At Northtown charter school, school year begins with blindfolds and trust falls

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • July 29, 2008 @ 7:17 AM
Screams of excitement echoed around the gym at Chicago International Charter School-Northtown Academy on a recent morning as blindfolded students wove their way through an obstacle course of orange traffic cones, guided by their classmates.

Girls smiled as they stepped ever so slowly around the cones without tipping them over.

The exercise, an unconventional start to the school year, was part of an inaugural two-week summer transition program for about 170 incoming freshmen at Northtown Academy, 3900 W. Peterson Ave.

"What better way to get team building as your first block of success?" says Meghan Schmidt, CICS Director of Special Projects. "It gives them opportunity to meet one another."

The program at Northtown included interactive student exercises, such as the ones held in the gym, plus classroom sessions that included math, reading, and problem-solving and logic games.

Students met their new classmates, teachers and school administrators. Academic, honors and basic programs were discussed with the students. Don't know how to tie a tie for the school day? Boys learned how in a half-hour lesson on the school's dress code.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," says Anthony Graziano, 14. "I'm pretty ready."

Northtown, one of 12 CICS schools, finished its two-week summer transition program for incoming freshmen last week. A similar program was run at CICS-Longwood on the South Side.

As with the Freshman Connection, a four-week summer program offered this summer for incoming freshmen at city public schools, the program is new.

Administrators say the program, in addition to teaching students what they'll need to know on the first day of school, helps create a culture of learning at Northtown, a five-year-old campus operated by the nonprofit educational-management firm Civitas Schools.

Students are expected to excel academically, and also to become involved in their communities.

Some spent Saturdays in May and June to create a mural on a viaduct on Peterson Avenue.

The results suggest that approach is working. Northtown, with a diverse student body that is 41 percent Hispanic, graduates 91 percent of its seniors, and 85 percent are accepted to college.

Efforts to instill discipline continue even during gym time.

Christine Lubarsky, a ninth-grade teacher who'll have many of these kids in her classroom when fall classes begin Aug. 18, doesn't hesitate to interrupt the fun.

"When we get to the end of the line, we're going to tuck our shirts in, right? Right?" she shouts.
Despite her admonishments, Lubarsky is optimistic about the new arrivals.

"They're definitely a good group," she says. "They're ready to learn."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.