Every now and again we get a shining statistic in the midst of the troubling education studies that gives us just the sense of hope and inspiration we need to keep pushing for the next generation of leaders. In a city stricken by poverty and labeled as the murder capital by many, lies a school whose recent 2014 class walked across their graduation stage on June 9 with 100% of its students continuing their education at a four-year institution.
Johnson College Prep, located in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where more than 90% of its student are African American and more than 90 % are eligible for free/reduced lunch, is celebrating the next step of its seniors who are all going off to attend college at a variety of schools across the country including Chicago State University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Madison and more.
BlackEnterprise.com caught up with the school’s principal, Dr. Garland Thomas-McDavid, to discuss closing the academic deficit in Chicago and what programs and resources were used to reach a goal of 100 percent college-bound students.
What makes Johnson College Prep different from a lot of other Chicago public schools?
Well we are a charter school so we definitely have a lot more flexibility in terms of the way our school is structured. We’re a part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. We have a longer school day and longer school year. We’re able to structure our academic programs to give our students more instruction on reading, more instruction on math. We also hire full-time social workers in our building, which is different in terms of the support that is available at regular schools.
Also, our program is pretty focused to close the academic gap of our students and prepare them for college. So our program goes into the things [students] need to be considered a strong candidate for college in addition to addressing the academic deficit. On average in the city of Chicago, students come to high school reading on a fourth grade level. So we’re addressing those academic deficits because they’re real and important. In addition to that, we give them the experiences to ensure that they present themselves as strong candidates after the four years they are with us. So they have community service requirements, college trips for inspiration to help them build an understanding of what college is and why they would want to go there. They have enrichment classes and full sports programs and arts programs, just things to really enrich their lives not only academically, but to make them a well-rounded student as well. And we build things with them in terms of character education and preparing them in terms of developing perseverance and an understanding of values that are going to contribute to success down the road.
A lot of your students come from low-income backgrounds. How are you able to maintain that balance where you address the personal concerns that students are dealing with while maintaining an excelling academic environment?
I think you have to deal with things on a case by case basis. To go back to the question of what makes our campus unique, even though it’s in Englewood, which some consider the murder capital, I think it’s important to teach our students that you have to focus once you step foot into school. This is your job. You can be living through hell right now literally; however, the only way you can be empowered to do something about it is to get your education. So helping them understand that you’re doing what you have to do now so that you can do what you want to do later is really important. And I think that teaching them that they have power and that this is a vehicle you can use to overcome is extremely important. We absolutely address their individual situations and we have all sorts of programs that we’ve built in to make our school a positive, loving and safe atmosphere but we also hold them to the highest standard. And that’s a message that they’ve been hearing from us for four years. “I love you and because I love you, I’m going to hold you to the highest standard, academically and behaviorally.” I know that if this doesn’t work, if they don’t get their education, if they don’t figure out how to be successful in life after their experience with us, the outcomes are dire.
Do you guys continue to offer support even after the students graduate from Johnson College Prep?
Absolutely! And that’s something everyone has been asking me, “How do you feel about the graduation?” On one hand I feel excited, but on the other hand it’s starting all over again because I’m just as responsible for making sure we get them to and through college. So we have a college premiere campus and we hire alumni coordinators. We hired our class of 2014 alumni coordinator who is actually an alum of the Noble Network of Charter schools who’s a college graduate that came back to work with us. And her job is solely to keep track of our alumni to make sure they show up at school, to make sure they have what they need. If they need support on a financial aid phone call, if they need help with getting books, it’s just providing that support to make sure that we’re not just getting them in but we are supporting them when they are there to increase the likelihood that they actually graduate.
What would you say is your ultimate goal for each student that steps foot into Johnson College Prep?
My goals are for them to grow academically, regardless of where they come in. For them to grow as far as behavior is concern, and grow in understanding that they belong to something bigger than themselves. I tell that to my students all the time. We are located in Chicago’s toughest city. We are African American. And there are so many negative things out there about children who look like us and come from where we come from and it’s important that you understand why all of this matters. Yes, it matters for yourself and for your future and for your income later on, but it also matters in a broader context. You’re sending messages to people about why they need to invest more in education. You’re sending messages to people of what can become of a child if we take the time to give them quality education institutions with strong instructors who believe in them and are held accountable for their learning. I want them to be able to go on and decide for themselves what they want them to do when they go to college and I want them to graduate. I also want them to have a strong sense of community and be thinking about how [they are] going to give back.