out.

For many consecutive years during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, ninth graders entering Chicago’s public high schools had roughly the same odds of dropping out as of graduating. If a student struggled freshman year, as Eric did, those odds increased exponentially.

This was no silent epidemic. Beginning in the early 1980s, dozens of studies documented the size and scope of the city’s dropout crisis. Each subsequent report triggered paroxysms of publicity and finger-pointing, and served as further confirmation that Chicago’s schools were broken, perhaps beyond repair.

“Nothing has shown us the dismal state of public schooling in Chicago as clearly as the most recent estimates of how many high school students fail to graduate,” a 1985 Chicago Tribune editorial lamented. The Hispanic dropout rate constitutes an “intellectual genocide of a people,” the head of the Chicago Board of Education’s Dropout Prevention Bureau warned that same year. “African-Americans leave city’s public schools at staggering rate,” a 2003 front-page headline decried.

While there was near-universal consensus that the dropout rate in Chicago was indeed a crisis, not to mention a disgrace and black eye for the city, there was absolutely no agreement on its root causes or how to remedy them. Academics and educators, pundits and policymakers, concerned citizens and at least one specially convened task force put forth dozens of theories, many of them contradictory and most of them implicating the rampant poverty in Chicago and its attendant social ills. Experts blamed broken families, broken communities, illiteracy, crime, drugs, street gangs for boys, and teen pregnancy for girls. Most of these challenges were complex, entrenched, and entirely outside the control of high schools. In short, they appeared insurmountable and so, therefore, did the dropout crisis.

It wasn’t.

This book will tell the unlikely and largely untold story of how a simple idea — that ninth grade is the “make-or-break” year for high school graduation, and that teachers and schools must organize to support students during this treacherous transition year — transformed Chicago’s dropout epidemic into a manageable, albeit chronic, disease and annually propelled thousands of additional students like Eric toward a spot in the middle class.

In the late 1990s, researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research identified an interesting statistical relationship. Students who passed their courses in ninth grade almost always went on to graduate. Those who failed more than one semester of a course almost always dropped out, even if they had excelled in elementary school. Subsequent research found that freshman-year academic performance was by far the best predictor of whether or not a student would persist to earn a high school diploma. Students who were “on-track ” after freshman year — that is, students who failed no more than one semester of a core course and had at least ten semester credits — were more than three-and-a-half times as likely as students who were “off-track” to graduate. This finding prompted the UChicago Consortium to develop the “Freshman OnTrack” indicator, which came into wide use in Chicago schools and, eventually, beyond and proved more predictive of eventual graduation than prior academic achievement or background characteristics, such as students’ race or gender or the level of their family or community resources did. In fact, it proved more predictive than all of those factors combined.

These findings suggested that students do not drop out because they are poor or black or illiterate, as conventional wisdom posits. They drop out because, for a constellation of reasons, they struggle at age fourteen and don’t receive enough support to bounce back. The implications for practice were intriguing. High school educators have no control over the background characteristics of the students who arrive at their doorstep, but they can influence how students perform once they get there. The research suggested that freshman year offered a crucial intervention point for those working to reduce the number of dropouts.

In the 2008–09 school year, when Arne Duncan was the “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), its administrators announced a major push to improve freshmen’s on-track rates. Every high school in the city was to be held accountable for the percentage of freshmen that ended the year on-track to graduate. Schools began to receive real-time data reports on how their freshmen were faring. Teachers, principals, administrators, policymakers, researchers, and nonprofit organizations across the city began to create new strategies for supporting freshmen. Some strategies came from what’s known as Central Office, some from classroom teachers, and others from the many nonprofit organizations that worked with schools.

Each school was free to choose its own path for supporting freshmen. Freshman OnTrack was neither a policy nor a program — it was a focus area that became a movement. Through trial and error, schools figured out what worked best for their students. Educators swapped information on what worked and what flopped, borrowing ideas from one another and modifying the ideas to fit the context of their schools.

