ACT Leadership Cohort Trip 2: Chicago

The purpose of the trip to Chicago was to show us the efforts that inner-city students must go through to get through the school system and hopefully onto college – and also what can happen when they do not.

We met with many amazing leaders from Chicago Public Schools, non-profits doing work that is being used as a template for many others across the country, University researchers, and former government representatives.

On Monday the first day, we visited two very different schools – Tilden Career Community High School and Kenwood Academy. Tilden was almost haunting in its age and the character of the students and staff. Raw, passionate, innovative, yet almost acting as a symbol of the neighborhood in that the school with a capacity of 1500 only currently carries around 400 students. The cavernous front entrance, adorned now by a metal detector, welcomed students to a nearly empty school. Yet Principal Sweeney was full of passion, the students there spoke highly of teachers supporting them and of scholarships with plans to go beyond their school. A GREAT non-profit called Umoja partners with the school to offer Restorative Justice Training, Social-Emotional Skills, and Curriculum to advance students lives. Students shared how the restorative approach had helped them along with being around peers and staff that believed in them.

From there we went on to Kenwood Academy. This was a high performing school that was both selective in nature and a, “neighborhood,” school. Students that were asked to talk to us there had plans of going to Ivy League colleges with scholarships, performing on Broadway, had watched Barack Obama’s speech that morning at the University of Chicago… amazing. One student noted that the ACT LOVES right triangles which drew some laughs. Here the model was all about supporting students through a multi-faceted approach aided in part with research from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research(Link to Research). The differences in the facilities were striking. At Tilden, the library was bare of books and technology. At Kenwood, it was bright, relatively modern, full of books and new computers.

Heading to the Swissotel for the evening (I snuck in a short run in the hour we had between arriving and dinner!) in downtown Chicago was great – I’d only been to Chicago once before in 2013 other than airport transfers, so loved seeing the river walkways and new additions to Millennium Park.

That evening, we had the privilege of listening to several members of the Chicago community who had grown up in a very poor area – the Cabrini-Green projects. Inspiring stories born of community, forged by hardship and rewarded with successful lives. One thing that stuck out to me was how they instantly invited us into their lives. As one person started – “You’ve all heard of Cabrini Green right? Ok good,” even though I at least hadn’t. I also loved hearing the nicknames and how those youth-oriented identities played a big role in shaping future lives. My own youth nickname of B-Dawg doesn’t quite stack up!

Tuesday morning, we heard from Aarti Dhupella from National Luoius University and Lila Leff from the Emerson Collective. Both 18158015_10155296724577386_935245371016558923_nspeakers talked a lot about ways to encourage students to succeed with alternative undergraduate pathways. I was most taken by the reliance again on GPA rather than standardized test scores – to me grades are subjective, but apparently also an indicator of the persistence one needs to succeed in college. There were also comments that they feel the ACT doesn’t necessarily indicate success in college, which was a pretty bold statement to a room full of ACT leaders!

Our next visit was with a community college Associate Vice Chancellor discussion credentials and career pathways. Chicago Community Colleges used to have 500+ courses and pathways for students… now they’ve narrowed it down to less then a dozen pathways to make more productive pathways. This was a meeting where I personally really felt at home because it was all of the familiar concepts from my years in both public school education and as an adjunct faculty.

Finally, we went to a pizza restaurant called Roots for a final set of meetings. There we met a young man named Kyle Westbrook of the Partnership for College Completion ( I could not find a website). This organization attempts to make sure once students get to college they are able to finish and enter into careers -not jobs.

We heard a lot about how micro-credentials and the ability to track workforce-ready skills throughout a students K-16 career and beyond would greatly assist students who may have trouble completing a program a study. In addition, more data throughout an education career can help become a formative measure of future success, connect those students with mentors, identify social-emotional skills that the student is lacking, and more. It was a timely trip that cemented ACT’s commitment to underserved learners and how the entire company needs to move towards enabling technology to help accomplish those goals.

A few quick ideas:

  • If a school system sees what social-emotional skills a student is weak in, they can connect them with a mentor that is strong in those skills
  • If the CASE file format (standards) is well-integrated with Badges/Micro-Credentials, we can have true portability of informal skills to degrees and credentials down the line
  • Connecting academic formative assessments to social-emotional skills is something that should be happening in the next few years here. For example, if we notice that a student is working on a problem and doesn’t know how to try a different method, that can be translated into a Navigation skill that talks about trying different approaches in a different context and then circle back to the academic skill.


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