Unorthodox approach pays off for Spry Community School

Though nearly half of the Hispanic students in Chicago's public high schools fail to graduate, none of those drop outs this year will come from the South Side's John Spry Community School.

Working with non-traditional classroom techniques and smaller class sizes, the school has posted an unheard-of graduation rate of 100 percent, and all of its seniors will be going to college.

The school's beautifully maintained turn of the century building boasts floors so shiny you can see yourself in them.  Principal Carlos M. Azcoitia,  a tall, distinguished-looking Cuban-born, education innovator runs a tight ship.  He seems to see, hear and know everything.

"Have a nice weekend, do your homework and be good," he warns the students in a deep voice from the school's p.a. system.

Azcoitia, who resigned from his position as deputy chief education officer at Chicago Public Schools to become principal, had a vision of creating a school where dreams could happen. Children of immigrants could attend a school where graduation was almost always guaranteed, as was going to college.   He wanted to develop this pre-kindergarten through high school model with teachers, parents and the community.

"We're developing a school to meet community needs," Azcoitia said.

"For a long time this community has had a 50-to-60 percent dropout rate and yet our high school models have remained the same," Azcoitia said. "We've put a lot of Band-Aids in many traditional models."

2006 saw the first class graduate - the entire class -- from the 2003-initiated Community Links program Azcoitia developed.  Students went on to post-secondary educational institutions, such as the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, DePaul University, Northeastern Illinois University and local colleges.  Most of the students are the first in their families to graduate from high school and attend college, according to Azcoitia.

The entire current class will graduate in June, with all of those students going on to college. Most of them have received scholarships, Azcoitia said.

The secret to success

He explained that this model evolved from listening to students, parents and teachers.

For example, students prefer to have a late start and a late finish, Azcoitia said. Many students complain that getting up at 7 a.m. is too early.  So he adopted a late start schedule. Freshman start at 11 a.m. and end at 7 p.m.; sophomores go from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's even less traditional for seniors  who become part of a bold educational initiative with nontraditional hours and requirements meant to inspire and build students' confidence to go on to college.

For some students four years of high school is too long, so Spry does things differently.

"They would prefer to have shorter vacations, and have three years and three summers of work and be able to graduate," Azcoitia said.  Some students also go to school on Saturdays.

And continuation of post-secondary education was sometimes a problem.  "Many times the whole issue of going to college is left toward the end of their high school years when many students leave school," Azcoitia said. Spry begins to expose students to university during the ninth grade.  By the time they are juniors they take a college-level class for dual credit, which may be in math, science or psychology.

The College Bridge program allows seniors to enroll in classes at one of four university partners for high school and college credit class.  Spry seniors must participate in this program and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.  They attend a college class in the morning.  In the afternoon, they go back to the high school from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

"Many times students in immigrant communities go to work when they are 16," Azcoitia said.  So he has integrated a work experience into the Spry model.

What students say 

Oscar Real, 17, was recently accepted to Northeastern Illinois University.  He said he was "very excited and very nervous," and that his family was very proud. "My mom can't stop talking about it everyday."

Scholarship recipient Ofelia Gonzalez, 16, is going to study mechanical engineering. She has been accepted at the Illinois Institute of Technology and given a $21,600 scholarship.  DePaul University and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign also accepted her. She also has other offers, and hasn't made a final decision.

"In this community it's rare to actually go to college," Gonzalez said.  Her parents wanted her to go and be the first in the family to do so.

Because the school has approximately 800 students, including 105 high school students, it is easier to keep tabs on them.  Azcoitia said he has a strong team of teachers. "We know each student and they connect to us," he said.  "We know if they are late.  We know if they are out."

The faculty wanted to keep the high school small to keep a personal interest in their students' success.

Azcoitia says that many of the students are bilingual and some don't speak English upon enrollment.  He said it's important not to treat that as a handicap, but to use the "strength that the students bring to develop further learning."  The school transitions these students to English in a "process ... that increases as students make progress."

"We have extensive after school programs.  Our school is open until 7 p.m.  We have English classes for parents," he said.  "We do enrichment reading, we do remedial reading for students."

If a student is struggling in algebra, physics or history, he'll receive tutoring before class.  "One of the problems that we've had with many students who leave school is that they don't pass three, four classes during their first year," Azcoitia said. "So there is a point in time when they say, 'Is this worth it?' "

Unusual amount of autonomy  

In 2005, Spry joined the Autonomous Management and Performance program, or AMP, according to Melissa Zaikos, AMP school officer for Chicago schools.  In order to qualify, schools must show significant progress and have high ISAT achievement scores.  The benefits of the program include more autonomy on budget and educational choices.  AMP schools can also train their own teachers, control their facilities and choose their hours of operation.

Spry is the only Chicago public school to have this pre-K to high school model and to have a 100 percent graduation rate, Zaikos said. It is also the system's smallest high school. Zaikos said Spry high school's small size contributes to its success.

Although nearly 20 percent of Chicago public schools are part of the AMP program, Spry is the only one with a 100 percent graduation rate, Zaikos said.

Because the school comprises students from pre-kindergarten through high school in one space, there are challenges, Azcoita said.  Any child living within the school's district can attend Spry until the eighth grade, then there is a screening process. Only half of the 62 eighth grade students will stay at Spry.  Children are given applications and must write an essay about their life goals.  Parents are also interviewed to prove their dedication to their child's high school graduation and post secondary education.

In order to accommodate the high demand for attendance, Azcoitia wants to double the high school's capacity to 210 students.

"So, our message here is that we want to empower our students, our families and our community for educational success," he said.

Can this work elsewhere? 

Jose Alvarez, CPS spokesman, said it would be difficult for larger high schools to have such high graduation rates.  He said that class schedule flexibility and small class size is why this program works at Spry.  "It's tough when you have schools with over 1,000 kids.  It would be harder."