Future of Schools

Could this charter network’s ‘College Bot’ help more Chicago students complete college?

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy on Chicago's Near North Side checks on students using the College Bot.

Can a robot help Chicago students graduate from college?

Perhaps not in the obvious sense — the College Bot deployed by the Noble charter network doesn’t write papers or help cram for exams. But the Bot — actually an algorithm developed by the network’s chief college officer — aims to steer students toward college success by helping them find colleges they’re more likely to complete.

Noble introduced its College Bot during the 2012-13 school year, and in its five years of operation it has spurred Noble students to select colleges whose graduation rates are 10 percentage points higher than they were selecting previously — 52 percent compared with 42 percent.

Getting kids into college is the mantra of dozens of programs up-and-running in Chicago schools — and the district credits such groups as the college readiness outfits OneGoal and Thrive for helping boost college enrollment figures, like these released last week. But Chicago, like many cities with high percentages of poor students, struggles to keep students in two- and four-year colleges.

Noble Network is 98 percent African-American and Latino, and in 2016, the most recent year for which four-year college data is available, 80 percent of Noble graduates matriculated directly to four-year colleges, compared with 42 percent for Chicago schools’ students overall.

The College Bot’s premise is simple: By comparing a list of college admissions and performance data with a student’s grades, standardized test scores, and ethnicity, the Bot spits out a list of top-ranked schools where the student is likely to be admitted and to receive an attractive financial aid package, and also rates the schools based on their track record of graduating students.

The computerized lists “are incredibly predictive,” said Matt Niksch, the College Bot’s creator, and thus effective in helping students zero in on schools that are likely to admit them and offer financial aid. But the College Bot’s real magic is in suggesting a broader pool of colleges than Noble’s students would otherwise consider, and in encouraging students to strongly consider college graduation rates in their decision-making.

The broader pool matters because Noble’s students often default either to local colleges with poor graduation rates or to state schools with big-name sports teams.

Using the Bot, “students are accessing schools that they may never have considered before, such as small liberal arts colleges,” said Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy, a Noble high school in Lincoln Park.

Dakota DeVore, a senior at Noble Academy, said that before using the Bot, she had heard of only a handful of colleges — certainly not Lafayette College, a liberal arts school of about 2,500 students that sits on the Delaware River in a small town near Allentown, Pennsylvania. But the Bot suggested it, and after talking it over with a college counselor at Noble, DeVore has the school atop the list of those she’s considering.

The College Bot “really helped me to figure out what I wanted in a college, and also just what’s out there,” DeVore said.

It can seem like a jolt for city kids such as DeVore to consider small, rural colleges, but often those schools make for good fits.

“Small liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere frequently are schools that have tons of support and are actually going to work really hard to help students deal with challenges,” Niksch said.

That, in turn, points to Noble’s emphasis on a college’s track record of graduating students — especially minority students. That focus is well-founded, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

“If you take relatively similar colleges, and one has a higher institutional graduation rate, that has an impact on your likelihood of graduating that is on par with your own academic qualifications going into college,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the consortium’s deputy director.

Noble doesn’t yet have data on how that affects its students’ likelihood of college success, but is beginning to study that, too, now that the tool has been in use long enough to track a graduating class through four years on campus.

Noble has deployed the College Bot throughout its network of 17 high schools, whose 12,000 students account for about 11 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ high-school students. But Niksch doesn’t see it as a proprietary advantage, and shares it freely with other schools; about a dozen charter networks nationwide use it.

Niksch also stresses that the College Bot is meant to complement, not replace, each counselor’s insight and each student’s decision-making.

“Kids aren’t bots; they have hopes and dreams and preferences,” Niksch said. “We try to guide them where they’re likely to be successful, while still giving them plenty of freedom and plenty of choice.”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.


Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.


words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.