As strategies bubbled up from the bottom, trickled down from the top, and moved laterally from school to school through formal and informal networks, citywide on-track rates for freshmen began to climb. After hovering for years in the mid-50s, the percentage of CPS freshmen finishing the year on-track to graduate reached 89 percent in 2017. Subsequent research by the Consortium (which also came to be known as the “UChicago Consortium”) tied these improved freshman rates to record graduation rates three years down the line. Crucially, these improvements were not the result of students being “passed along” or awarded D’s rather than F’s. Since 2007, the percentage of students earning A’s and B’s has increased, and ACT scores have risen slightly, despite nearly seven thousand additional students taking the exam annually (at the time, the state administered the ACT to all juniors as part of required state testing). Perhaps most remarkably, given the well-documented tendency for education reforms to benefit higher-performing schools and leave the others behind, Freshman OnTrack efforts produced the largest gains in the lowest-performing schools and for the system’s lowest-performing students.

In a 2014 press conference announcing record on-track rates, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel noted, “We’re the biggest turnaround. We’re on our way. And not just as a city — all these kids now, because of being on track for high school, they’re on track to a life of possibility.”

If ever there was a Chicago school that exemplified this trajectory from worst to first, it was Hancock. In the 2007–08 school year, the year before the district’s push to improve freshman course performance began, Hancock’s on-track rate for freshmen was just 58 percent. By the time Eric arrived at Hancock in 2014, the rate was a remarkable 94 percent.

One of the keys to Hancock’s success was its “Freshman Success Team,” a group of teachers who met regularly to keep tabs on individual students and monitor overall failure rates by grade level and class. This team approach figured prominently in most of the successful Freshman OnTrack initiatives across the district, transforming relationships among teachers and between teachers and students.

In the spring of Eric’s freshman year, the teachers who made up Hancock’s Freshman Success Team devoted part of their semimonthly meeting to discussing his struggles. Erin Neidt, a Freshman Physics teacher (and the school’s Freshman OnTrack coordinator), kicked off the meeting. “Thank you, freshman team, for being here and being on time and being fully present for our meeting today,” she said. “It’s really important to be fully present so unless you have been asked to take minutes for the meeting or you are using it to look at data of specific students, please refrain from using a lot of technology today.”

Organized, composed, and fiercely committed to helping students succeed, Neidt was an obvious candidate to lead her peers in the work to support freshmen. Her meetings ran smoothly and efficiently and concluded with concrete plans for helping struggling students. Also, like the products of any good physics teacher, her graphs and charts were impeccable.

On the overhead projector, Neidt flashed a bar graph that included up-to-date data on freshman course failures. “So here are current failures by grade level across the freshman courses,” she said.

There were very small bars next to English and Human Geography and much larger bars next to Introduction to Computer Science. Also, 6 percent of students were failing PE, which was a higher rate than usual. “Let’s take a minute to reflect on this. Talk amongst yourself in small groups.”

The first half of Freshman Success Team meetings generally focused on overall trends in failures. The goal was to make sense of whatever patterns showed up in the data and then to problem-solve accordingly as a group. Often, teachers could provide insights into why failure rates might be particularly high in a specific subject area or class. When failure rates were high across the board, they might consider new school-wide systems, policies, or structures to address the problem — a new attendance policy or grading system, for example.

The second half of Success Team meetings was devoted to discussing one or two struggling students. A photo of Eric, a baby-faced student with close-cropped hair and a shy half smile, was projected onto a screen at the front of the room. The team dove into the process of sharing their particular experiences with and knowledge of Eric.

After roughly ten minutes of discussion, the teachers determined that he was failing not because he was incapable of doing the work but because he wasn’t applying himself. Eric’s comments in class could be on point and insightful, but he had neglected to turn in numerous assignments and often seemed distracted, especially since March, when he had begun dating one of his classmates — a smart, motivated student who teachers believed could be an ally in their cause to get Eric back on-track. Michael Marzano, Eric’s science teacher, and Jeschelyn Pilar, an English teacher, decided to stage an intervention — and to enlist the help of Eric’s girlfriend in the process.

