In “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time,” Emily Krone Phillips describes how Chicago’s high schools reoriented themselves around research finding that ninth-grade performance predicts whether students graduate better than any other available information. You can learn more about the “Freshmen On-Track” metric in our interview with Krone Phillips and Maurice Swinney, a former Chicago principal who now leads the district’s equity office. This excerpt focuses on one school’s early efforts to keep ninth-graders on track and suggests that, as research has found, involvement by educators is essential for new initiatives to stick. Freshmen On-Track is outliving Harper High, which is scheduled to close.

Before Elizabeth Dozier became something of a celebrity principal in Chicago and a leading character in both Paul Tough’s bestselling “How Children Succeed” and CNN’s docudrama “Chicagoland,” Dozier was a first-year assistant principal at Harper High School in Englewood, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. At Harper, her primary charge was to keep all 217 of Harper High’s freshmen on track to graduate from high school.

During the 2007–08 school year, the year before Dozier arrived at Harper, 57 percent of Harper’s freshmen — 142 of them — failed two or more core courses. And just like that, before they were even old enough to drive, they were virtually out of the running for a high school diploma and a spot in the American middle class.

Dozier wanted to draw a bright line for her staff between these dismal freshman outcomes and her students’ futures. At the beginning of the year, she engaged all the freshman teachers in a visioning exercise. Where would the 142 off-track freshmen from the previous year be in three years? In 10 years? Would they be in college? Working? Or standing on a street corner in Englewood? She reminded them that black male dropouts — and all of the 142 off-track freshmen were black — have a 70 percent chance of being incarcerated by their mid-thirties. “It was meant to tug at their emotional heartstrings,” Dozier says. “If we’re not careful, we can get desensitized to what this really means. These aren’t just data points. This isn’t just about Harper. It’s about lives. It’s about communities.”

Without a specific plan or policy from the district, Dozier’s initial approach to improving Harper’s on-track rates was mostly trial and error. She created a community of freshman teachers who met weekly to review data on each student’s grades, attendance, and discipline patterns. The group strategized about ways to support and motivate students academically and to provide additional help for those whose struggles had nothing to do with academics. To make the work feel more tangible, she created a board with every student’s name on it and moved the student on- or off-track throughout the year. The team celebrated every small victory — a kid who went from failing to passing math; a chronic truant who started showing up regularly.

One challenge the group struggled with was how to help students take responsibility for their own learning and achievement. Many students interpreted failing grades as something that was done to them by teachers, not as something they had earned. The group needed a way to help students keep track of where they stood academically. Harper had an online student portal that included grades and assignments, but students rarely checked it. The group decided they needed something more public and easily accessible. Dozier made a giant color-coded board with every freshman’s name on it and hung it in the main hallway for the entire school to see. She placed the students’ names under one of three headers: green for on track, red for off track, yellow for “almost there.” Making the names public went against Chicago Public Schools board policy, but she did it anyway. Brain research may suggest that most 14-year-olds will not be swayed by the potential long-term consequences of missing school or failing to turn in an assignment, “but what they do understand is social pressure,” Dozier said. “One name would be the size of two napkins. You could read it from down the hallway. It became this thing. No one wanted to be at the end part. They’d say, ‘Ms. Dozier, why am I off-track?’ The older you get, it doesn’t matter so much, but with these little ones, this public thing was very big for them.”

Students began making connections for themselves between learning, the grades they were getting in the class, and their status on the “big board,” which was a major breakthrough as far as Dozier was concerned. Dozier added, with a large smile, “I remember one time someone from [the district] came and said, ‘Take it down’ and we said, ‘Okay, sure. And, oh, when are you coming back?’”

One freshman student in particular stood out for Dozier that first year. He was a nice kid, she recalled, but something seemed off. One day he got into a verbal argument with a teacher, and she told him, “Okay, we’re going to your house.” The principal advised Dozier to take Harper’s football coach, who was born in Englewood, along with her. “It just completely put some stuff in perspective. We talked to his grandmother. She was completely cracked out. And that was the moment I realized how complex the work really is, and there’s not a formulaic response for every kid. Maybe for a good portion you can use the public stuff, and incentives, and teachers meetings, but it totally changed our approach to the kids who are the most difficult to serve.”

She described going to the next on-track meeting and telling everyone that the kid they had been struggling to reach lived in that house. “Everyone knew that house. It was where all the gangbangers hung out, where all the drugs were sold. Families and gangs used to fight right outside. I remember seeing a mob fight one day. Someone picked up one of those police horses and just threw it into the fight. And so when I said, ‘This is where the kid lives,’ there was a whole new perspective.”

Dozier and her team started conducting regular home visits whenever a student was failing. She would gather a group of teachers, take along the football coach for security, and engage parents in conversations about their child. “Lots of these people had bad experiences with their high school, so they’re not coming to the building,” Dozier said. “So we said, Okay, we will bring school to you. It was really impactful for parents. They saw that the school really cares, and that is not typical. And it was also impactful for teachers because now you’re not just driving down 63rd and going to the parking lot and going home. Now you’re driving through the community. And it made a difference for the kids, because what they want to know is, ‘Do you care about me? Do you have my best interests at heart?’”

At the end of the school year, Harper’s Freshman OnTrack rate had risen 18 percentage points, from 43 percent the previous year, to 61 percent — roughly equivalent to 40 additional students being on track to graduate. One of those on-track students was the kid from “the house,” almost certainly a student who would have fallen off-track in the past. Mayor Daley held a press conference at Harper to highlight the improvement there and the modest uptick in districtwide on-track rates (up 4.5 percentage points from the previous year). Dozier remembered a phalanx of city workers descending on the area before Daley arrived, cleaning streets and filling potholes. “It was really big for Harper. We had made this huge jump.”

The press conference was sparsely attended, mostly by the small cadre of City Hall reporters who follow the mayor from one public event to another, asking off-topic questions only relevant to the major stories they are covering that day. A few local outlets briefly noted the Freshman OnTrack story and mentioned that Chicago schools were focusing on freshmen in order to improve graduation rates. And that was all. Just 4.5 percentage points district-wide hardly seemed like something to celebrate, and the on-track metric itself was still obscure.

It looked like any other press conference in which data were marshaled to declare some minor victory in the ongoing political war over school reform. Instead, it was a precursor to one of the largest system shifts in Chicago Public Schools’ history, a shift that came not from a high-level policy, trendy national program, or any of the big ideas that typically get discussed during debates around school reform, but from efforts that got teachers working together in new ways to solve problems that most of them had previously assumed they were powerless to affect.

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.