The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

The Strength of a Neighborhood School

The staff of the Network for College Success have deep experience with charter schools—nearly every staff member founded and/or led a small, charter school in Chicago before joining the network. Yet one of the biggest lessons they want observers to take from the network is that large traditional high schools can succeed.

“We got involved with small schools and charters because we wanted to show that urban high schools can work. And we did that,” Melissa Roderick says. “But charters have to spend a lot of their time working to raise money; that’s not necessarily sustainable, especially on a large scale. And a lot of the charter lessons can’t easily be transferred—it’s different getting 60 kids to fill out a FAFSA form than 225 kids.”

Pitcher points out that approximately 80 percent of CPS’s high school students go to a neighborhood school. “To make urban education work for most kids, we’ve got to make neighborhood schools work. The network is one opportunity for us to say, ‘We’ve learned a lot and we can move it to the other 80 percent of the students,’” she says.

For those who say the urban neighborhood school simply can’t improve, look at Hancock High School, where the percentage of 9th grade students on-track increased more than 19 percent over four years, to 80 percent. Or Kenwood Academy, which has been listed as a Top 100 High School in the country by Newsweek.

“We believe in the people at traditional high schools. We know they have the capacity to change these schools,” Roderick says. “The systems and distributed leadership that we emphasize are ways to do that.”