Much of the discussion in education reform centers on implementing new technology, curricula, and school models, and on attracting more investment and talent. Meetings where educators gather to talk about students? Systems and structures to ensure that students reliably receive the support they need? That’s not on anyone’s short list of cutting-edge, high-impact reform. And yet Eric would identify that single meeting of his teachers — and the plans that came out of it — as a turning point in his academic career, and maybe in his life.

On a fall day at the start of his senior year, Eric sat in a third-floor office, ready to chat about his experiences at Hancock. He was only vaguely recognizable from that freshman-year photo that had been flashed up on the screen two and a half years earlier at the Success Team meeting. His cheekbones were more pronounced. His hair had grown shaggier. His smile was broader. His handshake was firm and confident.

“Yeah, I was such an idiot freshman year,” he said by way of introduction. All this time later, Eric vividly recalled the intervention with Ms. Pilar, Mr. Marzano, and his girlfriend. Ms. Pilar had tipped him off that a conversation was going to happen. Still, he was a little bewildered when they went into Mr. Marzano’s lab classroom to talk.

Eric was embarrassed that the teachers were asking about his grades in front of his girlfriend. He knew she was serious about school, and he knew she thought he was not. She had been reluctant to date him, in large part because she thought he was too silly. “At first she friend-zoned me. It killed me,” Eric said. He had spent a lot of time convincing her that he was different from his public persona. He didn’t want this meeting to catapult him back into the “friend zone.”

He was careful to blame himself — not her — for his academic struggles in that meeting with Marzano and Pilar. He admitted that he could probably work a little harder in French. He simply had never had to apply himself before in a language class. In elementary school, he had taken Spanish and hadn’t had to work at it much since he already knew the language. Math was a different story. He was trying, but he was struggling to understand the concepts.

As a group, they decided Eric would start attending math tutoring regularly and commit to turning in his missing French assignments.

Pilar hounded him to attend math tutoring during lunch. Marzano checked in regularly about his French grade and stayed on him to complete assignments. And his girlfriend kept tabs on his academic progress as well. “She’s like my second mom,” Eric admitted ruefully.

Eric ended up passing both classes. “French wasn’t hard. I honestly just had to sit down, look at it, read it, comprehend it. One class I actually needed help in was Algebra. I ended up passing with a D. But Mr. Castillo knew I worked really hard in the end.”

After the intervention his grades improved, but in retrospect, that was just the start of an overall transformation in how he viewed himself and school. “That was when I started becoming more of a student leader,” Eric said. “I started becoming more conscientious of my decisions. I thought before then that they only affected me. I think I realized after that that people actually cared and were mindful of what you do. As a freshman I thought teachers were just teachers. They do their work and go home. I didn’t realize that teachers stay behind. The special thing about Hancock is that students are so prioritized as individuals. And it’s not just certain individuals. It’s all. If you don’t want help, it’s forced. It’s honestly forced. I’ve been forced to do so many things that eventually helped me in the long run.”

For example, he had been pressured to join Becoming a Man, a mentoring group run by a local nonprofit which has been shown to be quite successful at keeping students in school and out of trouble. The other students in BAM became “like my second family. I consider them brothers.” And they got him through a tragedy sophomore year when one of his friends, a fellow Hancock student, was shot while he was walking to school. “When Victor died that was a big outlet for me. They were always asking, how do you feel emotionally, mentally, physically? Where are you right now? A lot of us, where we were wasn’t stable. But because I was able to overcome it quicker than some people, I was able to help more people.”

Eric became a peer mentor and also a volunteer at Freshman Connection, the orientation for new students (at which he himself had once been so overwhelmed by the friendly overtures of Hancock students). He saw freshmen who were angry and scared and insecure, just like he had been, and he wanted to help them. He started to envision a career in social work or teaching, though he felt a little sheepish about it sometimes.

