Challenged schools like East Aurora find a payoff in innovation
By middle school, Vincent Delao was hanging out with the wrong crowd. He was skipping school more often than he went; his report card was straight D's.
None of the men in his family had ever graduated high school and he didn't expect to, either. In a few years he would drop out, maybe sell drugs like his brother used to, maybe join a gang.
This weekend, Delao will make family history when he crosses the stage at the Convocation Center at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to accept his diploma from East Aurora High School.
He leaves high school with a transcript full of A's and a resume bursting with accomplishments. Maybe the biggest is learning to dream -- Delao is now determined to become a Naval officer.
What made the difference for Delao was East Aurora's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, the largest NJROTC in the nation. It is so popular that enrollment is capped at 1,000 students each year.
In school districts as challenged by poverty as East Aurora Unit District 131 is, everyone wishes for a magic bullet -- one thing that will keep kids in school and engaged enough to graduate.
If there is no one answer, there is still innovation. Programs like ROTC at East Aurora High School, a GreenLab at Fred Rogers Magnet Academy and the creation of College and Career Academies in Rockford Public Schools are a few ways struggling school districts are trying to overcome the limitations income often puts on education.
Self-discipline is key
Respect, honor, courage and commitment. If you want to stick with ROTC, you better get used to living these values every day, said Lt. Lauren Carthan, who runs the East Aurora NJROTC program.
"We definitely instill discipline," she said. "If you can be disciplined here, you can be disciplined anywhere."
NJROTC also gives students opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have -- marching in Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades, touring the Navy submarine U.S.S. Illinois, attending a leadership conference at Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago. ROTC teens volunteer at nursing homes and food kitchens and put on Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo programs to celebrate their school's cultures.
"It feels more like a family in this part of the school," Carthan said.
NJROTC classes meet daily and students wear their uniforms once a week.
Delao's uniform is littered with badges and commendations for drill team and color guard. Earlier in May he and partner Oscar Miranda took fourth place in Tandem at the National High School Drill Team Championships (watch their performance at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XndFMSqB_E).
"ROTC is basically my life," Delao said. "Being on this team is different from others. You build a family. You build a brotherhood. The lessons you learn are life lessons."
He remembers the pride he felt putting on his uniform the first time.
"I was around people who wanted to succeed, to do well in school, to get good grades," he said. "Just being around them for so long changed my perspective on life."
Carthan said all kids want a balanced, stable environment. Children of poverty don't always find it at home, so programs like ROTC provide it instead.
"Most kids like order and discipline, and if they know what is expected and what will be tolerated, they will do it," Carthan said. "The expectations for ROTC kids are a little different from the rest of the school, but we hope it will rub off. At least we know we have one segment of our population that is not a disciplinary problem."
For Delao's middle school friends, it hasn't turned out as well. One had a child and gave up school to go to work. Another was in foster care and they lost touch. Three others dropped out.
"Every time I put on the uniform I smile," Delao says. "It's amazing to see where I've made it when so many others haven't. I feel very proud of how far I've come."
Delao will attend the Naval Academy or Purdue University. Either option seemed unimaginable to his mother a few short years ago.
"She talks about it all the time," Delao said. "She hoped I would never end up like the other men in my family, but she never thought I would be here."
ROTC isn't a military recruitment tool, Carthan said, noting only about 10 seniors each year wind up enlisting.
"We want them to join ROTC because it will make them a better person, not a better soldier," she said. "We project in the kids that you can do anything. Believe in yourself, respect yourself, and you can change your life."
Lucky to get in
The Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy in Aurora, which opened in 2013, has 450 students in grades 3-8. The school's economic and racial demographics are the same as the rest of East Aurora District 131, but its test scores are some of the highest in all of Kane County.
Fewer than half of the students' parents have a high school diploma; less than 10 percent have an advanced degree. Yet what the Magnet Academy's academic success shows is that poor children have the same abilities as everyone else, said Principal Angela Rowley. What they lack is opportunity.
Students apply with an essay, grades, test scores and a teacher recommendation. Kids who qualify are placed in a lottery -- last year there were 200 qualified applicants for 75 third-grade seats. Losers are wait-listed, but spots rarely, if ever, open up.
The focus is on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) with classes like robotics, history of engineering and horticulture.
It's the only school in East Aurora that requires student uniforms, and gives every student his or her own laptop computer to take home. Grant money bought the laptops and a deal with Comcast brings the internet to students' homes for $10 a month.
Not every family has the $10. Teachers gave spare change to one student every day so she could walk to McDonald's and buy a drink after school. That was the only way she could use their internet and get her homework done.
There is no districtwide transportation. To get to the magnet school each day, one mother and her third-grader take a bus to the Aurora Transportation Center, where they switch to another bus that gets them within a few blocks of the school.