“I think when I graduate from college I want to be someone who helps the youth,” he said. “Because — it’s kind of selfish, I guess —  ’cause I’ve always had so many great influences, like teachers and mentors, that I want to be that person for someone.”

He pictured himself doing someday for other students what Ms. Pilar, Mr. Marzano, Mr. Martinek, and others had done for him. Andrew Martinek, a social studies teacher, ran the school’s Model UN Club, where Eric had become a policy wonk, arguing economic and weapons policy with classmates and students from other schools. As a senior, he was named secretary general of Hancock’s team.

Martinek had taken Eric and his classmates on field trips to visit colleges, and he pushed him to take advantage of opportunities that were available to the city’s teens. Over the years, Martinek had become an honorary member of Eric’s family. “I’ve known him since my freshman year and he lives a block away from me,” Eric said. “My mom has invited him to family parties. He’s seen we can party until three a.m. I think he understands who we are and who my family is as a whole.”

Mr. Martinek knew that Eric not only participated in Model UN, Becoming a Man, peer mentoring, the school’s cheerleading team, and its tech squad (which provided IT support to teachers and staff ), but also took care of his two-year-old sister every day after school and worked weekends at a grocery store on the city’s North Side, a four-hour round-trip train ride away. There had been a time at Hancock, before the Freshman OnTrack movement really took root, when some Hancock teachers had looked down on Hancock students and their families for appearing to prioritize work and family commitments over school. But Eric felt nothing but support from teachers for his balancing act.

“I take care of [my sister] because my stepdad works at night. After school I go home, I pick up her stroller and walk to her daycare. My teachers are like, ‘That’s such a great job.’ But I’m humble. That’s my everyday work. That’s what I do. I don’t complain about watching my sister. I love my sister a lot,” Eric said, with a wide grin. “And she loves me the most.”

It’s hard to reconcile that doting big brother, responsible Model UN general secretary, and spirited cheerleader with Eric’s description of himself in elementary school. “I was way, way different then,” he insists. “In seventh and eighth grade I was, I guess, a bully. I was an angry person. My confidence was really low. I went through puberty really fast in fifth grade. I had acne everywhere. . . . I had a negative body image. Coming into high school, I felt like, I’m nothing.”

Eric said he had a “big shift in mentality between the end of eighth grade and the end of ninth grade.” He attributed that shift to having teachers who believed in him and propped him up until he experienced some successes and began to believe in himself. “It took a LOT of people to tell me I had promise and that they saw promise in me to believe I was smart,” Eric said. “In elementary school people always labeled me — like, ‘He has dyslexia. He has ADHD. He can’t sit still.’ I think they started saying that so much that I started believing them.”

He paused, trying to find the right words for how he thought of himself now, as a senior. “I’m still pretty average, but I’m content with being average in high school. I’m just an average student. But in terms of extracurricular, things I do to provide for the school, I excel in that, and in helping other people.”

Eric concluded the interview with a plea to tell Hancock’s story in a way that captured what a special place it was. “I just want to emphasize that the teachers here don’t get enough credit,” he said. “I think this is one of the best schools in general on the South Side. It took Hancock a while, and a lot of hard work, especially to help students who have always been told they are average.”

This was actually a pretty good encapsulation of the Freshman OnTrack movement in Chicago — a lot of hard work, sustained over time, to help students who had struggled academically to believe that they could succeed in high school. As unlikely as it seems, that work, occurring in dozens of high schools across the city, permanently altered the trajectory of many thousands of lives. Freshman OnTrack in Chicago changed an entire system — school by school, principal by principal, teacher by teacher, and kid by kid. The change happened not just in the city’s elite selective-enrollment schools or magnet programs; not just in a smattering of beating-the-odds schools manned by extraordinary individuals; but in, as one CPS administrator put it, “regular-ass CPS schools with regular-ass CPS kids.” Kids like Eric, who didn’t turn out to be just average after all.

By 2014, Chicago’s improving on-track and graduation rates had attracted national attention, and educators wanted to better understand the Freshman OnTrack movement in order to replicate it in their districts and cities. UChicago Consortium researchers could explain that freshman year seemed to hold the key for high school graduation. And they could say that on-track rates were improving across the district and driving record graduation rates. Still, plenty of unanswered questions remained. The first group of questions centered on why freshman year was so predictive of later outcomes. Why did students who were on-track tend to remain on-track in subsequent years? And why did failures during freshman year prove so crushing? Another group of questions concerned what Freshman OnTrack was. If it wasn’t a program, and it wasn’t really a policy, then what was it and how did it spread?

A more pointed question, which often came from journalists familiar with Chicago’s public reputation for dysfunction, was some form of: How did this happen in Chicago, of all places, which between 2007 and 2018 experienced eight different superintendents’ tenures, a teachers strike, and the largest single mass school closure in the nation’s history? Consortium researchers’ tongue-in-cheek response was that if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere. But system shifts in education of this magnitude are rare anywhere. It is crucial to understand why this reform made a measurable impact at scale when so many other reforms have failed, and not simply so that other districts can replicate Freshman OnTrack and address their dropout crisis, but also so that educators in other cities and states can bring the principles of Freshman OnTrack to bear on other seemingly intractable problems. There are many hundreds of small pockets of excellence and improvement in education. And there are many more examples of failures. This is the rare story of improvement at scale, of an idea that triumphed in a system once labeled as the worst system in the nation, in schools typically the most impervious to reform, and among students who for many years had been written off.

This story follows three threads. The first trails a group of freshmen as they navigate what may be the most critical year of their lives. These students attend Tilden Career Community Academy in Back of the Yards, the former home of Union Stockyards, made famous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Tilden serves some of the city’s most vulnerable students. All Tilden students qualify as low-income, and one in five does not have a permanent place to call home. The students chronicled in this book all began the 2015–16 school year, their freshman year, at something of a personal crossroads. They were, as their English teacher put it, “still trying to decide whether to break good or break bad.”

Throughout the course of the year, the teens stumble repeatedly. They cut school, show up forty-five minutes late to class, mouth off and storm out, forget assignments, and generally drive their teachers to distraction. They also make up missed assignments, persevere through personal trials, speak lovingly and admiringly about their favorite teachers, confide their secret ambitions to leave their neighborhood and pull their families out of poverty, and noticeably mature throughout the year.

Through it all, a dedicated group of teachers, staff, and administrators fight to keep all of them on-track. They meet regularly to problem-solve around individual kids, stage interventions, call home, and give second, third, and fourth chances — all based on the philosophy that just because some freshmen arrive at high school not knowing how to be a good student, that should not mean that they never get the chance to become one.

The Tilden chapters delve into research on school transitions to help explain why ninth grade is such a pivotal year in students’ academic careers. Research on adolescence shows that freshman year is critical for determining whether students persist to graduation. It is during this period that students either form an attachment to school and become part of the larger school community — or begin to drift away. The teenage brain is hardwired to connect with and conform to peers, even as it pushes back against authority. Freshman year helps determine how teens define their peer group and themselves. Students like David, who becomes increasingly involved in the school community over the course of the year, are likely to stay connected for the rest of high school. Others, like Aniyah, interpret their failure as proof that they don’t belong in school. When Aniyah receives her third-quarter report card with all F’s, her immediate response is “See, this is why I’m gonna be a stripper.”

Emerging research on the teenage brain also helps explain why Tilden’s students — and teenagers generally — so often behave in ways that seem inexplicable to adults. New technology has allowed scientists to track brain growth and make connections between brain function and behavior and, overturning many assumptions, to reveal that a young person’s brain does not begin to resemble that of an adult until the person is in her early twenties. As Sharon Holmes, the Tilden English teacher and Freshman OnTrack coordinator, frequently reminds her students, “Your cerebral cortex is not fully formed! You make bad choices!” In fact, the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for thought and memory, looks very different in adolescents than it does in adults. The parts of the cerebral cortex responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead — key aspects of school success — are among the last to mature, making Tilden’s teachers’ commitment to second chances and intensive support all the more crucial.