Another student walks two miles each way every day, though in winter teachers sometimes give him a ride home because it gets dark early and the neighborhood isn't safe.
"These students find a way," Rowley said. "Knowing how hard our kids work to get here, and to get their homework done when they are living without basic things, just makes myself and my staff more dedicated to give them every opportunity."
If there was money, Rowley said, District 131 would build and staff another magnet school to help the hundreds of students she knows could achieve more if they had the support.
"There are a lot of different perceptions out there about what East Aurora is," she said. "But we have some really amazing kids. Despite the challenges they face each day to get to school and have their basic needs met, they are the critical thinkers that are going to lead the next generation."
East Aurora District 131 is far from the only struggling district in Illinois. Seventy miles away, the Rockford Public Schools system has 83 percent low-income students and, for years, has been beset with high chronic truancy, low graduation rates and underwhelming ACT scores.
Rockford began chipping away at these indicators of poor academic performance a few years ago, when it dramatically made over its high schools into college and career academies.
Dave Carson, executive director of the program, said it has meant dismantling the entrenched school district bureaucracy and entering into a collaboration with the greater Rockford community.
"We've broken down our massive high schools into much smaller cohorts of students who are connected around interests and career themes," Carson said.
Imagine a few hundred students all interested in business, or the medical profession, or the arts, taking classes together rather than with a few thousand. Each high school has four academies: Business, Arts, Modern World Languages and Information Technology; Engineering, Manufacturing, Industrial and Trades Technology; Health Sciences; and Human and Public Services. A creative and performing arts track and a gifted academy are available by audition and are at one high school only.
"It helps students find what they are passionate about and to also feel more connected and less adrift in the high school environment," Carson said.
It's still early, but some of Rockford's numbers are trending upward. The graduation rate rose from 64 percent in 2012 to 67 percent in 2015. Chronic truancy fell from 13 percent in 2013 to 7 percent in 2015 -- two points below the state average. In those same years average ACT scores rose from 17.8 to 18.3.
Other school districts around the state, including Waukegan Unit District 60, have visited Rockford to learn about the academies model.
Gabriel Lourey, a Jefferson High School senior, thought he was interested in aviation, but he had never been on a plane, or even to an airport. One of his classes took a trip to the Rockford airport and air traffic control tower so he could see what those jobs meant.
Now, he's decided to go into manufacturing, and the school has set him up with the certifications he will need and post-high school education at Rock Valley Community College.
"Without the academy, I would not have known what I wanted to do with my life, or how to get there," Lourey said. "It helped me find my place."
The academy model arose from the dissatisfaction the Rockford community had with its schools, Carson said.
The result was Alignment Rockford, a collective made up of district administrators, hospital CEOs, local politicians and business leaders who all have a stake in creating the next generation of thriving, educated Rockford students.
The process starts in eighth grade, where students take a seminar on self-exploration, discovering their passions and talents through the lens of 16 different career clusters. Later, students attend an Academy Expo at the BMO Harris Civic Center in Rockford, where companies and community leaders discuss their work and what a career in that industry looks like.
By sophomore year students have selected an academy, each one offering job shadowing programs, internships, specialized classes and more.
After a few years on the academy model, Carson said the high schools have a completely different feel.
"It's a huge cultural shift because every student is planning for their future. They feel better connected to school and why it matters," he said. "We have quite a lot of work to do. But we are seeing some early signs of success."
Angela Rowley has a dream.
Right now her dream is an empty lot across from Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy in Aurora. But in a couple of years it will be a place that transforms the lives of her majority low-income student population.
It is a GreenLab, a laboratory with green technology, solar energy, a wind turbine and greenhouse, where students explore the latest in energy, wastewater treatment and horticulture.
To build and equip the GreenLab they need $750,000 in grants and fundraising; so far they have $20,000. Still, the hope is to start construction in 2017 and open in 2018.
Rowley sees the GreenLab as a place to cultivate curiosity, to feed the brain and literally feed the community with the fresh food they grow. East Aurora is considered a food desert, and fruits and vegetables grown at GreenLab will be donated to a nearby women's shelter and a day care for low-income children.
"I just see it as a place that's alive," Rowley said.
She also sees East Aurora students being able to compete in national science challenges, and high schoolers using the lab for independent research.
Moreover, she believes GreenLab will help them become global citizens who care about the future of the planet. Students who grow up with trauma at home will benefit from the therapeutic nature of cool, damp earth and growing things, she believes.
"It's a little intimidating because it's such a big project. But, we need this," Rowley said. "The opportunity to build such a great place for our kids, for our community is something that will change the way students are educated here and the way people look at East Aurora. It's too important."