The book’s second thread follows Hancock’s teachers, students, and principals over an eight-year period as the school goes from being one of the worst in the state to being among the top in the city. The Hancock story shows in great detail how Freshman OnTrack worked at Hancock and became increasingly sophisticated and effective. It shows what it took to get there — the hit-and-miss experimentation, the philosophical debates, the throw-down arguments, and strategizing, arm-twisting, and swapping ideas and theories. It shows how Freshman OnTrack was just as much an intervention for adults as it was for students, forcing the staff not only to do their jobs differently but also, in some cases, to change their entire belief systems.

Though some of the specifics are unique to Hancock, the broad outlines of Hancock’s story will help explain how and why Freshman OnTrack became such a powerful organizing principle for high schools citywide. It depicts the considerable challenges that Freshman OnTrack and most other initiatives which are introduced in very low performing schools have to overcome: a jaded workforce nursing a “this too shall pass” attitude toward reform; union rules that undermine change; deeply held beliefs about what poor and minority students are capable of achieving; relentless political pressure to demonstrate measurable progress on metrics that teachers and principals have no idea how to influence; policy initiatives enacted from on high that are tone deaf to the realities on the ground; and frequent teacher and administrative turnover that make it exceedingly difficult to maintain promising programs or learn from past mistakes, to name a few.

Amidst these challenges, Freshman OnTrack thrived among educators. It got teachers and principals, who for years had been working in isolation, working as teams for the very first time; it allowed teachers to tailor the work to the needs of their school and their students; and it made a dispirited workforce feel successful. Indeed, it so permeated the marrow of the school that it survived even when the principal who had catalyzed the initial Freshman OnTrack work retired, and also when, two years later, the mayor turned Hancock into a selective enrollment school, which upended both the school’s mission and its student body. Broadly speaking, and in contrast to many other initiatives, it worked for Hancock teachers and Hancock students. And because they could see that it worked, teachers and principals kept working at it, day after day and year after year.

Finally, the third thread zooms out to place Freshman OnTrack in a larger historical and political context, showing how the initiative survived in Chicago from 2009 to the present day despite dysfunction, turnover, and competing agendas at district and city levels. The citywide story helps illustrate those aspects of Freshman OnTrack that allowed it to make a measurable impact at scale — a critical insight, given that most ideas in education fail entirely, or fail to spread beyond a few exceptional schools. It shows the power that teachers, principals, and policymakers working together have to solve a common problem, in contrast to the typical reform script in which solutions are imposed from above, without much thought given to the complexities on the ground. And it shows the power of networks, which were responsible for building educators’ capacity to do the work (often an afterthought in education reform) and for keeping the initiative alive as the district’s leaders hopped from one priority and crisis to the next.

Freshman OnTrack also beat the odds because it managed to avoid the “killer binaries” — debates without a middle ground — that so often polarize education reformers. It was neither purely “top down” nor purely “grassroots”; it combined the expertise of teachers, administrators, researchers, and policymakers. It hinged on accountability and data, both of which are championed by “businessminded” reformers who believe that schools should run more like corporations do. But by using data to pinpoint students’ needs during a crucial developmental period, it also appealed to those who lament that the growing emphasis on accountability in schools has crowded out the human and relational elements of education.

Like most ideas, when implemented, Freshman OnTrack has had unintended consequences and mixed effects. It worked better in some schools and for some kids than for others. It repeatedly bumped up against competing priorities, political agendas, and district pathologies. And without fail, a new group of freshmen arrived every September, carrying with them all the promise and heartache that being fourteen entails, and the work began all over again. It’s these struggles that make Freshman OnTrack such a compelling story. And it’s the ability to overcome these struggles — some combination of which nearly any new idea in urban education is likely to face — that makes Freshman OnTrack such an instructive narrative for anyone interested in understanding how to improve schools and, most intriguingly, how to turn research on what works in education into a social movement that transforms lives.

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